Written by Dr Mah Hussian-Gambles
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 make up 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 skincare products? 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 by the European Union. These include phthalates, commonly found in deodorants and perfumes, and linked to reproductive abnormalities in animals, petrochemical derived ingredients, some of which are now recognised as hormone disrupters, and can result in PMS, endometriosis and other hormonal dysfunctions.‘Alcohols’ in skincare have come under investigation, as most are petroleum derivatives and can be toxic. Skin lighteners such as Kojic Acid and Hydroquinone are known to cause cancer in laboratory animals. Many of the petrochemical based ingredients are 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.
Read the ingredient list?
Ingredient or INCI listing should be provided on all cosmetic and food packaging, and I would strongly advice against using any product without INCI listing on the packaging, if not available, they may be hiding something from the consumer! Ingredients are listed in the order of the most first, and least last. For example, creams and lotions will have ‘AQUA’ (water) as first ingredient as the product contains mostly water. Actives tend to be towards the bottom of the list as they are more expensive so manufacturers are likely to use less of these in a product. Similarly, preservatives come last on the list as they should be in the smallest amount in the final product. As a general rule, be aware of anything with a long name, especially if it sounds ‘scientific’ as it is likely to be a synthetic or has undergone some sort of chemical reaction. Natural ingredients tend to have Latin names e.g Carthamus Tinctorius.
Our bodies as chemical dumps
The environment we live in at the moment is polluted with potentially toxic chemicals, and all of what we touch and breath can go into our bodies and depress our immune system, cause allergies, chronic disease and even cancer. The skin is the largest organ in our bodies and despite the common medical belief that the skin is an effective barrier against environmental stress and chemicals, as a pharmacologist, it is clear to me that if this was the case, pharmaceutical companies wouldn’t be investing millions into skin delivery research and launching skin patches which deliver the hormone pill, nicotine, pain killers and even drugs for Alzheimer’s disease through the skin. Many substances do go through your skin other than water. Some of the larger molecules would not penetrate the skin very easily, but certainly, many of the chemicals found in cosmetic products actually do go right through the skin. These include skincare and body care products, colour make up, synthetic fragrances, hair dyes, sunscreens, self tanning products etc. I personally believe in the motto, Don’t put it on your skin if you are not willing to eat it.
Is organic the way forward?
Although there is no scientific evidence that organic food is better for our bodies than non-organic or natural alternatives, common sense dictates that anything grown without the use of synthetic fertilisers, pesticides, hormones and anti-biotics is bound to be better for you. Lets take a closer look at what exactly is ‘Organic’, which in my opinion is a step up in ‘purity standards’ from so called ‘Natural’.
It is difficult to define natural as there are many schools of thoughts on what is a natural ingredient. I believe, that for an ingredient to be deemed natural it must either be directly derived from a living organism via a sustainable process and free from chemicals, or is a mineral that has a proven safety record for use on and in the human body. Anything which starts life as natural and then undergoes some kind of chemical processing, should not be classed as natural. Natural and organic are basically the same, but an organic product is one that is made according to strict organic principles of agriculture & production and avoids the use of synthetic chemicals like pesticides, fertilizers and preservatives. Natural products, on the other hand may contain pesticides, fertilizers and other chemicals as they are not regulated as well as organic products. Organic ingredients been shown in many studies to contain more vitamins, nutrients and cancer-fighting anti-oxidants than non-organic food, and they avoid the use of artificial chemicals, pesticides and fertilisers. Organic ingredients are also produced without Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), antibiotics and growth-promoting drugs. Organic production methods are more sustainable and friendlier to the environment and wildlife as they rely on scientific understanding of ecology and soil science, whilst depending on traditional methods of crop rotation to ensure fertility, weed and pest control. In my opinion, Certified Organic products are the Gold Standard in Natural/Organic Skincare.
The market for organic food and drink is growing by about €4.5 billion a year. Organic Monitor estimates global sales of organic food and drink reached €32 billion last year. The organic cosmetics market is growing by about 20-30% a year, with most of the sales being from Europe and North America. It is anticipated that the same trend will follow in the Middle East and Far East. Organic cosmetics are now increasingly positioned as high-quality and premium products, where Hollywood celebrities like Madonna and Cameron Diaz confess to using them. Even designer labels like Stella McCartney have launched their own organic cosmetics. Eating organic food and using organic skincare can counteract the negative impact of environmental toxic load on our bodies. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that people who switch over to an organic lifestyle, see a dramatic improvement in their energy levels as well as an improvement in their skin tone, texture and general well being. Organic certified skincare products are therefore particularly suitable for people prone to skin sensitivities and allergies, as they would not contain any chemical irritants. However, bear in mind that natural/organic skincare products tend to contain natural essential oils as fragrances, which contain ‘sensitisers’ so for those who have very sensitive skins, either use a fragrance free organic skincare range, or do a patch test for 24 hours to find out if you have an allergy to the essential oils in the product.
The confused consumer
There is no doubt that the Natural/Organic industry is the fastest growing sector in the world, as a result, many companies are jumping on the Natural/Organic band wagon to sell their products by ‘Green-washing’ them as Natural and Organic. Some mislead the consumer by launching brands with the word Organic/Natural on the label, but once you check the ingredients, they only contain very small amounts of natural/organic. Others mix Natural/Organic ingredients with synthetic ones to reduce cost. A recent US study showed that many so called ‘Organic’ brands were found to contain 1-4 Dioxane, a cancer causing chemical, however, certified organic products did not contain 1-4 Dioxane.
Defenders of honesty and integrity in the organic products business have taken the matter in their own hands by suing numerous companies in the industry that use misleading labelling to deceive consumers. Each of the companies being sued by Dr. Bronner’s, are using potentially dangerous chemicals that don’t qualify as natural or organic. The lawsuit is meant to encourage the named companies to either reformulate their products to eliminate the petrochemical materials, or to change their labelling and stop using the words “organic” or “natural” on their products (http://www.naturalnews.com/023185.html).
To conclude, my advise to all those savvy consumers would be to purchase certified organic products (i.e. the whole product is certified, not just some of the ingredients). Be aware of ‘Certified Organic Ingredients’ as the final product may contain some harmful synthetic ingredients. As a general rule, be cautious of ‘Natural Products’, unless they are marked 100% natural – even this is scientifically debatable. Products manufactured in the EU and the US are more likely to be compliant with Cosmetics Safety Regulations as penalties for not complying can be severe. Always look out for well known and recognised accreditations/logos on the product, beware that many companies self certify their products! And lastly, always look at the ingredient list on the carton.