A Case Against the “Harmful Ingredients” Hogwash
By Len Clements © 2000
There are two ways to sell a product: Explain to your potential customer why they should by yours, or why they shouldn’t buy someone else’s. The tough part is trying to find something wrong with every competing product. In the case of cosmetics and personal care products the task has been simplified by the commonalities of the various formulations. Make a case for avoiding Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS), Propylene Glycol, Glycerin, Alcohol, or Mineral Oil and you’ve eliminated about 95% of your competition. That’s exactly what a growing number of MLM companies are now attempting to do, and with success. However, there’s a problem – there’s no case.
This torrent of “Harmful Ingredients” propaganda is a phenomenon virtually exclusive to network marketing with the bulk of it traceable to one particular company, although several others have recently joined the battle to save us from the perils that lurk in our bathroom cabinet.1 The list of “dangerous” ingredients vary little from company to company. The primary targets are the aforementioned Propylene Glycol, Glycerin, Mineral Oil, Alcohol, SLS, and it’s close cousin Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES).
Sodium Lauryl Sulfate suffers a guilt by association with “engine degreasers” as does Propylene Glycol with “industrial antifreeze,” and other dirty, disgusting sounding applications. Yes, it’s true that the antifreeze in your car’s radiator is mostly Propylene Glycol, and the stuff the car wash uses to clean the grime from it contains SLS. But here’s a question that needs to be asked that no one seems to be asking – so what? Why is the fact that a certain substance is used for some other totally non-human application make it harmful to humans? When someone first discovered that baking soda can also reduce unpleasant odors, did cakes baked with this substance suddenly become harmful? After all, those cakes were now being baked with a “litter box deodorizer.” When you’re at the movies and you buy your obligatory cola and popcorn are you not eating “industrial packaging material” flavored with a “compost catalyst” and washing it down with a “battery corrosion remover?” After all, those are alternative uses for popcorn, the primary substance in butter flavoring, and cola respectively.
What’s more, most antifreezes used to be made with Ethylene Glycol. According to an article in the LA Times (1995), Ethylene Glycol that dripped from cars was found in the ground water below the streets of LA and was making the water toxic. A safer, non-toxic substitute needed to be found and that was Propylene Glycol. So, were shampoos that contained Propylene Glycol somehow more harmful right after some antifreeze manufacturers made the switch? Come on. Truth be told, the whole “industrial antifreeze” angle is nothing more that a psychological ploy. Think about it. Why is the word “industrial” even used here? Antifreeze is antifreeze whether you use it in a steamroller or your family car. Clearly, it’s to make it sound dirtier. The propagandists want you to associate moisturizing your skin with a Propylene Glycol laced lotion with rubbing dirty, grimy, green antifreeze on your face. It’s an illusion. It’s a mind game designed to create the perception of danger and disgust – and people are buying into it by the thousands.
Let’s follow this logic a bit further. Antifreeze isn’t entirely made up of Propylene Glycol, nor is engine degreasers all SLS. There’s certainly a lot of it in there, but not all. In fact, some antifreezes are about 99% Propylene Glycol. But, does that really make Propylene Glycol an “industrial antifreeze?” If you say Yes, then be aware the next time you take a shower that you’re bathing in blood! After all, blood is 99% water. Right? (Sorry if that was a gross analogy – hey, I could have used urine!). I’m not debating whether Propylene Glycol “is” antifreeze so much as I’m trying to point out that just because a vile substance that you’d never put on or in your body is mostly made up of another substance, that doesn’t necessarily mean that other substance would be bad for you. In fact, no where is there even a shred of evidence that these other uses for SLS or Propylene Glycol make them any more harmful to humans. It’s a scheme designed by the propagandists to make them seem more harmful. That’s all.
