Halal Skincare: Beyond …
The saying for chocolates, ‘A moment on the lips = a life time on the hips!’ may be just as applicable to cosmetics, considering women on average may eat several tonnes of lipstick during their lifetime; up to 5lb per year of chemicals may get absorbed into the body as a result of putting cosmetics on every day and up to 60% of what we put on our skin can get absorbed into the body!
We scan food labels for ingredients, but how many of us take the time to do the same with personal products? Personal care products include skincare, bodycare, shampoos, hair conditioners, hair dyes, colour cosmetics, and other personal hygiene products such as antiperspirants, toothpaste and mouthwash. Many of these contain natural ingredients, but many can also have questionable (Mashbooh) ingredients with regards to health and religious compliance.
With an increasing global demand for Halal personal care products, and the complexity of ingredients used in these products, it would be naive for a Muslim consumer to look for just ‘pig free’ ingredients, which frankly are now few and far in between, thanks mainly to the Vegetarian/Vegan lobbying around the globe. For example, there are now plenty of Vegetable and Marine based collagen alternatives around. The demand for non-animal personal care ingredients also stems from people who are increasingly concerned about the ‘chemical nasties’ they may be putting on their skin, as well as diseases in certain animal species, such as BSE in cattle, foot and mouth disease and avian flu in poultry. This has prompted many consumers to buy animal free personal care products and supplements meaning ingredient manufacturers are now having to develop synthetic or vegetarian alternatives.
For a Halal consumer, the focus should also be on the non-active ingredients, which are used to ‘carry’ active ingredients in a formulation, such as emulsifiers (for mixing oil with water), preservatives, many of which are banned in the European Union for health reasons, colouring, foaming agents and even packaging. Some of the more commonly used personal care ingredients with dubious origins are discussed in this article.
It is important to remember that defining what is Halal, is far more complex than just “pork free” ingredients and Halal slaughter, and this can often be overlooked due to the fact that the focus has been largely on Halal food. There are a large number of religious questions associated with deciding what is, or is not Halal.
Perhaps, the most important factor in deciding whether or not a product or ingredient is Halal is the premise of preserving human life.
One of the most basic premise in Islam is to preserve human life, which inarguably is of utmost importance to Allah. Based on this, is it Halal to use skin lightening ingredients such as Hydroquinone or Kojic acid (Hydroquinone is banned from cosmetics in the EU because it causes skin cancer, and Kojic acid has been shown to cause cancer in laboratory animals). Technically speaking, both of these ingredients can be classed as Halal due to their non-animal source origin, however, in terms of religion, is it Halal for a Muslim to use ingredients which clearly can cause harm to their bodies?
Looking good on the outside has never been so hazardous for our health and well-being. Thousands of personal care products and cosmetics, have come under the microscope and some have now been banned in Europe. These include phthalates, commonly found in many personal care products including deodorants and perfumes, and linked to reproductive abnormalities and ‘feminising’ boys. They may appear on the ingredients list as Dimethyl phthalate (DMP), Diethyl phthalate (DEP), Butyl cyclohexyl phthalate (BCP), Di-n-pentyl phthalate (DNPP) etc. Phthalates are not of animal origin.
Similar to phthalates, many other petrochemical based ingredients can be classed as Halal due to their non-animal origin, but they also tend to be fat soluble and can go through the skin barrier, into your blood stream and end up being stored in your body’s fat cells. Have you ever wondered why following an aggressive weight loss programme, you end up with skin eruptions? It gets worse; these chemicals can also get stored in the fatty breast tissue, and passed onto your baby through breast feeding.
As you can see, identifying dubious or potentially Haram ingredients in the long list of personal care ingredients, is not very clear cut. Next, I will attempt to provide some basic information on modern personal care ingredients, explore some which may be of dubious nature and potentially Haram. As there are thousands of ingredients commonly used in personal care products, it is beyond the scope of this article to list them all. It is also impossible to ascertain whether they are of plant or animal origin. This information can only be obtained from the manufacturer of each ingredient, as well as a credible Muslim Halal certification body.
‘Alcohols’ in skincare have also come under investigation in the West, as most are petroleum derivatives and can be toxic. It takes a chemist to really know which of the ingredients in the personal care products, containing ‘alcohol’ are actually intoxicating and therefore Haram. If we go through some of the common ingredients with alcohol in the name in more detail we can see the complexity of the situation.
