As you exfoliate, clean, moisturise, and dress yourself, a large selection of chemicals makes its way into your body through your skin. With the number of beauty products and cosmetics increasing exponentially each year, different brands have different ways of telling you – or not telling you – what goes into the cream you slather on your arms or the lipstick you use to decorate your pout. Food and drug administrative bodies in different countries oversee the usage and percentage of usage of chemicals in these products, but have little jurisdiction over generic nomenclature. The words “natural”, “non-toxic”, and “clean” are not legally regulated , when it comes to cosmetic labelling. In that sense, your body soap is “clean” inasmuch as it is not covered in dirt; your face cream can claim to be “non-toxic” inasmuch as it does not leave behind a trail of exhaust fumes.
Naturally, we exaggerate. The bottom-line? It’s best not to give in to wild hyperbole and tall claims, when it comes to buying products that you use every day. Here’s the first quick-and-dirty list of commonly used chemicals in cosmetics and the roles they play.
Parabens are preservatives that prevent bacterial growth in products which are required to have long shelf lives. Soaps, moisturisers, and shaving creams routinely contain parabens. Studies have confirmed that parabens are known to disrupt hormones and mimic oestrogen, which is thought to promote breast cancer. Often touted as the cosmetic industry’s favourite villain, it’s important to know that all parabens are not bad, neither has there been conclusive proof of their toxicity, in several cases. While Europe banned five kinds of parabens in a judgement in 2014, the most commonly used parabens – methylparaben, ethylparaben, butylparaben, and propylparaben – have not been banned. Notwithstanding, the movement against and away from parabens has led some cosmetic companies to switch to other preservatives like ethylhexylglycerin, which is a plant derivative, or phenoxyethanol, a naturally derived ether alcohol.
Petrochemicals are chemicals that are made from crude oil and natural gas. In cosmetics, they are used to form a slick layer over the skin and seal it off. So, while your lips and skin may feel soft and glossy, what petroleum or paraffin is actually doing, is choking the skin so it cannot breathe and hence cannot perform normally. Petrochemicals are known to cause an array of serious health issues like cancer and endocrine disruption. Studies have shown that oral and topical use of petrochemicals in rodents have resulted in kidney degeneration, nerve damage, and anaemia.
While the report card for petrochemical usage in cosmetics does not look good on the surface, it is important to note that less than 0.1% of total oil production goes into the making of cosmetic ingredients. Further, as in the case of most toxins, it is the percentage of the chemical used that counts, rather than whether it is used at all or not. Most food and drug administrative bodies detail the allowed percentage of chemicals, and any product that comes with the seal of approval from the respective administrative body in your country, indicates that its usage of the petrochemical in question is within the approved regulatory percentage. Your bottle of shampoo or nail varnish is most likely to list the petrochemical it uses as isopropyl, mineral oil, or carbomer.
Sodium lauryl sulphate or SLS is an anionic detergent and surfactant which is used in several personal care products from soaps, to shampoos, to toothpaste. To clear the air of jargon, it’s what puts the bubbles in your bubble bath and the foam in your toothpaste. SLS is an inexpensive and very effective foaming agent. Seems a little too convenient? It might just be. SLS can cause eye and skin irritation in animals and humans. It’s the reason why you try to keep the shampoo out of your eyes. It is also known to be hazardous to aquatic life.
SLS has often gained a worse reputation as a carcinogen, with people routinely keeping SLS-laden products at arm’s length. Fact is, SLS has never been proven as a carcinogen. It is, however, often confused with SLES – sodium lauryl ether sulphate or sodium laureth sulphate. Now, SLES is often polluted with a known carcinogen called 1,4-dioxane, which is a by-product of SLES’s manufacturing process. While neither product is winning any popularity contests, one has no documented case of being a carcinogen, while the other does.
To sum up, a moisturiser that contains parabens is best checked for which paraben it has. Petrochemicals are certainly not man’s best friend, but you might want to check what percentage of it on your lip balm makes it a confirmed enemy. And the toss-up with SLS might just be a question of personal ethics rather than life or death. The next time you’re out shopping for beauty products, look out for these chemicals and go armed with your own idea of what you’re willing to put in your body.