Another common substance found in numerous personal care products that has received surprisingly little attention considering it’s rap sheet is dihydrogen monoxide. Admittedly, this substance does seem to pose a legitimate danger. It’s gas is a by-product in the creation of nuclear power, it can cause excessive sweating and vomiting, it is abundant in tumors of terminal cancer patients, it’s also found in the tissues of vital organs of over 90% of all stroke victims, can kill an adult human in less than six minutes if inhaled, and is the primary component of acid rain. In fact, this substance is so lethal that it once killed over 900 people on a small island off the southern coast of Japan in less than 20 minutes! Should we be avoiding dihydrogen monoxide? That’d be pretty hard to do. It’s only the most abundant substance on the face of the Earth. Yes, dihydrogen monoxide is (how many of you saw this coming?)… water.
You see, anything can be made to sound like the most deadly substance ever discovered.
Let’s take a giant step back and look at the big picture. There are over six billion people on Earth, so let’s be pessimists and assume five billion wash there hair at least once a day. Most of the “harmful” ingredients in shampoo have been common components for over half a century. Do the math, folks. That’s over 100,000,000,000,000 (100 quadrillion) applications of these substances to human skin, yet not one bit of evidence exists that they have caused any harmful effect on even one single human being. Of all the maladies these “harmful” substances allegedly cause, you would think some doctor somewhere in the world would have directly linked just one to any of these substances by now.
Instead, the propagandists have had to resort to circumstantial evidence, and even this case is a flimsy one. One very common method used to convince prospective buyers that certain substances are “harmful” is to site the results of animal testing. For example, when SLS, Alcohol, Propylene Glycol, and various other common substances are applied to the skin of lab rats, their skin does become irritated. So, why should we not be concerned about putting these substances on our skin? Well, because you’re probably not going to go to a chemical supply company and buy raw, pure, SLS or Propylene Glycol, then shave a bald spot on your head, rub the stuff into the bald spot and leave it sit there all day, day after day, for a week or two! What happens to lab animals who are exposed to the raw substance over a prolonged period of time is not the same as what happens when a human applies a shampoo containing SLS that’s diluted as much as 100-to-one with other ingredients that is washed off in a matter of seconds (cinnamon oil will burn the skin in its undiluted form, so should we avoid Hot Tamales candy, too?). Besides, how many times do we hear about promising results in cancer or AIDS research based on positive results in animal studies that never end up benefiting humans? In fact, the vast majority of positive animal studies don’t transfer to humans, so why, at least according to some personal care product marketers, should we assume that any, if not all, negative results will transfer to humans? I’m not saying it won’t, but the fact a rat got a rash certainly offers no proof a human will. Nor would it even if the rat were to experience cancer, blindness, birth defects, brain damage or any of the other ominous, alleged risks associated with these “harmful” substances.
One marketer of “safe” products sited the exceptionally high rate of illness among salon workers. The implication being, they have their hands immersed in lotions and shampoos laced with so many harmful ingredients. However, again there is no scientific evidence that these substances cause illness in humans, but the prolonged exposure to the fumes from finger nail polish and polish remover have been found to cause numerous ill effects. What’s the first thing you smell when you walk into a salon? It’s not the SLS in the shampoo their using.
Another common scare tactic is to site the alleged increase in cancer rates over the past few years. According to one well traveled piece of e-mail propaganda, 1 in 8000 contracted cancer in the 80’s, and 1 in 3 in the 90’s. Even if this were true, to suggest toxins in our air, water and soul are somehow less responsible that an ingredient in our shampoo is ridiculous in itself. However, the cancer stats aren’t even true. According to both the American Cancer Society2 and National Cancer Institute3 the combined occurrence rates for all forms of cancer has dropped by an average of almost 1% per year every year of the 90’s.4 And that’s in spite of a dramatic increase in the over-50 population and significantly better detection techniques. A related, an even more desperate piece of propaganda states that over twice as many people get cancer today that 100 years ago. While this is likely true, I suspect it has more to do with the fact that cancer rates increase dramatically after age 40, and that we live twice as long today, than it does with the introduction of “harmful” substances in our shampoo.
