The skin is the largest organ of the body. It has been shown that 60% of what is applied to the skin enters the blood stream, so long as the skin is allowed to breathe. That fact has impact in at least four ways:
1. The skin is an important entryway for chemicals to the body.
2. Unwanted chemicals, such as those shown to contribute to cancer, birth defects, allergies, or other sensitivities, need to be avoided in products applied to the skin, as they may have a negative effect on the body as a whole.
3. The skin must be allowed to breathe in and out, in order to take in nutrients and release toxins.
4. When nutrients are applied to the skin, they may be beneficial to the entire body.
What common cosmetic ingredients are among the “unwanted chemicals?”
1. Mineral oils and petrolatum
Mineral oil is used in baby oil, baby creams, and baby lotions; it is the most popular moisturizing ingredient in commercial hand and body lotions, face creams, suntan creams, shaving creams, lipsticks, and all kinds of ointments and moisturizers. Manufacturers like it because it is colorless, odorless, tasteless, very inexpensive, and readily binds other cosmetic ingredients into a smooth, creamy lotion. It softens skin by holding water in. Mineral oil is derived from petroleum and smells like petroleum when heated. It is a relative of petrolatum (petroleum jelly), also a petroleum derivative, which is thicker and semisolid. Untreated and mildly treated mineral oils are known to be a human carcinogen (see U.S. National Toxicology Program’s Tenth Report on Carcinogens). Mineral oil and petrolatum form an oily film over skin to lock in moisture, but trap in toxins and wastes and hinder normal skin respiration by keeping oxygen out.
Propylene glycol, another cosmetic form of mineral oil, is sometimes found in high concentrations (up to 50%) in baby lotions, pre- and after-shave lotions, moisturizers, foundation creams and mascaras, deodorants, lipsticks, and suntan lotions. Propylene glycol is a strong skin irritant that can cause liver abnormalities and kidney damage. According to Ruth Winter (A Consumer’s Dictionary of Cosmetic Ingredients, 1999 ed.), propylene glycol’s “use is being reduced, and it is being replaced by safer glycols such as butylene and polyethylene glycol” (p. 363). In the same edition of this book, Winter states that ingestion of butylene glycol may cause renal damage, kidney failure, and death (p. 99). Propylene glycol is widely used because it is an effective humectant which holds moisture in the skin, and it is inexpensive.
Parabens come in many varieties and are the most widely used preservatives for health and beauty aids. Only water and propylene glycol are more common in cosmetics. You will find the parabens toward the end of the ingredients list, most often as butyl-, ethyl-, methyl-, or propylparaben. According to State of the Evidence 2004, published by the Breast Cancer Fund, parabens are “endocrine-disrupting compounds1 used as preservatives in . . . cosmetics, food and pharmaceutical products. . . Parabens have been shown to have estrogenic activity2 and have been found in breast tumors” (p. 59). Some researchers believe that parabens are also present in cosmetics preserved with citrus seed extracts; although the parabens are not listed on the ingredients labels, the citrus seeds themselves may have been sprayed with them or other preservatives prior to the extraction process, thus concentrating the preservative in the extract.
These chemicals rarely find their way onto an ingredients list, but they are present in many health and beauty products just the same. Wherever you see “perfume” or “fragrance,” phthalates are present, because they are used to preserve these synthetic scents. Recent studies have shown that phthalates may be mutagenic, carcinogenic, and adversely affect male sperm, that they increase levels of testosterone and estrogen in humans, and are central to breast cancer risk. They are an ingredient in nail polish and other lacquers, and in soft plastics (e.g., infant chew toys).
4. Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) and Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES)
SLS is well known as a common skin irritant which is rapidly absorbed and retained in eyes, brain, heart, and liver. SLS is the most widely used detergent and foaming agent used in shampoos, cleansers, and toothpastes. Its cousin, SLES, has shown itself to be less irritating than SLS. We believe both these substances should be avoided, because of the possibility of their reacting with other product ingredients to form dioxins and nitrosamines3. “Dioxin is an endocrine (hormone) disrupting chemical linked to several types of cancer, birth defects, learning disabilities, infertility, endometriosis and suppression of the immune system” (State of the Evidence, p. 59). Nitrosamines are known for their carcinogenic properties. SLS and SLES should be especially avoided in baby shampoos.4
One or more of the above chemicals is present in the vast majority of personal care products found in the United States. The European Union is currently taking steps to disallow certain of these chemicals and others from sale within their borders. They are requiring that a potential carcinogen or endocrine disrupting compound be proven non-toxic before it may be used—the opposite of the U.S. policy, which requires proof of toxicity before a call for removal. Some well known American cosmetic companies are responding by changing the formulas of their cosmetics sold in Europe, but not in the U.S. or elsewhere.
There is another widely used category often added to cosmetics:
To screen or not to screen? We know that UV exposure increases the risk of skin cancer and causes aging of the skin. Now, however, there is growing concern that some chemicals in conventional sunscreens are causing estrogenic activity and accumulating in fat tissue (are lipophilic) in wildlife and humans. They are also thought to retard the production of epidermal growth factor, which is needed to repair photo-damage and maintain healthy skin. We’ll address this further in Part III of this series. Meanwhile, be sure to wear a good hat.
What to do?
1. Read ingredients labels. If you avoid the above four, you will make a good start in eliminating the most common toxins. You may find other ingredients that you yourself are sensitive to and will want to avoid in the future.
2. Think twice before deciding to use cosmetic products containing known toxins. Do you need to dye your hair, use nail polish, colognes and perfumes?
3. Find a list of American cosmetics companies that have signed the pledge to remove known toxins from their U.S. products, not just those sold in the E.U. Patronize these companies; avoid the others. (See: www.EWG.org and the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics.)
4. Keep yourself informed of new studies as research is completed. We will refer to them in future newsletters, and by mid-August will have references and links on our web site.
5. Take an inventory of the toxins in your cosmetics cupboard and replace those products with healthy alternatives.
Read the next chapters in this series as they are issued:
Part II: Does Natural in Skin Care Naturally Mean Good? (Late-August 2005)
Part III: Natural Beauty: Only Skin Deep?
Suggestions for future articles and/or comments on this one are welcome via email.
1. “Chemicals . . . that disturb the body’s . . . hormonal (endocrine) balance. Any disruption in hormonal activity can interfere with an organism’s ability to grow, develop and function normally. . . Prenatal exposure to these chemicals may interfere with development of the breast, predisposing it to cancer in adult life. These chemicals also may be linked to increased rates of testicular cancer in young men and birth defects . . .” (op. cit.)
2. i.e., mimic the activity of the hormone estrogen
3. This kind of synergistic toxicity (two or more otherwise benign ingredients combining to form a toxin) will be discussed further in a later article.
4. There are conflicting opinions in the literature about the safety of SLS and SLES. Until these substances are proven to be safe, we see every reason to avoid them.
Written by: Pamela J Lambert
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