What's in YOUR product?
10 Synthetic Ingredients Commonly Found in Personal Care Products
and Why You Should Avoid Them
by Carrie Falotico

What you don't know could be hurting you. If you are using body products that are widely available in most department, drug, and grocery stores, chances are they contain at least one-but more likely several-ingredients that can potentially harm you. Even most of the so-called "natural" body care products out there contain at least one synthetic ingredient. What's the big deal? Well, those of us who seek out natural body care products do so because we are concerned about our health and about adding additional toxins to our bodies that are constantly exposed to various environmental pollutants daily. And it is difficult to find true, 100% completely natural body care products. You have to be a diligent label reader to filter through everything that is out there. To help you on this quest, I've assembled a list of synthetic ingredients commonly found in most body care products, and why they should be avoided.

1. Methyl, Propyl, Butyl and Ethyl Parabens: Probably the most common synthetic ingredients found even in so-called "natural" products are these chemicals broadly referred to as "parabens". Considered "food grade" preservatives, they are also unfortunately found in products we consume. They are typically used as preservatives to inhibit the growth of microbes and to extend the shelf life of products. Parabens are known to cause various allergic reactions and skin irritations and rashes, especially with prolonged or repeated exposure.

2. Sodium Lauryl Sulfate: Also known as Sodium laurel sulfate or SLS. This synthetic substance can be found in almost any kind of industrial cleaning agent, and is widely used in products like shampoo, toothpaste, and mouth rinses as a foaming and cleansing agent, because it produces the foamy, bubbly texture we have come to expect of these products. It causes irritation on contact with skin, eyes, and mucous membranes, and can cause allergic reactions. Tests on lab animals indicate that long-term exposure may cause mutagenic effects. SLS is rapidly absorbed and retained in the eyes, brain, heart, and liver, which may result in harmful long-term effects. Some pseudo-natural products containing this substance try to mislead the consumer with the phrase "derived from coconut", but don't be fooled.

3. Propylene Glycol (PG), Polyethylene Glycol (PEG), Butylene Glycol (BG), & Thylene Glycol (EG): PG, PEG, BG and EG are all petroleum derivatives that act as solvents, surfactants, and wetting agents. They can easily penetrate the skin, and are noted to inhibit skin cell growth and damage cell membranes in human tests. In fact, PG penetrates the skin so quickly that the EPA warns factory workers to avoid skin contact to prevent brain, liver, and kidney abnormalities. Propylene Glycol is what is used to carry the "active" ingredients in transdermal patches into the body. Propylene Glycol is used in anti-freeze, brake fluid, de-icer, paints, floor wax, laundry detergents, and tobacco, in addition to cosmetics, toothpaste, shampoos, deodorants, lotions, processed food, and many personal care products. It is known to cause eye, skin, and gastro-intestinal irritations, allergic reactions and rashes, nausea, headache, vomiting, and central nervous system depression. It also causes dry skin, which is ironic since it is commonly used as a humectant (to help retain moisture). Other side effects in animals exposed to PG include heart arrhythmia, stunted growth, decreased blood pressure, and even death. Butylene Glycol is now being used to replace PG in some personal care products, even though it is the only one of the glycols that has not been able to get on the FDA's GRAS List (Generally Recognized As Safe).

4. Petrolatum and Mineral Oil: Mineral oil is a derivative of crude oil and petrolatum is mineral oil jelly. Both are used industrially as lubricants. They are also widely used in lotions, creams, and other body care products. Mineral oil actually smothers the skin. It forms an oily film on the skin to lock in moisture, but traps in toxins and wastes, and clogs pores. It hinders normal skin respiration by keeping oxygen out, so it is actually drying to the skin. It can promote acne and skin photosensitivity, and slows down normal cell development, resulting in premature aging of the skin. Products that contain mineral oil and petrolatum actually create the very conditions they are intended to treat.

5. Imidazolidinyl Urea and Diazolidinyl Urea: These are the second most commonly used preservatives next to parabens. They have long been recognized as a primary cause of skin irritations. In addition, they release formaldehyde, a toxic chemical, at very low temperatures (just over 10°). Neither one is particularly good at inhibiting the growth of fungus, so they need to be combined with other preservatives, which just adds to the potential toxic load in a product.

6. DEA (Diethanolamine) MEA (Monoethanolamine) & TEA (Triethanolamine): Some alias names: Cocamide DEA or MEA, DEA-Cetyl phosphate, DEA Oleth-3 phosphate, Myristamide DEA, Stearamide MEA, Lauramide DEA, Linoleamide MEA, Oleamide DEA, TEA-Lauryl Sulfate. These chemicals and related ingredients are emulsifiers and foaming agents, widely used in a variety of cosmetic products, particularly bubble bath, bodywash, shampoo, soap and facial cleansers. Ethanolamines are eye and skin irritants. DEA is easily absorbed through the skin, and accumulates in body organs, even the brain. Animal tests show it causes damage to the liver, kidney, brain, spinal cord, bone marrow, and skin. Contact with the eyes can cause impaired vision. In 1998, the National Toxicology Program (NTP) did a research study showing a link between cancer in lab animals and DEA and certain DEA - related ingredients, when applied topically.