Propagandists also love to quote a speech given by Senator Edward Kennedy5where he states that a study done by the General Accounting Office (GAO) “reported that more than 125 ingredients used in cosmetics are suspected of causing cancer.” First, “cosmetics” is only a subset of all personal care products. Second, “suspected” does not necessarily mean they cause cancer, or that there is even evidence that they may cause cancer. Third, not only could I not locate such a study (I visited one of the largest government depositories of archived GAO reports dating back to 1976)6, but three different staff members of the GAO, including the Associate Director of the Health Education and Human Services Division (the division of the GAO which would have performed such a study) have no memory of any such study. This isn’t the only example of Kennedy’s words from this speech being misused by propagandists. They’ve also used an example given by Kennedy where he describes how a six year old girl’s neck and ears received second degree burns after her mother applied a common hair care product. As I recall this news report7, the mother applied a hot curling iron to the girl’s hair after the flammable hair product had been applied. The hair product didn’t cause the burns, fire did! Kennedy also allegedly described how a woman “had her cornea destroyed” by a mascara product. That’s not what Kennedy said (I have the transcript of the speech). He said her cornea was destroyed by a “mascara wand.”
Sodium Lauryl Sulfate
Dr. Keith Green, PhD, DSc, of the Medical College of Georgia is another individual the propagandists love to quote. Allegedly, Dr. Green’s studies on SLS found that by dropping small amounts into the eyes of rabbits the SLS entered the tissues of the heart, brain and lungs within a matter of minutes. According to several e-mail messages and on-line statements, Dr. Green’s research has also linked SLS with cancer and eye damage in humans, specifically children. Not only is none of this so, Dr. Green has responded publicly to denounce the rumors about SLS, going so far as to call them “absolutely ridiculous.” 8 He goes on to say, “Like any other chemical, it is the manner of usage that is important. As long as you don’t rub it all over your body and reapply it every hour for 24 hours, it’s perfectly safe.” Dr. Green did confirm that he studied the effects of SLS on lab rabbits and that the substance did enter the tissues of vital organs, “but in very minute amounts (and) all of it washed out in 96 hours.” Furthermore, he stated, “the eye stayed pristine. There was no redness and no irritation. There were no toxic effects.” He has also vehemently denied that his studies ever involved children.
Not only are there few credible authorities who support the “harmful ingredients” claims (virtually all have a financial interest in “safe, non-toxic” alternative products), but the list of doctors and scientists who scoff at the propaganda is quite lengthy. Dr. Andrew Weil, author, speaker, and noted authority on wellness and anti-aging, stated “I’ve been getting a lot of questions about sodium laurel sulfate and, frankly, I’m at a loss to know where this concern comes from… I found repeated instances of unsubstantiated, alarmist claims coming mostly from the purveyors of natural shampoos.” Dr. Peter Panagotacos, MD, a board certified dermatologist, stated he “saw no problem” with SLS. Dr. Ed Friedlander, MD, states “You may use your shampoo and toothpaste without worrying about sodium lauryl sulfate.” Dr. Ronald DiSalvo, the designer of the Paul Mitchell line of salon products and past head of the R&D department of Redkin, states “The unethical marketer picks on the most popularly used surfactants like SLS and SLES. They’ll damn these materials, erroneously extrapolating bits and pieces of information from a study or two that really has little if anything to do with rational cosmetic ingredient usage, and then misstate such information for their own devious purposes. According to the Cosmetic, Toiletry, and Fragrance Association (CTFA), SLS is “safe as presently used in cosmetic products.”9 Even the American Cancer Society has went to the defense of SLS. They created a section on their web site titled “Debunking the Myth”10 in which they disavow any known link between SLS and cancer going so far as to label such claims “radical… misleading… propaganda.” According to Health Canada, SLS has a “history of safe use in Canada… Health Canada considers SLS safe for use in cosmetics… you can continue to use (products) containing SLS without worry.”11 The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)12, the National Toxicology Program (NTP)13 and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC)14 have all declared SLS and SLES as being non-carcinogenic (doesn’t cause cancer). And yes, even our own FDA has classified SLS and “GRAS” (Generally Regarded as Safe).15
The “SLS causes cancer” myth likely developed as a mutation of another somewhat flimsy claim. According to some, SLS can react with Diethanolamine (DEA) and other related substances commonly found in shampoo and form nitrosamine. Some nitrosamines are animal carcinogens. However, according to Dr. Jerry McEwen, Vice President of Science for the Cosmetic, Toiletry and Fragrance Association, “DEA does not react with SLS or SLES to create nitrosamines.” More on this issue in the upcoming discussion of DEA.
