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|Cosmetics: The Good,
the Bad, and the Ugly
by Einav Keet
Topical Junk Food--Some cosmetic ingredients are very toxic and can take up to 300 years to biodegrade!
Our commitment to the organic, unadulterated way of life can get a little spotty when it starts interfering with our choice of beauty products. Many people, happy to drink organic soymilk till the cows come home, get surprisingly verklempt about perceived threats to their sophisticated high-tech wrinkle creams. All of a sudden, the urgency about synthetic chemicals dissolves into a puff of paraben-laden face powder.
Why the disconnect? Somehow, putting something on our skin seems less invasive than what goes into our mouths. But the chemicals used in the beauty industry have health and environmental consequences equally as staggering as the pesticides we abhor in our food. Some of the stuff in your typical shower gel, for example, takes 200 to 300 years to biodegrade once it washes down the drain.
By now, you've probably heard about the dangers of parabens-studies suggest they alter hormone function, increasing the risk of breast cancer and reproductive defects-but scads of other beauty ingredients may also pose health risks. We've named 10 of the worst offenders normally found in hair and skincare products, but they may be just the tip of the iceberg, because only 11 percent of the 10,500 ingredients the FDA has documented in products have been assessed for safety.
"We're up against an unregulated industry," says Shannon Schroter, who started the Berkeley-based skincare company GratefulBody years ago as an alternative to the "topical junk food" produced by other companies.
The following list, adapted from Aubrey Organics, will help you navigate the labels on your dressing table.
1. Sodium Laurel/Laureth Sulfate
Perhaps one of the most common chemical groups used in cosmetics, this sudsing agent gives liquid soaps and shampoos their foam-ability. Regardless of whether it's derived from petroleum or coconut-"Just because you start with a botanical, doesn't mean that it maintains its biological integrity," says Schroter-this harsh skin irritant may also cause the skin to dry out as well as a host of other allergic reactions like rashes, eye irritation, and dandruff. These sudsers can be damaging to the immune system, and their residue can show up in the heart, liver, and lungs.
2. Propylene Glycol
"It's strong enough to dissolve the barnacles off a boat," is how Linda Chae describes this solvent, which is also used in antifreeze and brake fluid. Chae, founder of Chae Organics, Inc points out that factory workers who handle propylene glycol must wear protective gear to prevent skin contact. That's because exposure can cause eye and skin irritation, headaches, nausea, and vomiting.
3. Diethanolamine (DEA) + Triethanolamine (TEA)
Long used in industrial strength lubricants and as surfactants (wetting agents that help products spread) in cosmetics, DEA and TEA are known eye, skin, nose, and throat irritants and can cause liver cancer in rats. "They can form nitrosamines, a carcinogen, when combined with other ingredients," says John Masters, founder and owner of John Masters Organics. "Alternatives-such as PEG-40 (pentaerythirtyl tetrastearate), a naturally derived thickener (from palm oil) that increases viscosity in many bodycare treatments-are more effective than conventional thickeners."
4. PVP/VA Copolymer
While much of the haircare industry continues to use polyvinylpyrrolidone, a petroleum-derived chemical, some studies suggest its toxicity. It's particularly harmful when inhaled, which is a problem because of its use as an anti-static agent and a binder for styling products such as hair sprays.
5. Stearalkonium Chloride
First used by the fabric and paper industries as a softener and an anti-static agent, stearalkonium chloride is now commonly found in the cream rinses and conditioners used to soften our tresses. Yet the hard facts on this cationic surfactant show that it is a toxin known to set off allergic reactions. "Although it's a proven irritant, many companies use it in hair conditioning products because it's cheaper and easier to incorporate than proteins or herbals," says Masters.
6. Petroleum + Mineral Oil
Both of these petrolatum-derived products are prized by the cosmetic mainstream for their emollient properties. But Danielle Fleming, of Danielle and Company vegetable-based soaps, puts it plainly: "Basically, when you have mineral oil on your skin, nothing goes in and nothing can get out." Fleming goes on to explain that mineral oil in lotions forms a barrier when applied, so that skin can't eliminate toxins. With repeated use, moisturizers that include either petroleum or mineral oil can clog pores, setting off skin conditions such as acne and dermatitis. "I have chosen not to use mineral oil because it is simply non-beneficial and possibly harmful to the skin." Indeed, this petroleum by-product may contain cancer-causing polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH).
If you've noticed "paraben-free" stickers popping up on bottles of lotions and soaps, it might be linked to the Environmental Protection Agency's classifying these antimicrobial preservatives as having hormone-disrupting effects. However, Joshua Onysko, founder of Pangea Organics, points out that "paraben-free" can be misleading. "My biggest problem with cosmetic ingredients is when the press picks up on one toxic ingredient, companies rush to replace it and often replace it with worse ones," says Onysko, singling out nasty replacements such as sodium hydroxymethyl glycinate and benzyl alcohol.
8. Diazolidinyl/Imidazolidinyl Urea
Second in use only to parabens, ureas appear as preservatives in a wide range of products. "They don't benefit the skin, first of all," says Melissa Jochim, chemist and director of product development for Juice Beauty, as she ticks off reasons for her aversion to urea: They trigger contact dermatitis, headaches, fatigue, and depression.
9. Synthetic Colors
Sure, they make your favorite products look inviting, but synthetic tints can contain a host of unnamed, and unsafe, ingredients. If you don't tolerate mystery ingredients in your food, why trust them in your cosmetics? "Why would anyone want blue lotion?" asks Kathleen Lewis, who runs her self-named line of skincare products in Brooklyn, New York, and believes products needn't be "unnecessarily decorative." "What's worse than blue," says Pangea's Onysko, "is white. Why does any lotion need to be white?" Many milk-hued "natural" products are made with refined, bleached oils, so just looking for FD&C Blue No. 1 or D&C Red No. 4 may not be enough.
10. Synthetic Fragrances
The catchall terms "fragrance," "parfum," and "perfume" can conceal thousands of synthetic ingredients. Nicole Maust, owner of Talulah Natural Skin Care, says that numerous reports have linked fragrance oils to such conditions as birth defects, cancer, brain damage, respiratory disorders, chronic skin reactions, and environmental damage through waste water. "Many constituents of synthetic fragrances, including phthalates, can be absorbed into the body through the skin, inhaled as fumes, and ingested when they're in products like lipstick," she says. But some companies, like Max Green Alchemy (MGA), use the term "parfum" for innocuous essential oils that have no other therapeutic effects. Wil Baker, the vice president of MGA, explains that the FDA allows "fragrance" to include natural as well as synthetic aromas. It might help, he says, to ask manufacturers if they use fragrance "from a plant or a plant in New Jersey."
Ultimately, cleaning up ourselves and cleaning up the beauty industry are not mutually exclusive. As Buddha Nose founder Amy Galper points out, weaning ourselves off synthetics can cause a beneficial ripple effect on the environment, which she hopes will help people feel a little more connected to the earth. Visit www.safecosmetics.org or www.organicconsumers.org to learn more about cosmetic standards and what's in your skincare products.
Excerpted with permission from "Beauty or Bust" by Einav Keet, published by Alternative Medicine, January 2007.
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