7. Butylated hydroxianisole (BHA) & Butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT): BHA and BHT are preservatives very commonly used not only in cosmetics and personal care products, but in food products. BHA is absorbed through the skin and stored in body tissues. BHT is harmful if ingested, inhaled or absorbed through skin. It causes eye and skin irritation, and is irritating to mucous membranes & upper respiratory tract. Effects may vary from mild irritation to severe destruction of tissue.

8. Phthalates: Phthalates are chemicals commonly found in cosmetic and personal care products; especially nail polish, perfumes, hair sprays, and lotions, as well as in clothes, household cleaners and deodorizers, baby toys, shower curtains, insect repellants, toothbrushes, food packaging, aspirin, medical tubing and fluid bags, gum, candy, biodegradable tampon injectors, and prescription medications. Both the CDC and NIOSH have been conducting ongoing studies for the past 5 years to evaluate the potentially hazardous effects of phthalates. Phthalates are regulated as toxic substances under environmental laws that limit their discharge into air, land, and water, but there are NO limitations on the amount of phthalates used in consumer products. Health effects of phthalates include damage to the liver and kidneys, birth defects, decreased sperm counts, testicular cancer, early puberty onset in girls, early breast development in girls and boys, and other reproductive disorders. Phthalates are also suspected to contribute to reduced fertility in males.

9. Synthetic Colors: Synthetic colors are used to make products more attractive, not more functional. They are usually listed on the label as FD&C or D&C, along with a color and number. (e.g. FD&C Yellow No. 5). Synthetic colors are typically derived from petroleum or coal, and are found in a wide variety of food products and pet foods, as well as in drugs, cosmetics, and personal care products. Most do not fade during processing and storing, giving them an advantage over natural coloring agents. In 1960, the Delaney anti-cancer clause was added to the FDA's FD & C Act, which prohibits marketing any color additive the agency has found to cause cancer in animals or humans, regardless of amount. Yet it has been proven in many animal lab tests that high doses of most synthetic dyes approved by the FDA are capable of causing various adverse reactions, including cancer. Regulators have faced a dilemma because technological advances have enabled scientists to identify smaller and smaller concentrations of a substance and conduct more sensitive toxicological tests. Are such tiny amounts a health threat? Scientists have yet to answer this question, and these synthetic dyes remain in many of the products we use daily. The FDA even says on its consumer website: "You may, however, want to avoid consuming huge quantities of any one color additive. Good sense is the best policy. As with many other food ingredients, don't overuse any one product. Practice everything in moderation." That is all well and good, but since most synthetic colors can potentially cause some sort of adverse reaction, even if we avoid heavy consumption of one, we are likely consuming others, which adds to the toxic load overall. It's best to simply avoid synthetic colors altogether.

10. Synthetic Fragrances: Fragrance chemicals are compounds that volatilize, or vaporize into the air - that's why we can smell them. They are added to products to give them a scent or to mask the odor of other ingredients. The volatile organic chemicals (VOCs) emitted by fragrance products can contribute to poor indoor air quality and are associated with a variety of adverse health effects. Exposure to fragrance chemicals can cause headaches, eye, nose, and throat irritation, rashes, hyperpigmentation of the skin, nausea, vomiting, coughing, forgetfulness, loss of coordination, dizziness, and other respiratory and/or neurotoxic symptoms. Many fragrance ingredients are respiratory irritants and sensitizers, which can trigger asthma attacks and aggravate sinus conditions. Fragrance chemicals are the number one cause of allergic reactions to cosmetics -- not only to the primary users, but also to those who breathe in the chemicals as secondhand users. Phthalates in fragrances are known to disrupt hormones and are linked in animal studies to reproductive impairments. Typically these chemicals are identified by the word "Fragrance" on the label. If you see it listed, don't buy it!

Shocking, isn't it? You are probably wondering where this information comes from. Well, it is publicly available, folks. I found all of the information to compile this list online. Some of the greatest resources I found are Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS's). All manufacturers of hazardous chemicals in the USA are required to file MSDS's by OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration). An MSDS "contains written or printed material concerning a hazardous chemical as prescribed by law," including information "needed to insure the safety and health of the user at all stages of [the chemical's] manufacture, storage, use, and disposal." There are several sites online where you can look up an MSDS (I used this one http://www.setonresourcecenter.com/MSDS/index.htm). Just enter the chemical name into the search and browse the results. The adverse affects are listed on the MSDS under: "Health Hazards Data". I also found information on the sites of the CDC (Centers for Disease Control), FDA (Food & Drug Administration), NTP (National Toxicology Program) and NIOSH (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, which is a division of the CDC).

The bottom line: if you want truly natural products, you have to do your homework, read labels, and make careful choices. You will likely find that it is quite difficult to find a product that does not contain at least one of the ingredients listed above. That is why I make and sell many of my own products, and for those that I can't make myself, I shop for products empowered with the knowledge of what to avoid. Even if you have to settle for a product that contains only one of the above ingredients, it's better than one that contains many or all of them! Be diligent, be informed, and be well!

©2004 Old World Apothecary www.oldworldapothecary.com