According to Dr. Ed Friedlander MD16, board certified in both anatomic and clinical pathology, another possible catalyst to the SLS/Cancer myth might be the fact that SLS is routinely used to solubilize chemicals used in cancer experiments before injecting them into animals. Perhaps someone read the list of substances being injected and mistook the innocent solubilizer for the active ingredient being tested.
SLS has also been accused of causing cataract formation in the lens of the eye. Technically, this is true. Dr. Friedlander states that SLS is indeed used in cataract experiments. They take the transparent lens from lab animals and dunk it in concentrated detergent. Not surprisingly, the lens proteins were rendered translucent. However, the lens is deep within the eye and wouldn’t be exposed even if you were to splash pure SLS into it. “Either somebody misunderstood the work, or somebody is willfully deceiving the public,” states Dr. Friedlander.
An even more ridiculous example of the lengths the propagandist will go to generate fear in consumers is this statement: “Almost all toothpastes uses SLS as a major ingredient, and not coincidentally warns it should be kept out of reach of children. ‘In case of accidental ingestion…contact a poison control center immediately,’ reads a toothpaste warning. In fact, it’s been reported that accidental toothpaste ingestion by children results in 11,000 calls to poison centers – the leading cause of all their calls.” Read this propagandist warning again, carefully. Notice, no where do they actually say SLS has poisoned anyone, or is even poisonous. The anonymous author of this internet tripe is a master at linguistic slight of hand. Yes, SLS is in many toothpastes, and yes, the toothpaste company’s attorneys have advised them to place an overly protective warning on the label. And yes, many kids love the taste of flavored toothpastes, so some will attempt to eat it right from the tube. And yes, I’m sure 11,000 parents called poison centers (most because junior accidentally swallowed a little of it, and were probably told to give him a glass of milk), but that certainly doesn’t mean 11,000 kids were poisoned by SLS! Clearly, the intent of the author is to make you think they were.
I’m focusing on SLS more than any other allegedly harmful substance because that’s the one that seems to take the most heat (ironically, it’s the one with the weakest case against it). But what about all those other dreaded ingredients?
Propylene Glycol is probably a close second in the “harmful ingredients” hit parade. Propylene Glycol is used in personal care products as a binder to prevent freezing in low temperatures (that’s why it makes a good antifreeze!), and to assist in keeping the product blended. Some claim Propylene Glycol is a humectant (attracts moisture) while others claim it’s primarily a preservative – so, actually, there seems to be quite a few benefits to this substance. It is not only found in cosmetics and personal care products, it’s in many food items and is even used in many medications.
Most propagandists will cite the Material Safety Data Sheet on Propylene Glycol which advises “causes irritation – avoid contact with eyes, skin.” I’ve seen several references to the MSDS allegedly warning that Propylene Glycol can damage the liver and kidneys. The fact is, the only MSDS I reviewed that even mentioned this only cautioned that accidental ingestion of pure Propylene Glycol can aggravate existing kidney conditions. What’s more, some of these Data Sheets employ a rating system to show relative hazard levels. A “4” is an “Extreme Hazard,” where as a “0” means “No Hazard.” Propylene Glycol’s hazard rating for skin contact is a “2” (Moderate), again meaning direct, prolonged contact with pure Propylene Glycol. It’s “health” hazard rating was ZERO 17.
This is an appropriate time to briefly discuss Material Safety Data Sheets. The assumption by some consumers is that these are documents produced by some federal agency, and one data sheet is produced for each substance. Not true. MSD Sheets are prepared by chemical manufacturers in an effort to educate users as to safe method of use, toxicity, proper disposal, chemical and physical properties, and other potential hazards, if any. These Data Sheets are reviewed by the company’s legal department and, like toothpaste warnings, they are usually written in a very conservative, overly protective manner. In other words, the hazards described in MSD Sheets are generally overstated by design.
