which cosmetics can harm us

In my previous post on cosmetics we had a good look at what products might actually work and therefore might be worth laying out those hard earned buckaroonies for, and I imagine there may well have been a few surprises in there for you. Who’d of guessed that in well-constructed double blind tests good old el cheapo would win time and again, huh? So now we know you really don’t have to go emptying your bank account in order to get results, but there are of course still unanswered questions aren’t there? After all what are the active ingredients that consistently show results? Well as we learned the cosmetic manufacturers would love us to believe that each of their magic potions carry all manner of newly discovered wonder ingredients (remember those sciencey sounding penta-peptides and their kissin’ cousins, telomerase?) but the reality is that there are very few ingredients shown to have true efficacy. What are they? Well for that you’ll have to read the very next post on this issue, but right here what we’re going to be looking at is not so much what’s in there that might do any good, rather than what might actually do you harm.

Does it surprise you to hear that? Well I can truly say that it did to me. After all even if we can’t necessarily expect industry to be overly concerned with our health and welfare then at least government will be, right? Well it seems there’s a widely varying level of intervention and oversight depending on which part of the English-speaking world you inhabit. For those Canadians, Aussies and Europeans the legislatory framework is for the most part pretty good, primarily placing the onus on industry to prove that whatever is in there is actually fit and safe for human use.

In the US the situation is considerably more vexed with the poor old FDA lumbered to police the mammoth anti-aging industry yet equally having to do so with a range of virtually non-existent statutes – making it as equal a match as nine rounds with Mike Tyson with both your perfectly manicured hands strapped firmly behind your back. Why this might be so is primarily a combination of a highly motivated industry with very deep pockets who have effectively hogtied consumer protection bills often before they even get to congress, facing up against a government agency with a piddling annual budget – reported $5.5m in 2008 against the US cosmetic industries pot worth an annual $57bn!

To give you a flavour of quite how little legislatory oversight is in place, here’s the FDA’s own website on this,

‘Neither the law nor FDA regulations require specific tests to demonstrate the safety of individual products or ingredients … The law also does not require cosmetic companies to share their safety information with FDA. ‘

And even though many of the other countries have stronger consumer protection laws it still doesn’t stop all manner of problems arising. In 2013 the British Association of Dermatologists warned that an ingredient called methylisothiazolinone (or MI) which is present in everything from wet wipes, cleansers, deodorants and shower gels right through to washing up liquid was responsible for a sharp rise in contact dermatitis. In that case the European cosmetics industry responded by suggesting an immediate withdrawal though MI is unfortunately currently still considered safe for use in the USA. There is also still an ongoing debate worldwide between consumer groups and industry over the use of nanoparticles – tiny particles up to 80,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair which can on one hand offer some wonderful possibilities but over which many scientists have expressed concerns about their toxic potential if such minute fragments manage to wander off somewhere inside us where they really shouldn’t oughta be.

Listen I’m not trying to be some kind of anti-industry and ‘hang the big guys’ conspiracy theorising whack job, but there is a growing body of research about a great number of potentially harmful ingredients which are currently in a good many of the lotions and potions out there. Sadly often enough industry and government are at best either slow to act or at worst  unwilling and then again as in the hogtied FDA, perhaps they’re simply unable. And all that means the only one really left looking after the ranch then is good old you buttercup!

So what to do? Well there’s little else but to become informed. One great resource to get started with is a short but right to the point book by two US based journalists Siobhan O’Connor and Alexandra Spunt called No More Dirty Looks. Another is to go to the magnum opus that is the Environmental Working Group’s Cosmetic Database. EWG is a Washington DC based consumer protection group and their huge and comprehensive database offers the ability to search over 69,000 products as well as providing up to date info on a wide range of ingredients and their possible effects. Similar is both the California Safe Cosmetics Program Product Database and the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics.

All that said here’s a few of the items you may want to try and avoid:

1,4 dioxane – has been found to be in 22% of all cosmetics and anti-aging products have some of the highest levels’ reportedly found in a chart topping 37% of them. This bag of fun is implicated as a carcinogen, organ toxin and (according to US governments own Environmental Protection Agency)has caused vertigo, drowsiness, headache, anorexia and irritation of the eyes, nose, throat, and lungs in humans’. It’s created in reactions when some common ingredients mix. Unfortunately you won’t find it on the labels but you can avoid it by keeping away from SLS (see below) and chemicals that include the clauses ‘PEG’, ‘xynol’, ‘ceteareth’ and ‘oleth’

Parabens – found in everything and again EWG reports that ‘parabens can cause skin irritation, allergic reactions, reproductive health problems and cancer …’ 

Sodium Laureth Sulfate (AKA Sodium Lauryl Sulfate) – a surfactant meaning it helps many products achieve that lovely cleaning foam effect but is also considered at the very least an irritant and at the worst a possible carcinogen and endocrine disruptor.

Fragrance – Well good luck trying to eliminate this guy outa your products because fragrance is in everything that has … well, a fragrance. So if you like it smelly then this is one you just gotta live with. Due to the fact that the fragrance industry keeps its cards close to the chest (something about trade secrets) we mostly have no idea at all as to what’s in this stuff. Anything from essential oils to weird and wonderful chemical concoctions can go into the brew, but in a neat legislatory side-step, quite legitimately in the ingredients list all you get to see is ‘fragrance’.

Listen, this is but a tiny portion of what’s inside the lotions and potions you might be slathering on, or cleaning, shaving and generally sprucing yourself with in that quest for eternal youth or even just to look your best. But as we discovered earlier, whether any of those ingredients is actually doing anything is often enough highly debatable however at least try not to be covering yourselves in something that may actually be doing you some outright harm.

Clearly I can’t cover this whole mammoth area in one small post though I will keep updating on it for sure, but the suggestion is as always … educate yourselves. Be wise. Be discerning. That way we may just all get a little further along this fun filled road together.

More on this soon. See y’all later.

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