One of the most complicated issues regarding personal care products we use are the unregulated chemicals in them. There are certain common substances to avoid, and while we’ve tried to summarize the main ones to look out for, it’s also useful to learn how to read the product ingredients label. Check out the Environmental Working Group, or to avoid scouring all those labels, perhaps choose a cosmetics company who has signed the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics pact, one who uses certified organic and natural ingredients.
Petrolatum – also known as petroleum jelly, is used for its emollient properties in cosmetics. It is mineral oil jelly, and mineral oil and can cause problems when used on the skin, leading to photosensitivity (and potentially sun damage), and interferes with the body’s own natural moisturizing mechanism, leading to dry skin and chapping. Primarily used in lip care products, this is a product that creates the very conditions it claims to alleviate. Manufacturers use petrolatum because it is incredibly inexpensive.
Sodium Lauryl/Laureth Sulfate (SLS) – this synthetic substance is used in shampoos for its detergent and foam-building abilities. It can cause eye irritations, skin rashes, hair loss, scalp scurf similar to dandruff, and allergic reactions. It is frequently disguised in pseudo-natural cosmetics with the parenthetic explanation “comes from coconut.” One of the ingredients we should avoid the most in our skincare and hair care products, it is also one of the most common. In the industrial cleaning industry, SLS is used because it is corrosive and readily attacks greasy surfaces; it is found in garage floor cleaners, engine degreasers, car-wash soaps and the like. It is also classified as a drug in bubble baths because it can eat away skin protection and cause rashes, leading to potential infection. A study at the University of Georgia Medical College indicated that SLS penetrated into the eyes, as well as brain, heart, liver, and other organs, demonstrating long-term retention in the tissues. The study also indicated that SLS, when penetrating kid’s eyes, prevents them from developing properly and can lead to cataract development in adults.
Synthetic Colors – the synthetic colors used to supposedly make a cosmetic “pretty” to the consumer.. They will be labeled as FD&C or D&C, followed by a color and a number. Example: FD&C Red No. 6 / D&C Green No. 6. Synthetic colors are derived from coal tar and are suspected to be carcinogenic.
Synthetic Fragrances – the synthetic fragrances used in cosmetics can have as many as 200 different ingredients. There is no way to know what the chemicals are since often the labels will simply say “Fragrance.” Potential health concerns caused by these chemicals include headaches, dizziness, rash, hyper pigmentation, violent coughing, vomiting, and skin irritation.
Phthalates – Used primarily as a plasticizer (making hard plastics soft), phthalates also show up in alot of personal care products. They have been associated with endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCS) and linked to birth defects, premature breast developments, lowered sperm counts, testicular injury, damage to reproductive organs, lung, liver and kidney cancer. Phthalates can still be found in nail polish, hair-straighteners and sprays, body lotions, and deodorants.
Parabens – (Methyl, Propyl, Butyl and Ethyl). These are a group of chemicals used as a preservative because of their ability to inhibit microbial growth, yeast and molds, thereby extending shelf life of products. Parabens are known to cause many allergic reactions and skin rashes. Studies have shown that they are weakly estrogenic and can be absorbed by the body through the skin. They mimic estrogen in the body and can disrupt the endocrine system, potentially leading to breast cancer and cancer in both male and female reproductive systems.
Formaldehyde –This ingredient can cause respiratory irritation and is also linked to suspected carcinogen. It is suspected to cause headaches, irritate mucous membranes, damage eyes, and is also linked to joint and chest pain, depression, and immune dysfunction. It is found in nail polishes, shampoos, and other body care products. Certain preservatives, like DMDM hydantoin and quaternarium 15, are found in many personal care products and can break down into formaldehyde.
** Carcinogen – A carcinogen is a substance that is capable of causing cancer in humans or animals. If a substance is known to promote or aggravate cancer, but not necessarily cause cancer, it may also be called a carcinogen. Though there are many things that are believed to cause cancer, a substance is only considered carcinogenic if there is significant evidence of its carcinogenicity.
Primary Sources: Environmental Working Group, Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, US Center for Disease Control, Health Canada, Organic Consumers Association, Environmental Health Perspectives, Tree Hugger.
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