The desperation that some marketers of “safe” products exhibit in maligning this substance is evident in this quote: “Year after year these ‘beautifying’ creams assault the hair and skin with Propylene Glycol, and the end result is always the same – wrinkles and dull, dry, putty like skin.” Um, I believe that’s the end result of getting old! I hope they’re not blaming that on Propylene Glycol, too.
Here’s another blatant and grossly misleading scare tactic: “The recommended method of storage for undiluted Propylene Glycol is in an explosion-proof refrigerator!” So, what’s the point here? If we use facial cleansers with Propylene Glycol our face might blow up? According to the MSDS not only is Propylene Glycol not explosive, it’s barely flammable! (Flammability is rated a 1).
Not all attacks come from internet authors selling “safe” alternatives. Even Forbes Magazine has become a willing propagandist tool. In an article titled “Alcohol-free,”18 author Stephan Herrera tells the story of “crusader” Mark Wilson, who in 1995 successfully lobbied for child-resistant caps on mouthwash containing more than 3% alcohol (and rightfully so since some brands are as much as 54 proof!). However, Wilson didn’t stop there. He’s now trying to get Propylene Glycol banned outright. According to Herrera, Propylene Glycol is “really nothing more than alcohol… similar enough to the alcohol in booze that it can cause many of the same problems… inebriation, liver damage, cardiorespiratory arrest and violent nausea.” He also mentions the fact that the FDA “curiously” banned the use of Propylene Glycol in cat food, yet allows it in children’s medicine with concentrations four times higher. Herrera goes on to state “If Propylene Glycol appears high on the list of ingredients, that tells you there is a lot of it in the product.” It also tells us Mr. Herrera didn’t do his homework. Ingredients in over-the-counter medicines and personal care products are listed in order of prevalence only. The first ingredient listed (usually water in many cases) can make up as much as two-thirds of the bottle’s content. The third or fourth ingredient on the list (of usually over a dozen) could be less than 5% of the contents. What’s more, any chemistry student could tell you that “alcohols” are a broad class of organic compounds that occur naturally in plants and animals in addition to being synthetically produced. In fact, Glucose, Fructose, and table sugar could be chemically classified as alcohols19. Not only that, if Propylene Glycol was really the same thing as Ethanol (the kind of alcohol in booze) would we be allowed to fill our car radiators with it!? I mean, jeez – let’s use our heads here. Also, some chemical compounds are metabolized differently in animals than in humans. Dogs can’t eat chocolate. Acetaminophen (Tylenol) is poisonous to cats. Propylene Glycol can cause damage to red blood cells in felines (it can not in humans)20. That’s the only reason the FDA banned it in cat food.
It should also be noted (as Herrera did in his Forbes article), that the article’s subject, Mr. Wilson, is the sole owner of a company that makes a product called “Zeffr.” Guess what Zeffr is? That’s right. According to Mr. Wilson, it’s a “safe” alternative to Propylene Glycol.
Paula Begoun, author and publisher of several best-selling books on the cosmetics industry states, “I have seen several studies indicating that Propylene Glycol is not a problem as it is used in cosmetics, while I have seen no studies indicating the opposite.”21
Some of the attacks on Propylene Glycol have been based on unique situations where individuals suffered allergic reactions. Of course, people can be allergic to literally anything. According to two independent researchers, J.O. Funk and H. I. Maibach, “True allergic reactions to Propylene Glycol are uncommon and the clinical significance has probably been overstated”22 ( I wonder who they were referring to?). There were additional studies on allergic reactions to Propylene Glycol. In two separate tests of 104 individuals (human individuals), only one person had an “irritation response.”23
The Agency for Toxic Substances states “Propylene Glycol is generally considered to be a safe chemical.” The FDA has classified Propylene Glycol as GRAS (Generally Regarded as Safe). The Cosmetic Ingredient Review board (CIR)24, a group of independent scientists and doctors who are top authorities in various industry specialties, reviewed Propylene Glycol and published their findings in the American Journal of Toxicology (1994). Their conclusion? “Safe for use in cosmetics in concentration of up to 50%.” PG typically makes up 1-5% of a product’s formulation. This expert panel found that it would still be safe if half the bottle were pure Propylene Glycol! They also found that Propylene Glycol was not carcinogenic.