Benzyl alcohol is produced naturally by many plants and is commonly found in fruits and teas. It is also found in a variety of essential oils including jasmine, hyacinth, and ylang-ylang. It is used as a bactericide (kills bacteria) in personal care formulations and it does not cause intoxication, therefore it is classed as Halal, even though its chemical name contains the word ‘Alcohol’.
Stearyl alcohol, Cetearyl Alcohol, Myristyl Alcohol, Behenyl Alcohol and Cetyl alcohol are emulsifiers, meaning they help the oily ingredients in the formulation dissolve in the water phase to give the cream a smooth consistency. They tend to be white, waxy solids and are known as fatty alcohols, which occur naturally in some plants and animals. These could be Halal, even though the name suggests otherwise, because if ingested, they are not intoxicating. Cetyl Alcohol for example is a hard wax obtained usually from palm oil. However, there is no way of knowing if they are originally derived from animals or vegetables and thus a well recognized third party Muslim approval is of great importance.
Glyceryl Stearate is another common emulsifier and imparts a smooth feel on the skin. It is made by reacting glycerine with stearic acid (both can be of either animal or vegetable origin) and unless the source of both Glycerine and Stearic acid is known, glyceryl stearate can also be of doubtful origin.
Phenoxy ethanol is a commonly used bacteriocide in many preparations, including baby products as it is classed as fairly safe and gentle. Phenoxy ethnol is a thick syrup in appearance and made synthetically from petrochemicals, therefore it can be argued its Halal.
Personal care products containing these types of alcohols are still “alcohol-free”. The reason for the apparent confusion is the difference between the terms used by scientists and those used by the general public. To the layman, beer, wines and spirits, etc. contain alcohol; to the scientist, they contain ethanol. To the layman, alcohol is a single substance, but scientifically speaking the term describes a whole group of chemical substances or ingredients with differing properties.
Simple alcohols, like ethanol, are defined as having a general chemical formula of CnH2n+1OH, where n equals any number from 1 upwards. If n=1, the compound is CH3OH – methanol (often used as anti-freeze), or methyl alcohol. In the case of “alcohol” (ethanol), n=2 and the formula is C2H5OH. This group of chemicals is also known as ‘Aliphatic Alcohols’ and they cause intoxication when ingested. Furthermore, there is a religious ruling of its prohibition if ingested, and therefore it is classed as Haram.
In summary, the layman’s “alcohol” means “ethanol”, and products that are “alcohol-free” are actually “ethanol-free”. All the above products with names ending in alcohol normally are not edibles consumable and as such they are not considered khamr (wine). Hence, generally Fatwa’s consider them as halal for use in skin care products. In some skin care products, ethanol is listed on the label as “alcohol”, or “alcohol denat” and since it causes intoxication, we believe that it should be considered Haram.
Anti-ageing products is the fastest growing segment in the personal care industry. One of the more commonly used anti-ageing ingredient in cosmetic preparations is Collagen or Hydrolysed Collagen. Apart from skin application, it is also used to strengthen nails and hair. Collagen is derived from slaughterhouse animal carcass such as such as cows, pigs and sheep bones and cartilages. It can also be produced from fish bones and in this case potentially acceptable by Muslims. Marine based Collagen is a safer alternative for Muslims.
Botox, which on the surface appears to be Halal due to the origin being from a bacterial toxin, however, it is usually combined with pig derived ingredients for delivery as an injectable. Acetyl Hexapeptide or the commonly known Argireline, has same function as Botox. It protects the skin from wrinkling and ageing by acting as a natural muscle relaxant, but is vegetarian, a therefore a good alternative to Botox.
Other anti-ageing ingredients include Hyaluronic Acid, which is derived from Sodium Hyaluronate and is available in a form which is suitable for vegetarians. However, sometime Hyaluronic Acid is derived from chicken or other animal sources. Only the manufacturer, with a third party Muslim organization approval, can advice about the religious status of any of these ingredients.
Glycerine is perhaps one of the most commonly used ingredient in all personal care products after water. It is used as a humectant (attracts water to the skin) in anything from skin creams to shampoos and tooth paste. Glycerine can be obtained from vegetable source or can be of animal origin. Its best to go for Halal, Vegetarian or Vegan certified products if there is any doubt as to the origin of glycerine in your personal care products.
