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NATURAL VERSUS
SYNTHETIC COSMETICS

Under Your Skin

The skin is is a complex organ (the body’s largest) that performs a dazzlingarray of functions, many seemingly contradictory. While it is itself an organ,it also holds the other organs together, and protects them from the external elements. Often called the “second kidney,” the skin is the second mostimportant organ of elimination through its release of perspiration—yet it isquite water-resistant.

An organ with so much to do is anything but simple. Within a single squareinch of skin are approximately 19 million cells, including 650 sweat glands,100 sebum or oil glands, 65 hair follicles, 19,000 sensory cells and as muchas 13 feet of microscopic blood vessels. Here are some more skin facts: The skin of an adult weighs around eight pounds and would measure 20 squarefeet if stretched out.

Over an average lifetime approximately 40 pounds of skin are shed. The thickness of the skin measures from 1/25th of an inch (the eyelids) to 1/8th of an inch (the soles of the feet).

The skin also functions as a nutritional factory, producing vitamin D-3, a necessary ingredient in the formation of bone, and participates in the metabolism of carbohydrates and amino acids.

The skin’s active immune system is also able to identify and neutralize foreign material entering through the epidermis, and protects the body from infection. Yet substances can be absorbed through the skin, and the study of this process is a promising area of drug and cosmetic research.

What’s important to remember about the skin is that it is a living part of your body with several well-developed and interrelated circulating systems (blood, sweat, sebum, nerve and lymph), any of which can be damaged by absorption of chemicals, or enhanced by a good skin care system. The question of absorption into the skin, however, is a tricky one, as this century has largely denied it even happens.

The Modern Question

Traditional cultures around the world never questioned whether or not substances applied to the skin were absorbed into the body. They knew: whole systems of medicine were organized around effective methods of applying herbal medicines directly to the skin. Thousands of years ago the Chinese were increasing the benefits of acupuncture with moxibustion, the process of applying burning herbs to particular points on the skin. Native American tribes applied herbal poultices to injured areas after they had been heated to increase circulation and permeability. Lung-related diseases such as pleurisy and pneumonia have been treated by applying remedies directly to the skin.

Yet modern Western medicine has considered the skin impervious to absorption, even as recently as 1957, when Dr. Stephen Rothman, keynote speaker at the 11th International Congress of Dermatology, held in Sweden, asserted that nothing from the outside could penetrate. Forty years later, absorption is so much taken for granted that many drugs are administered via skin patches, including nicotine, estrogen and nitroglycerin. Unfortunately, much of the understanding of the true, selectively-permeable nature of the skin has increased due to the damage powerful, manmade chemicals has inflicted on exposed workers.

One of the best publicized examples involved 40 men in a chemical plant in Occidental, California, in 1960. This plant produced dibromochloropropane (DBCP), a powerful but dangerous nematocide. (Nematodes are tiny worms that threaten many crops, including bananas, grapes and almonds.) The men exposed to DBCP had been unable to father children, and while airborne levels of the chemical had been kept beneath occupational limits, the danger from skin exposure was ignored, with tragic consequences.

Another chemical, hexachlorophene, an antibacterial used in soaps throughout the 1950s and 60s, was shown to cause brain damage and even death to babiesthrough absorption into the skin. Malathion, an organophosphate insecticideroutinely sprayed for years in California and Florida over millions of acresto control Medfly infestation, is absorbed primarily through the skin, and cancause many physical and psychological problems. Chlorine used in swimmingpools and in the home can form chloroform when water combines with organicmatter, exposing swimmers and families to this chemical.

Herbicides, wood preservatives, pesticides, disinfectants and solvents areamong those chemicals known to be absorbed into the skin through unprotected exposure. What many of these chemicals have in common is a strong ability todissolve lipids, or fats. This characteristic is what makes it possible forthem to penetrate the skin. The skin is interspersed with tiny channels that conduct sweat and sebum from deep within to its surface. The sides of these channels are lined with water or fat molecules, and any substances capable of dissolving in either of these two mediums may also be absorbed into the skin.

Increased awareness of occupational illnesses caused by dermal exposure to dangerous chemicals is important, and various governmental agencies are to becommended for their attention to the safety of workers. However, the absorption into the skin of chemicals used in everyday hair and skin care products has been insufficiently studied.

