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Cleaning the Outside Could be Bad for the Inside

Vicky Uhland

April 24, 2008

6 Min Read
Cleaning the Outside Could be Bad for the Inside

For years, organics advocates and government agencies have been more concerned about what people put in, rather than on, their bodies. It?s an understandable priority. After all, does it really matter if personal care products are natural or organic? Don?t you just lather, rinse and repeat, washing any harmful ingredients right down the drain?

Not according to a growing number of studies and expert opinions:

  • A 2003 study conducted at England?s University of Reading found that parabens, personal care preservatives linked to cancer, can enter the body through the skin.

  • According to the Good Housekeeping Institute, 60 percent of products that are put on the skin are absorbed into the bloodstream.

  • A 1999 Stanford University study found that an effective dose of a vaccine can be absorbed through hair follicles in one shampooing, and that rubbing a vaccine onto the skin of laboratory mice is just as effective as injecting it into a muscle.

  • Elizabeth Smith, M.D., researcher with the Ovarian Cyst Education Web site, writes that ?anything absorbed by the skin is directly absorbed. In other words, anything absorbed through the skin may be as high as 10 times the concentration of an oral dose.?

As entities ranging from the state of California to the Organic Trade Association?s Personal Care Task Force grapple with definitions of organic and natural for health and beauty products, certain ingredients are spawning questions about their safety and appropriateness in otherwise natural personal care items. These hot-button ingredients include:

Parabens. Methyl-, propyl- and butylparaben are the most common forms of these widely used, acid- and alcohol-based preservatives. Because they generally make up less than 1 percent of a total product formulation, parabens are considered safe by most manufacturers and ingredients specialists. However, the University of Reading study, published in the January 2004 Journal of Applied Toxicology, found that 18 of 20 breast tumors studied contained significant concentrations of parabens.

The benefit of parabens for manufacturers is that they can extend a product?s shelf life to two, three, sometimes four years or more. Some small-scale manufacturers that don?t make large batches of products at once or don?t distribute nationally have been able to replace parabens with natural preservatives that have a shorter shelf life. But an increasing number of large natural personal care companies are also moving away from parabens, developing their own all-natural preservative formulas that keep a product fresh for up to two years.

Jason Natural Cosmetics is substituting sodium benzoate, potassium sorbate and grapefruit seed extract (all food-grade preservatives) for parabens in all its products. Kiss My Face?s Obsessively Organic facial care line relies on the preservative properties of essential oils and vitamin E, a sanitary manufacturing process, a complicated pH balancing formula, and packaging with flip-top lids designed to keep bacteria, yeast and mold from contaminating the products. Aubrey Organics has never used parabens, opting instead for a proprietary preservative mix of citrus seed extract and vitamins A, C and E.

Sodium laureth sulfate and sodium lauryl sulfate. These salt- and alcohol-based surfactants are what make shampoos, soaps and toothpastes lather or foam. Sodium lauryl sulfate usually constitutes 50 percent of any shampoo that lists it as an ingredient, writes Peter Lamas in Dying to Be Beautiful (Bronze Bow Publishing, 2003). Lamas is founder of the Los Angeles-based natural personal care company Lamas Beauty International.

There?s a debate as to which surfactant is better. Some cite studies that sodium lauryl sulfate causes eye irritation, skin rashes and allergic reactions. Others say sodium lauryl sulfate is fine; it?s sodium laureth sulfate that?s too alkaline and harsh on the skin and hair. ?Any ingredient ending in ?eth, like sodium laureth and steareth, carries very powerful irritant detergents,? says Samuel Epstein, M.D., chairman of the Cancer Prevention Coalition and professor emeritus of environmental medicine at the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Public Health.

In a 1983 report on the safety of sodium lauryl sulfate, The Journal of the American College of Toxicology concluded that ?studies have indicated that sodium lauryl sulfate enters and maintains residual levels in the heart, the liver, the lungs and the brain from skin contact.? However, many reference works, including A Consumer?s Dictionary of Cosmetic Ingredients by Ruth Winter (Three Rivers Press, 1999) and Product of Misinformation by Michael Rutledge (Tapestry Press, 2001) rate both sodium laureth sulfate and sodium lauryl sulfate as safe. Milder—but sometimes less effective—surfactants include the coconut oil-based olefin sulfate and the fatty acid-based sodium cocoyl glutamate.

Fluoride. Fluoride is a mineral that has been found in numerous studies to reduce demineralization of tooth enamel and help prevent tooth decay. However, Tom?s of Maine spokeswoman Kathleen Taggersall says that in its pure form, fluoride is toxic. The Food and Drug Administration requires toothpastes that contain fluoride to carry a label warning against ingestion.

While it?s unlikely that anyone will swallow a fatal dose of fluoride, which The Merck Index sets at 4 grams, some manufacturers warn that children and people with low body weights should be particularly careful not to swallow fluoridated toothpastes.

Phthalates. These chemicals used to soften and increase the flexibility of plastics are also used in nail polish to prevent chipping, and occasionally in fragrances. The European Union will ban two phthalates—dibutyl phthalate and di(2-ethylhexyl)phthalate—in September, but according to an April 19 Wall Street Journal story, the U.S. Cosmetics, Toiletry and Fragrance Association said DBP presents no health risk. ?This is more a matter of politics than of science,? said Gerald McEwan, the trade association?s vice president for science, in the WSJ.

DBP and DEHP, which have been found to cause reproductive problems in lab animals, are on California?s list of potential carcinogenic or reproductive toxins.

Procter & Gamble is planning to reformulate its Max Factor and Cover Girl nail polishes to eliminate DBP. Estee Lauder is doing the same with its Clinique and MAC lines.

There are natural options for nail polish, including No-Miss Nail Care Products Inc. and Firoze Nail & Skin Care Products, which both make dibutyl phthalate-free polishes.

Alpha hydroxy acids. AHAs are used in moisturizers to remove dead skin cells, thus allowing skin-softening ingredients to better penetrate the skin. However, Lamas says they can increase the skin?s sensitivity to the sun by as much as 50 percent. He recommends AHAs be used at a concentration of less than 10 percent.

Vicky Uhland is a free-lance writer in Denver. Contact her at [email protected].

Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXV/number 7/p. 42

About the Author(s)

Vicky Uhland

Vicky Uhland is a writer and editor based in Lafayette, Colorado.

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