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Health, Beauty & Fashion

Past beauty scares

Urban sets the record straight on seven ingredients that have been involved in beauty scares in the past
The Straits Times - February 17, 2012
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Past beauty scares -- ST PHOTO: ASHLEIGH SIM


Claims: Talc, a powdery mineral found in make-up and beauty products, causes cancer because it contains asbestos. Asbestos is a carcinogen when it is inhaled. Talc also clogs pores when used on the skin.

Facts: Cosmetic-grade talc, which has been purified, does not contain asbestos and is safe to use.

Neither is talc powder derived from asbestos; rather, talc is obtained by crushing talc rocks into a powder.

There are no valid studies that link talc to cancer.

Talc also does not clog pores as its particles are larger than pores and sit on the surface of the skin.

In fact, a 1984 study published in the Journal Of The American Academy Of Dermatology has proven that talc is less comedogenic compared to some other skincare ingredients.

This inert material is a useful cosmetic ingredient which absorbs excess oil, prevents products from caking and give make-up a powdery texture.

Suitable for: All skin types, except those with dry or very dry skin as talc absorbs sebum. If your skin feels tight and cracked, then avoid talc.


Claims: This waxy substance, which is derived from petrol, clogs pores and causes acne.

Facts: Also known as petroleum jelly, this ingredient is an easy target for advocates of natural products because its raw material is petrol.

Its bad reputation comes from incidents of cosmetic manufacturers using industrial-grade petrolateum in their products. This inferior-grade petrolateum contains impurities such as aldehydes and ketones, which can cause skin irritation.

However, purified petrolateum is so safe it is used for medical purposes.

Pharmacist Lau Min-Tsek, who co-owns bespoke skincare brand The Skin Pharmacy, says: 'Pharmaceutical-grade petrolateum is used as a dressing for wounds, for skin-patch allergy tests and also in forming a barrier to protect the skin in post-laser treatments.'

Petrolateum is a popular moisturising ingredient in skincare products because it forms a film on the skin's surface to lock moisture in without clogging pores.

Suitable for: Those with dry skin or those living in cold, dry climates. People with oily skin do not need to use such a heavy moisturiser.


Claims: This foaming agent, which is commonly added to cleansers, soaps and shampoos, irritates and makes skin dry. A viral e-mail has also made the rounds, claiming that SLS causes cancer.

Facts: The e-mail is a hoax as there are no studies proving that SLS causes cancer.

SLS is a popular cleansing agent because it effectively removes grime and dirt while producing foam, which consumers like in their cleansing products.

It does remove a layer of protective oil from the skin, which could lead to skin irritation with repeated use.

However, freelance make-up artist Larry Yeo, who has a diploma in biotechnology from Singapore Polytechnic, says this drying effect is easily mitigated by including moisturising ingredients such as cocamidopropyl betaine in the formula.

Be sure to wash off the cleanser thoroughly as any residue could cause irritation, adds Mr Yeo, who is also pursuing a specialist diploma in cosmetic science from the same school.

If your skin feels dry after cleansing, apply a moisturiser.

Alternatively, pick a creamier cleanser or look out for those formulated for sensitive skin as these would contain a lower concentration of SLS.

Suitable for: All skin types except those with eczema, as SLS could aggravate the condition.


Claims: It is a skin irritant and clogs pores.

Facts: It does not clog pores or cause acne as the only barrier it forms on the skin is against water. The skin is still able to breathe through the silicone.

Still, silicone can trap sebum, dirt and bacteria against the skin's surface, which could lead to acne with prolonged use. When this happens, however, it is largely due to poor personal hygiene as you should apply products only on clean skin so that grime is not trapped on your skin.

Some modified silicones, such as those used in hair conditioners for coloured or permed hair, can irritate those with a sensitive scalp or skin, says Mr Lau.

The slippery, gel-like chemical, which is usually listed as dimethicone or methicone on the list of ingredients, is commonly found in a variety of cosmetics.

It has a range of uses, including giving the product a luxurious silky texture, helping make-up stay on the skin longer, filling in fine lines and wrinkles and acting as a waterproof barrier on the skin.

Products that tout functions such as line and pore reduction, skin smoothing or mattifying, and long- lasting hold probably contain silicones, says Mr Yeo.

