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Health, Beauty & Fashion

Danger in your potions

What you slather on your face and wash your hair with may contain small amounts of toxins
The Straits Times - February 10, 2012
By: Carolyn Butler
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Danger in your potions -- PHOTO: ISTOCKPHOTO

In the past few years, I've become much more attuned to 'clean' living: using organic foods and filtered water, limiting sun exposure and all that. So when a friend suggested that many of the lotions and potions we apply to our skin are bad for us, I began reading labels in my family's bathroom cabinets.

It wasn't pretty.

According to Ms Jane Houlihan, who directs cosmetics safety research for the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a non-profit research and advocacy organisation, cosmetics and other personal-care products contain numerous ingredients such as phthalates, parabens, formaldehyde and diethanolamine that we should be wary of.

'What we put on our skin often ends up inside our body, so it's every bit as important as what we eat, drink and breathe when it comes to minimising exposure to things that aren't healthy for us,' she explained.

Pharmacy shelves are lined with shampoos, deodorants, moisturisers, soaps and make-up that contain potentially harmful ingredients, consumer advocates say.

'Research has shown that many conventional personal-care products contain chemicals of concern that can disrupt your hormones, have been linked to cancer, cause allergies or can damage your skin,' said Ms Stacy Malkan, author of Not Just A Pretty Face: The Ugly Side Of The Beauty Industry.

Because there are few safety standards for cosmetics in the United States, 'companies are basically making their own decisions about what's safe enough to sell', she said.


Industry officials said the risks of using cosmetics with trace amounts of chemicals are insignificant or non-existent.

The Food and Drug Administration does evaluate some ingredients used in cosmetics and has issued warnings, such as with formaldehyde in some hair straighteners. But the dearth of solid, large-scale studies on the effect of such chemicals at the levels found in, say, conditioner or toothpaste, means it is difficult to know what the risks are.

'The fact is, none of us really knows for sure,' Ms Malkan said.

'A lot of these chemicals have not been properly assessed for safety.'

So it is your choice whether to use a fruity body wash, lipstick or aftershave that may contain lead, diethyl phthalate (a hormone disruptor that is widely used in plastics and has been linked to sperm damage and other reproductive problems) or 1,4-Dioxane, a carcinogenic by-product that has been banned in Europe.

Last November, an advocacy group found that Johnson & Johnson was selling baby shampoo in the United States, Canada and several other countries that contained small amounts of quaternium-15, a formaldehyde- releasing preservative that has been linked to cancer, even though the company had removed the chemical from similar products sold in Europe and Japan.

The company said that it did not believe the small amounts in its shampoos posed any threat but that it would phase out the use of such ingredients across the globe.

The worry is not just one chemical in your or your child's shampoo but rather the build-up of potentially dangerous additives from a variety of sources.

'The toxic exposures just add up over time,' said Ms Barbara Sattler, director of the Environmental Health Education Center at the University of Maryland School of Nursing.

'If you've got a set of neurotoxins in two or three or five products you're using and you're putting them on your skin and inhaling or ingesting them every day, you're increasing the risk of an untoward effect.'

An EWG survey found that, on average, women are slathering and lathering themselves up with a dozen products every day, with men averaging about six.

'That doesn't mean there is going to be a problem,' Ms Sattler said.

'There are a lot of other important variables, such as whether you're a smoker or live in an area with pollutants or have a good diet and all of the other things that contribute to health and resilience. But it is a risk factor,' she added.

While skin irritations and other acute reactions to some of the chemicals are possible, the greater concern is longer-term effects such as cancer, fertility problems and neurological issues.

For many people, the small amounts of suspect chemicals found in these products are not worrisome. The green sector of the cosmetics industry is booming and those who want to avoid the chemicals have a wealth of options. But experts say caution is warranted here, too.

'Unfortunately, there is a lot of 'greenwashing' that goes on: pretending that a product is green when it's really not,' Ms Malkan said.

'Since it's not regulated, relying on marketing claims or labels isn't your best bet,' she added.

She suggested doing some research on which ingredients you want to avoid. Her advocacy group, the Campaign For Safe Cosmetics, maintains an online list of chemicals it says are dangerous.



1. Simplify your skincare

Streamline the number of personal-care products you apply regularly and do not overuse them. Choose lotions and washes with fewer ingredients and synthetic chemicals, suggested Ms Jane Houlihan of the Environmental Working Group (EWG).

'Simpler is usually safer,' she said.

2. Avoid the worst offenders

'There are certain product types that are much more toxic than others,' said Ms Stacy Malkan, author of a book on the potentially harmful ingredients in cosmetics. She cited dark permanent hair dyes, which can contain coal tar, as a possible carcinogen, according to the National Toxicology Programme; hair straighteners that may contain formaldehyde, which has also been linked to cancer; and nail products such as acrylics.

3. Forgo fragrance

While cosmetics companies must label their products, there is a loophole for 'synthetic fragrances', a catch-all term for ingredients used to scent perfume, lotions or anything else. These substances are treated as trade secrets that do not have to be disclosed. 'So 'fragrance' can be a concoction of five or 500 components. We really just don't know,' said MsSattler of the Environment Health Education Center, who added that fragrances can contain phthalates and other chemicals that can cause allergies and irritation.

4. Read labels

Sometimes, it feels as though you need a chemistry degree to understand even the simplest ingredient list. Nonetheless, it is still worthwhile to check labels for potentially problematic ingredients such as methyl paraben, propyl paraben and butyl paraben, triclosan and ureas, Ms Houlihan said.

It can also be useful to look for products that have been certified organic by a third party, such as the Department of Agriculture, she said.

The EWG has compiled Skin Deep, a free database that analyses the ingredients in more than 70,000 personal-care products and provides easy-to-understand safety ratings.



Tailored for your skin