The Worldwatch Institute estimates that there are around 75,000 chemicals that might possibly come into contact with our skin. Most of these chemicals are man made, and the effects of long term exposure is unknown. Even very, verylow-level exposure to a variety of these chemicals, which is realisticallywhat happens in modern life, can cause any variety of health problems, bothi mmediate and long term. No one knows for certain, and anyone who saysotherwise does not have your best interests at heart.

One reason you don’t hear much about this hazard is that cosmetics are, bydefinition of the Food and Drug Administration, “articles which are intended to be rubbed, poured, sprinkled or sprayed or introduced to, or other wiseapplied to, the human body for cleaning, beautifying, promoting attractivenessor altering the appearance without affecting the body’s structure or function”(our italics). This definition is over 60 years old, the result of the oldthinking about the skin that dominated medicine until very recently. Now this thinking has become entrenched in bureaucracy, and while a few changes havebeen made for a few workers on a case-by-case basis, little has been done to protect consumers from the chemicals now common in our marketplace. It’s justsimply gotten too big.

The cosmetics game is not about making consumers healthier or more beautiful:it’s primarily a word game. Advertise the product with language that hints itwill do miracles, but withdraw the advertisement if the FDA rules that the manufacturer has made a drug claim. You see, if a product claims to alter the body’s structure or function, then its classification is changed to that of adrug, a pronouncement no cosmetic manufacturer wants to hear because theirproducts would then subjected to a much more stringent and expensive set ofregulations. This is a definition that limits advertising claims, but at thesame time provides cosmetic manufacturers with an out: cosmetic products aresafe because they aren’t absorbed into the skin because they’recosmetics: a meaningless, circular, Catch-22 argument.

American cosmetic manufacturers, the largest in the world, are also protectedby a very strong trade organization: the Cosmetic, Toiletry and Fragrance Association (CTFA), whose business is to ensure governmental acceptance of aswide a variety of ingredients as possible for the formulating freedom of itsmembers. (This organization advocates testing on animals.) However, a brieflook at their dictionaries over the years shows the CTFA’s primary orientationtowards synthetic chemicals.

In 1977, when the Cosmetic Labeling Act became law and manufacturers wereforced to list ingredients, the dictionary mostly listed synthetic chemicals.Very few herbs made the dictionary that year. In the 20 years since, however,the dictionary has tripled in size, and many of the new listings are herbal ingredients. We don’t want to knock the CTFA; that’s not our purpose here. Wejust want you to think about the implications of a trade organization with strong influence on the federal government, both of which are dominated by the old-fashioned notion that the skin is like an old shoe that can be polished with any old thing because nothing can be absorbed.

That’s the bad news: that many cosmetics are full of synthetic ingredients,and that the degree to which they can be absorbed into your skin is relativelyunstudied. The good news is that herbs, many of which are highly beneficialfor your skin, can be absorbed as well. Apply just a drop of an essential oilto your skin, and it can be detected in another part of your body almost immediately. That is why herbs are such valuable ingredients in naturalcosmetics.

Check out the label of most commercial cosmetics and you’ll find a list ofmostly synthetic ingredients. The majority of them won’t have been around formore than 25 years. That’s a nanosecond in the evolution of this planet, andperhaps a second in our own human evolution. Whether or not we have developed the appropriate immune response and have biologically learned to adapt tothese substances is simply not known. It just makes sense that the productsyou put on your skin should be made of ingredients that have been around atleast as long as you have.

But the manufacturers of mass-produced cosmetics won’t use exclusively natural materials; they’re too expensive, and all-natural products are too unstable towithstand the long shelf lives they expect from their products. Most syntheticchemicals are used in cosmetics either because they’re cheaper or because they make some phase of mass-manufacturing or distribution possible.

Strong synthetic preservatives were developed to extend shelf life, while synthetic emulsifiers such stearylkonium chloride were developed to prevent creams, which are mixtures of oil and water, from breaking down into theiroriginal components.

Foam builders, thickeners, opacifiers, sequestering agents, synthetic colors:these are among the many technical functions of chemicals commonly used inmass-produced products. They do nothing for the health and beauty of your hairand skin, but are there simply to make products look good to sell. Our argument is that, given the overall contamination of the environment with manmade chemicals, you’re better off without them. Remember: what you don’tknow can hurt you.

Written by: EcoMall

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