Let’s be honest: information is overwhelming. The internet offers us the world at our finger tips, but it can also be a daunting place filled with polarized opinions- “Never/Always give your child vaccines”. “GMO’s are/aren’t safe.”
When it comes to cosmetics, the argument over ingredients is full of fear mongering from both sides. That time comes though when you’re standing in the aisle at the grocery store and you have to take ONE of those shampoo bottles home (because, regardless of the ingredients, you still want clean hair!). How do you choose?
On one end of the argument as the pro-organics and naturalists who take an avoidance approach (often not based on science and sometimes even used as a fear tactic to sell organic products) and on the other are the cosmetic companies protecting their names and ingredients for the sake of sales. Eventually, you have to make a decision.
Here’s what you need to know (from a balanced, scientific perspective) and how to simplify your decision making.
How much do we actually absorb through our skin?
The skin is semi-permeable, meaning it lets certain substances pass through and others are blocked (typically, the molecular size determines whether it passes through). It does a great job keeping MOST things out-dirt, disease, etc. It is specifically designed by nature to protect your body.
There could be more absorption and penetration than we realize with our current research. The bottom line is this: Trust your skin and body to do its job, but do your part in taking care of it.
Sometimes you will hear myths about how much actually passes through into our bloodstream. Many of these are just not scientifically true. (More here: http://personalcaretruth.com/2011/01/the-impermeable-facts-of-skin-penetration-and-absorption/)
However, there are some substances that CAN penetrate into your bloodstream. That’s why we have birth control and nicotine patches capable of working from skin contact (Note: They are formulated especially with ingredients capable of penetrating). (More from an esthetician- https://askanesthetician.wordpress.com/2013/03/19/do-your-skincare-products-get-absorbed-into-your-bloodstream/)
It’s FDA approved-it’s safe, right?
Not necessarily. The US operates mostly as a free market. Meaning, if there are no reports of harm happening from a particular ingredient, the ingredient stays on the market until proven otherwise.
According to the FDA, “the law does not require cosmetic products and ingredients, other than color additives, to have FDA approval before they go on the market, but there are laws and regulations that apply to cosmetics on the market in interstate commerce”. It can take years of research and documenting negative effects, especially long term effects, to have an ingredient pulled off the market. If you’re in the US, you the consumer are largely responsible for making safe choices.
The EU operates a little differently. More often, if an ingredient is suspected of causing harm, it’s added to the banned list. If you’d like less guess work, choosing products approved by the EU is a good route.
If you want to be extra careful about what you’re putting on your skin, here’s a simplified way to look at it. It helps to place products in two categories:
1) Prolonged exposure- the products I want to scrutinize for safety
- Makeup (if worn for several hours)
- Anything you soak in (ie bubble bath)
- Anything you apply and do not wash off, such as lotion, face and body creams, and oils and body powder)
- Shampoo and conditioner (which is a wash off, but has high exposure due to where you use it and the way it “washes” over your entire body)
- Any product you put on your child
2) Limited exposure- the products that you have limited contact with and could relax your safety standards if you choose.
- Hand soap
- Leave in hair products (that are not applied to your scalp). Your hair shafts are not living and will no conduct products back to your scalp.
Keeping the level of exposure in mind will help you prioritize which of your products you need to evaluate.
Simplify Further: Know your brands
Researching individual products can reading the labels can be overwhelming. Instead, research the values of brands and companies.
If it’s a brand that values safe ingredients, you are probably better off buying from them than another company who makes no mention of safe ingredients in their core beliefs.
Top 4 Cosmetic Ingredients to Scrutinize
There are four cosmetic ingredients that bloggers and websites love to vilify. Is the reputation deserved? SHOULD they be avoided? Or is it simply fear mongering for the sake of readership or sales? Here’s my take:
What they are: Preservatives use to prevent microbial contamination. It’s estimated that they can be found in 75-90% of all cosmetics and include ingredients like Methylparaben, Propylparaben and Butylparaben.
The Claims: It’s been claimed that parabens disrupt natural hormone balance and may even be linked to breast and ovarian cancer.
A study in the UK found the presence of intact parabens in 20 samples of human breast tumors. However, this research was not scientifically balanced. It is unclear if the parabens arrived in the tumors via food, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, deodorants or from the solutions used to preserve and process the tumors. It is unknown if parabens caused the tumors or if parabens appear in healthy breast tissue. One other question that was not addressed in the issue was whether or not the patients had received chemotherapy or other drug therapies which contain parabens themselves. All the unanswered questions make it difficult to assess whether the cosmetic industry had anything to do with the results of this study. (More here: http://personalcaretruth.com/2010/06/paraben-puzzlement/)
Conclusion: I will be avoiding them as a precaution and until further study has been done. Luckily, there are plenty of other preservative options that we no longer have to rely on parabens. (Parabens are banned by EU approved products)
2. Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS)
What they are: SLS, SLES are basic detergents used in everything from body washes, hand cleansers, shampoos and even toothpaste.
The Claims: Claims such as “may cause hair loss”, “causes cancer”, and “the most dangerous chemical found in hair and skin care products” are frequently repeated.
Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) publishes unbiased, peer reviewed studies and concluded: “Sodium Lauryl Sulfate and Ammonium Lauryl Sulfate appear to be safe in formulations designed for discontinuous, brief use followed by thorough rinsing from the surface of the skin. In products intended for prolonged contact with skin, concentrations should not exceed 1 percent”.
Conclusion: Because it’s difficult to know the percentage of SLS in a product simply from a label, anything that I put on my body from a prolonged period of time (bubble bath, lotions, etc) should NOT have SLS. You could ease your standards on hand soaps.
What they are: Synthetic and natural ingredients used to make cosmetics smell better.
The Claims: They “…cause headaches, dizziness, allergic rashes, skin discoloration, violent coughing, vomiting and skin irritations. Fragrances affect the nervous system, cause depression, hyper activity, irritability, inability to cope and other behavioral changes”
There are chemicals in fragrances that can cause problems at high enough levels. There are even ingredients that the EU requires companies to label because they are known allergens. However, fragrances are thoroughly screened for safety by independent scientists at the IFRA. There is a safe level of use and fragrance houses follow these guidelines.
Conclusion: I will be avoiding chemical fragrance, especially when using multiple products. The level of chemical fragrance might be safe for one product, but when combining multiple products, you may exceed the safe level. Natural fragrance, however, gets the thumbs up. If you don’t want to take the time learning to distinguish between the two, go with products that are EU approved.
What they are: PEGs (polyethylene glycols) are used in cosmetics for a variety of reasons including moisturizing, thickening, emulsification, solvency, etc.
Claims: Some claim that PEG is a carcinogenic material that will dry out and make your skin age faster.
According to an article in the journal Toxicology from 2005, scientists conclude that “Taking into consideration all available information from related compounds, as well as the mode and mechanism of action, no safety concern with regard to these endpoints could be identified.”
Conclusion: There’s no evidence they need to be avoided. I will continue using products that contain PEG.
Article by Elizabeth Mills (About)
*Note: My list is an altered version of on found at the Huffington Post found here. While the recommendations were generally good, I amended my list after my own research.