Mr Lau says silicone is also used on people with skin problems like dermatitis or eczema as it maintains moisture in the skin.

Suitable for: Most skin types, but avoid if you have acne-prone skin. Those with such skin types should use as little product on their skin as possible. Those with sensitive scalp and skin may also experience irritation with certain types of silicone.


Claims: It irritates skin and can cause cancer.

Facts: Hydroquinone is a lightening ingredient used to treat skin pigmentation. It is considered to be one of the most effective whitening agents, but only if it is used judiciously.

The cancer rumours came about because there were reports of laboratory mice developing tumours after being exposed to large doses of hydroquinone over extended periods of time.

However, there is no conclusive evidence that hydroquinone creams cause cancer in humans, says

Dr Wee Ming Huey, a general practitioner with an interest in cosmetic formulation at Mint Medical Centre at HarbourFront.

There are side effects to using hydroquinone, if it is used indiscriminately - for example, in large amounts over the entire body to lighten the overall skin tone, instead of treating pigmentation spots.

The side effects include itching, blistering, sensitivity to the sun and, in some rare cases, skin darkening.

This is why hydroquinone can only be dispensed as a prescription cream in Singapore and the European Union. In the United States, hydroquinone creams with a low concentration of less than 2 per cent can be sold over-the-counter.

Whitening ingredients that can be sold over-the-counter here include kojic acid, mulberry extract and retinoids.

Suitable for: Lightening pigmentation, but creams should be used only with a doctor's prescription so that your skin's reaction can be monitored.


Claims: It causes dryness, redness and irritation.

Facts: Yes, alcohol can have these effects, but only on individuals with sensitive or problematic skin.

Alcohol enhances the skin's ability to absorb skincare ingredients by interacting with the skin's surface and temporarily causing cells to become more porous.

It is frequently found in skincare products like cleansers, toners, serums and lotions.

However, because of this disruption to the skin's surface, it can cause irritation in people with sensitive skin, dermatitis and eczema, says Mr Lau.

Dr Wee says the concentration of alcohol used in most beauty products is generally well tolerated by most people, unless they have very sensitive skin or skin problems. Due to its tendency to evaporate quickly, it does have a drying effect on the skin but, again, this is generally well-tolerated among most skin types.

If you experience skin dryness, pick products that contain moisturising ingredients as well to mitigate the dryness, Dr Wee suggests.

Additionally, alcohol in skincare can cause blood vessels to dilate, leading to a red, flushed look - similar to what happens in some individuals who turn red after drinking an alcoholic beverage.

Do not confuse liquid alcohol - usually called ethanol on the list of ingredients - with fatty alcohols such as cetyl alcohol, cetearyl alcohol or stearyl alcohol. The latter are solid waxes which are used as moisturisers in some products.

Suitable for: Most people except those with sensitive skin, eczema or dermatitis. Those with oily skin may enjoy the drying and cooling effect of alcohol-based products.


Claims: As the concentration of these chemicals can range from 10 to 20 per cent in beauty products, there is speculation that they could be irritating to the skin. There are also claims that phthalates cause weight gain by disrupting the body's natural hormone balance.

Facts: This family of chemicals is used to dissolve fragrances in perfumes and is also found in skin and bodycare products to help the fragrance linger longer.

There are no conclusive studies linking the use of phthalates in cosmetics to weight gain.

Experts doubt that these chemicals play a big role in weight gain as the major factors contributing to packing on the kilos are eating too much and insufficient exercise.

Current studies are still ongoing to determine if phthalates are harmful to humans, but there is currently no conclusive evidence, says Mr Lau.

In fact, phthalates have been used for decades without any reports of problems, he adds.

In Singapore, the Health Sciences Authority has prohibited the use of two types of phthalates - dibutyl phthalate and diethylhexyl phthalate - as cosmetic ingredients, according to a report by The New Paper. Diethyl phthalate, which is permitted in the United States and Europe, is permitted here.

Still, people with sensitive skin, dermatitis or eczema should avoid perfumes or scented products as they tend to experience irritation when using them.

They generally have a large blend of ingredients, including phthalates, and it will be difficult to pinpoint the specific ingredient causing the irritation.

Suitable for: Most skin types, except those with sensitive skin, dermatitis and eczema.



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