Skincare products can often look deceptively appealing, luring you to the cash register with beautiful packaging and promises of youthful, nourished skin.
What isn’t made clear is the toxicity of ingredients that studies have found are polluting our bodies and affecting our health (check out further reading on those at Gray, 1986, Schreurs 2004, Gomez 2005, Veldhoen 2006, Hauser 2007, and Swan 2005). They are regularly used as humectants, solvents and preservatives in skincare products today despite having potentially hazardous health effects including cancer, endocrine interference, genetic changes, reproductive toxicity, neurotoxicity and developmental disorders.
Up to one in eight ingredients in skin care products are known industrial chemicals that are cheap to manufacture and give cosmetic firms great margins for profit.
While exposure to a potentially toxic ingredient after single use of a skin care product may not cause an immediate reaction, toxins build up in the body over time and can have an unpredictable effect, particularly when combined with a range of other chemicals that we consume in our skin care and food and are exposed to around the home.
Individual characteristics such as age, sex, genetic constitution, lifestyle and state of health will also play a part in determining whether chemical ingredients will have a harmful effect on the body.
It’s important that consumers are informed about the potential health effects of industrial chemicals on the body so they can make conscious decisions about the consumption of skin care products that use them.
So, let’s get started. Go grab that tub of skin cream, tube of hand lotion or bottle of body milk from your beauty kit and turn your attention to the ingredients list.
Are any of the following ingredients listed on the label?
Paraffin, petrolatum, petroleum jelly, mineral oil, paraben, dibutylphthalate (DBP, DEP or butyl ester), synthetic colours, perfume or those that end in glycol?
Note the order in which ingredients are listed. The list of ingredients is presented in descending order of the weight of the ingredients at the time of preparation of the skincare product. Ingredients in concentrations of less than 1 % may be listed in any order after those in concentrations of more than 1 %.
So, if the first ingredient on the list is Aqua then plain old water is the main ingredient in your skin care product.
With water, we’ve little to be worried about.
But what about those others we asked you to search for?
Common ingredients that are known to cause health issues are those related to the family of petrochemicals derived from crude oil or petroleum.
To begin, let’s look at those ingredients that end in glycol.
PPGs (propylene glycol or 1, 2 propanediol) is manufactured from propylene oxide, a petroleum-based raw material. PPG absorbs water and maintains moisture and is commonly used as an antifreeze, a solvent and an excellent penetration enhancer or so called “active ingredient” that can help shuttle soluble ingredients into deep layers of skin. Many foods, drugs and personal care products contain PPG. It is also used in pet food and has been associated with anaemia and other health effects in cats due to clumping of haemoglobin. Prolonged skin exposure has caused irritation, possibly due to its dehydrating effect on the skin, despite being used in skin care products that advertise to do the opposite. PPG can also cause an allergic response on contact with the skin (allergic contact dermatitis), particularly in people that suffer with eczema, fungal infections and in people with lower sun exposure and vitamin D stores.
BG (butylene glycol or 1,4 butanediol) is also made from the petroleum-based raw material propylene oxide. BG is a solvent and plasticiser and used as a solvent in cosmetics and as a humectant in pharmaceutical products. Exposure has been known to cause slight skin, eye and respiratory tract irritation and acute oral toxicity. Studies on the effects of people using repeated doses have reported neurotoxicity as BG’s most hazardous effect. Nevertheless, there is no data to indicate that BG may lead to cancer, cause genetic alterations within cells, sensitize the skin or have an effect on the reproductive system.
PEG (polyethylene glycol) is a petroleum-based polymer made by joining molecules of ethylene oxide and water together in a repeating pattern. This water soluble polymer is used in laxatives, a lubricant, medications (as a binding agent), sexual lubricants and a stabiliser. In skin care products and cosmetics PEG is used as thickener, solvent, softener, emulsion stabilizer, surfactant, fragrance ingredient, skin conditioning agent, a penetration enhancer and moisture–carrier. Repeated or prolonged skin contact may lead to irritation and contact dermatitis and will have a degreasing action on the skin. If it’s used on broken skin PEG could produce irritation and systemic toxicity. Due to its penetration enhancing properties, PEG increases the skin’s permeability allowing greater penetration of the ingredients in the skin care product.
Depending on the manufacturing process of PEG, it is possible that traces of ethylene oxide or PEG polymers of low molecular weight may remain in the final product. These have been associated with allergies, cancer, neurotoxicity, immunogenicity (where the body’s immune system reacts to a foreign substance) and with reproductive and developmental toxicity – which by definition includes effects on women who are pregnant.
As we said earlier, it’s important that consumers are able to make informed decisions about the skincare products they purchase, for while education is the first step towards responsible consumption, it can also help to put pressure on skin care product manufacturers to create products that are safer and better for our bodies.
Keep your eye out for future issues where we’ll investigate the effects of other industrial chemicals in skin care products.
Want to know more?
Check out further reading from our references below that were used to help create this article.
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ATSDRa (Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry). 1997. Toxicological profile for Propylene Glycol. Atlanta, GA: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service. CAS#57-55-6.
Biondi O, Motta S, and Mosesso P. “Low molecular weight polyethylene glycol induces chromosome aberrations in Chinese hamster cells cultured in vitro.” _Mutagenesis_17, 3 (May 2002):261-4. PMID:11971999.
Chaussade, S (1999). Mechanisms of action of low doses of polyethylene glycol in the treatment of functional constipation. Italian journal of gastroenterology and hepatology. 31 Suppl 3: S242–4. PMID 10726227.
Christopher MM, Perman V, Eaton JW. 1989. Contribution of propylene glycol-induced Heinz body formation to anemia in cats. J Am Vet Med Assoc 194(8): 1045-56. PMID:2708106.
Chrit L, Bastien P, Sockalingum GD, Batisse D, Leroy F, Manfait M, Hadjur C.An in vivo randomized study of human skin moisturization by a new confocal Raman fiber-optic microprobe: assessment of a glycerol-based hydration cream. Skin Pharmacol Physiol. 2006;19(4):207-15. PMID:16679823.
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NIOSH (The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. 1,4 butanediol. Cas#110-63-4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/ipcsneng/neng1104.html)
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PubChem (Open Chemistry database). 1,2-propanediol. (https://pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/compound/1030).
PubChem. 1,4-Butanediol. National Center for Biotechnology Information, US National Library of Medicine, Rockville Pike, Bestheda, USA. (https://pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/compound/8064#section=Inhalation-Symptoms).
Regulation (EC) No 1223/2009 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 30 November 2009 on cosmetic products OJ L 342, 22.12.2009, p. 59–209.
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