You are Not Just What You Eat: Cosmetics and the Chemical Cocktail Effect

We are all growing increasingly aware of the need to eat well, and to exercise to protect our future health and avoid illness such as cancer. However, it is not just what we eat which finds its way into our bodies. Every day we are surrounded by thousands of chemicals which we rub onto our skin, spray into the air, and soak ourselves in. We cover ourselves in chemical beauty products and keep our houses clean whilst releasing hundreds of potentially harmful chemicals into our personal environment. In order to feel tranquil we fragrance our home with products linked to cancers such as breast cancer. The range of cosmetics and beauty products on offer is now so vast, that choosing shampoo can take hours, but most of these products contain ingredients possibly harmful to health, and few chemicals are tested for the effects of long-term use. Women now use on average 20 different personal care products each day, each of which will contain 10 or more chemicals.

There is growing research to prove the potential harm of the ‘chemical cocktail effect;’ the unknown interactions which occur between chemicals used together in every-day products. It may concern you to know that unlike the food industry, the cosmetic industry is largely self-regulating; there is little control as to what goes into products. But like the food industry, we know that this multi-billion dollar industry is largely concerned with making money, and therefore cutting corners, and using cheap products which are highly-processed and chemical in origin; often byproducts of the petrochemical industry.

Just for fun, here is the list of ingredients in my popular branded ‘Revitalizing’ hand wash with natural essential oils (all of which you will find in many of your beauty products):

o Aqua: it is just water, although aqua definitely sounds more expensive.

o Sodium Laureth Sulphate: this will be in many of your beauty products, and is a foaming agent. The American Food and Drugs Administration rank it as a drug because of its effects on the human body. It is a powerful detergent, and is used by garages to clean oil off the floor; it will strip the skin of its natural oils, leaving it dry and unprotected. It is linked to eye problems, and may combine with other chemicals used in the product to produce carcinogens; cancer-causing chemicals. Due to its effect on the natural balance of the skins oils, it is best to avoid products containing this chemical if you suffer from eczema, acne, rosacea, or skin sensitivity.

o Cocamidopropyl Betaine: a thickening, emulsifying and anti-static agent, inexpensive to produce, versatile in its uses, and linked through scientific study to contact dermatitis, eczema and skin sensitivity in some people.

o Methyl Parabens: the parabens family (Methyl, Ethyl, Propyl) are found in a vast array of beauty products and are known to disrupt the natural hormone balance of the body. They are strongly linked to cancers, with a University of Reading study finding parabens present in breast tumors, and may cause problems with fertility or the development of the foetus. They are often found in baby and child products, and many skin lotions and creams. They are classified as toxic and are also known to cause skin problems such as skin sensitivity, itching, burning, blistering and rashes.

o Sodium Chloride: salt.

o Parfum: a synthetic fragrance. These chemicals are largely derived from petrochemicals (nice) and enter the body through the skin absorption, inhalation, or ingestion. It is thought that 1/3rd of synthetic fragrances cause skin sensitivity and skin problems, and the American Food and Drugs Administration list them as the primary cause of allergic reactions to beauty products. There is no evidence of the possible long term effects of these drugs. Some synthetic fragrances such as musks can bio-accumulate in the body, and concentrate in fats (including breast milk). Most people will accumulate significant quantities of these chemicals in their bodies, which has led Germany and Japan to ban many of them from beauty products. They will be widely used in room fragrances.

o Citrus Aurantium Dulcis : Sweet Orange extract- at last something natural!

o Citrus Aurantium Amara: Bitter Orange oil.

o Cymbopogon Schoenanthus: Lemon Grass Extract.

o Olea Europaea: Despite the fancy name it is just Olive extract.

o Tetrasodium EDTA: thought to be safe when used in the small amounts present in cosmetics, it is used also in large amounts in household detergents. This chemical compound may affect the body on a cellular level allowing chemicals to more easily enter cells. It is removed quickly from the body through urination, and accumulates in the environment in groundwater, rivers and drinking water, and as such is of great concern environmentally. More studies are needed to determine any potential health effects on humans, and throughout the food chain.

o Sodium Lactate: a known irritant to the respiratory system, eyes and skin in large amounts. Is also used in the food industry.

o Polyquaternium-7: this chemical may break down into chemicals linked with cancer and other health problems. It is thought that safety tests conducted within the industry may not be sufficient to determine a true risk-factor.

o Sodium Benzoate: This chemical is only safe in small quantities, and is a classified toxin. It is suspected to have a toxic effect on the brain, skin, blood, liver, kidneys, and gastro-intestinal system. Due to concerns about toxicity it has a safe limit for addition to cosmetics, although has not been given a safe limit for products where it may be inhaled.

o Citric Acid: this ingredient has not been assessed for safety as it is thought to be entirely safe for use.

o Propylene Glycol: a by-product of the petroleum industry, also used in anti-freeze and brake fluid. It may cause skin sensitivity, and allows the skin to be more easily penetrated by other chemicals. In large quantities, this chemical must be handled only with protective clothing, gloves and goggles, and skin contact may result in liver, brain and kidney abnormalities. Luckily for you it is used is much smaller quantities in cosmetics and household products; still I think I will try and give it a miss under the circumstances. There is no data for the long term use of this chemical.

o Methylchloroisothiazolinone: sounds nasty, and it is. This one is linked to skin sensitivity, lung sensitivity and is toxic to the immune system. It has two safe limits, one for things which are washed off, and one for things which are left-on. I don’t know about you, but if it isn’t safe to be left on my skin, I am not sure that I want it there at all.

o Hexyl Cinnamal: This is registered as an allergen in America, where it must be listed on product information by law, although it is thought to be safe for cosmetic use.

o Citronellol: another fragrance linked with skin sensitivity.

o Citral: this fragrance may cause skin sensitivity, and is an irritant. It is subject to restrictions if it is not of a sufficient quality, and is also used in food products. It is a classified toxin and suspected of causing liver and immune system toxicity.

o Limonene: this fragrance is similar to the above and causes skin irritation, burning, itching and hives in susceptible individuals. It is a registered chemical hazard with handling restrictions, and is an environmental toxin, dangerous to wildlife where it contaminates the water system (i.e. when it goes down the drain).

Well after all of that I am not feeling as much revitalized as revolted. There are 21 ingredients in my hand wash, 14 of which may cause health problems ranging from dry and irritated skin to cancer. As a hand soap, I may use this product up to 10 times a day, that is 70 times a week, and yet it contains many chemicals which at best are not doing me any good, and at worst are bad for me. There are also the other products which I come into contact with throughout the day; shower gel, shampoo, conditioner, toothpaste, face and body moisturizer, fabric cleanser and conditioner on my clothes, washing-up liquid on my kitchen things, hair spray in the changing rooms; the list is endless. All of these chemicals have the potential to get into my body through my skin, lungs and digestive system, and there is growing evidence to suggest that this chemical cocktail may be of short and long-term harm. It is certainly true that these chemicals will have a more marked effect on children and babies. It seems that you are not just what you eat!