Polyethylene Glycol (recognisable as PEG in the ingredients list) and its derivatives Butylene Glycol, Ethoxydiglycol and Dipropylene Glycol etc are commonly used to help stop water and oil from separating. They are manufactured chemically and therefore, there should not be any concerns about their Halal status, but they are associated with skin sensitivities, toxicity and even potential carcinogenicity. When reacted with Stearic acid (either animal or vegetable source), they can form other ingredients used in personal care products such as Sorbitan Stearates, Sorbitan Oleate, Sorbitan Palmitate and Sorbitan Tristearate etc. As the origin of the stearic acid may be of animal or vegetable, these ingredients are dubious and should be avoided or would warrant further investigation by contacting the manufacturer or a Muslim Halal certifier.
Personal care products also contain silicones to impart a soft feel/touch to the formulation and subsequently the skin or hair. Examples of silicones include Dimethicone and Methicone. They are considered halal as they are silicone (mineral based) and chemically manufactured.
Other ingredients used in personal care industry are paraffin, or other micro crystalline waxes. These are synthetically manufactured ‘butters’ and not likely to be of concern from a Halal point of view. They are cheaper alternatives to natural cocoa butter or Shea butter and give hardness and used as an emollient in creams and lipsticks. Lanolin also falls in this category, and this is natural as its obtained from the wool of sheep and considered Halal.
Other ingredients worth mentioning are surfactants or foaming agents used in soaps, shampoos, detergents and even toothpaste. Sodium laureth sulfate, or sodium lauryl ethyl sulfate (SLES) and its derivatives, are found in many personal care products and are made by mixing sulphuric acid, monododecyl ester, and sodium salt. Monododecyl ester may be from coconut oil, palm oil or from an animal source. Because of this, it is considered doubtful or Mushbooh.
Traditional soaps can be made from Tallow, which is fat from animal source (usually cows, sheep or pigs). Vegetable alternatives originating from palm or coconut oil are readily available, if in doubt it is advisable to use Vegetarian approved products.
Lastly, we need to look at the ingredients which are used as preservatives in many personal care systems. All personal care formulations (unless they do not contain any water) need to be adequately preserved to keep the quality and extend shelf life. Those which do not contain preservatives can be dangerous as the product can grow fungi and bacteria and there have been cases of people going blind with a particular type of bacteria which grows in unpreserved face and eye creams.
Commonly used preservatives are listed below, and to the best of my knowledge are all from synthetic origin and suitable for Vegetarians and Vegans, however, I am personally doubtful whether some of them should be considered Halal due to their scientifically documented harmful nature.
Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and related chemicals are also nicknamed gender benders because they mimic the female hormone estrogen.
Methylchloroisothiazolinone and Methylisothiazolinone can trigger an immune system response that includes itching, burning, scaling, hives, and blistering of skin. They can also trigger an immune system response that includes asthma attacks or other problems with the lungs and airways.
Parabens are a family of chemicals including methyl paraben, ethyl paraben, propyl paraben, butyl paraben and isobutyl paraben. There are scientifically unfounded rumours that they may mimic female hormones, but there are plenty of scientifically credible studies to show that they are amongst the safest and gentlest preservatives around and do not mimic female hormones. They are of chemical origin, and found abundantly in nature on fruits and vegetables.
Imidazolidinyl urea and Diazolidinyl urea are cheaper preservative and work by slowly releasing formaldehyde in the formulation to kill any bacterial or fungal growth. Please note that Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen and a banned substance for use in personal care preparations in Europe.
In this article I have given a brief over view of commonly used ingredients in personal care products, this is just the tip of the iceberg. Even for chemists, it is virtually impossible to tell the origin of the ingredients unless they are trained as cosmetic scientists. For consumers, the best advice is to buy certified Halal, Vegetarian or Vegan products – the latter two may however contain alcohol. Contacting the manufacturer or a credible Muslim Halal authority with good knowledge of industrial chemistry are other options. It appears that current views on the use of Halal personal care products, are almost synonymous with the Halal food guidelines, with a focus on Halal slaughter and the type of animal used. Clearly for the personal care market this should not be the main focus and there is a need to be far more encompassing. For me personally, Halal guidelines should also embrace purity, quality and personal safety.
Dr Mahvash Hussain-Gambles © February 2010
All views in this article reflect the personal views of the author, in her individual capacity, and are based on available data at the time of writing the article. These do not necessarily represent the views of other Halal experts. No content of this document can be reproduced without prior express permission from the author.