The American Chemistry Council, a trade organization serving chemical manufacturers, perhaps best sums up the issue of Propylene Glycol safety with this comment: “Propylene Glycol has been used since 1920 in a variety of consumer product applications. Due to its wide use, it has been extensively studied for many different health effects, but from a toxicology and regulatory viewpoint, Propylene Glycol continues to have wide recognition as a product of low concern. The battery of toxicology testing performed on Propylene Glycol includes acute, subchronic, and lifetime exposures of laboratory animals to Propylene Glycol. In addition, specific tests to identify potential effects on genetic material, reproductive capacity and developing organisms have all been conducted on Propylene Glycol. The overall evaluation of the test results suggests that Propylene Glycol is safe for human use.”
Here’s a common substance that’s used as a humectant to not only keep the skin moist, but is primarily used in some personal care products to keep the product moist.
Since the propagandists can’t seem to find anything to base an adverse medical condition on, they’ve instead went this rout: “The truth is, sometimes glycerin can help to moisturize the skin and hair – but it often does so by drawing moisture from the deeper skin layers to rehydrate the surface. Obviously, this is like drying the skin from the inside out!” Obviously? Really? Not only is this not obvious, it ridiculous. Think about it. Glycerin accounts for a small potion of the moisturizing ingredients you’re applying to your skin. Are they actually claiming that little amount of Glycerin is going to pull more moisture from the skin than that gob of lanolin, aloe, jojoba butter, and numerous other moisturizing substances are going to put in it? What’s more, in most parts of the world the air is rich with moisture. So, are they suggesting that this small amount of Glycerin is pulling moisture from the air and pulling moisture from the skin and creating, what?, a layer of water on the surface of your dry skin? I’m confused.
Dr. McEwen agrees. “This type of statement is absurd. It shows a substantial lack of sophistication and understanding.” Although he agreed that Glycerin has the potential to draw moisture from the skin, “The product would have to be pure Glycerin to draw more from the skin than to it.” He further states, “Glycerin has been used in cosmetics for ages. The reason it’s so popular is that consumers need and want the characteristics it provides.”
The argument against alcohol in skin care products is probably the most irrational of all. The knock on alcohol is that it’s a drying agent, so what is it doing in skin moisturizing products? Actually, most alcohols are drying agents. However, alcohol is not installed into moisturizing formulations as an active, beneficial ingredient, it’s only in there, in minute amounts, as a blending agent so the ingredients don’t separate in the bottle. And those ingredients it keeps blended are primarily moisturizers! In other words, claiming that using a skin cream that contains alcohol will dry the skin is tantamount to saying if you put a pinch of sugar into a pound of salt it will make the salt taste sweet! Doesn’t this not make sense?
The above point is also assuming that the type of alcohol in cosmetic products is ethanol, the type that can be used as a drying agent. It’s not! The type of alcohol used in the vast majority of skin care products is called “fatty alcohol” which has moisturizing properties!
If you have any doubt about the foolishness of this bit of propaganda, try this simple test: Take any skin cream that contains alcohol and mix it with an equal amount of pure alcohol. Then, take this solution that now consist of slightly more than 50% pure alcohol and spread a little of it on your arm. Wait a few minutes (it’s okay, alcohol doesn’t cause skin cancer – at least, not yet) and what you will find is a spot on your arm that’s still moist!
If you’re still not convinced, then better stop letting your kids drink root beer. There’s trace amounts of alcohol in most brands (minute, residual amounts left over from the manufacturing process). Based on the propagandist’s logic, you’re nine year old could be sited for SUI (Skateboarding Under the Influence).
Mineral Oil (Petrolatum)
The basis for avoiding products with mineral oil in them is based on a single premise: Skin needs to absorb oxygen and mineral oil can “suffocate” the skin by coating it with an oil barrier.
First of all, most human skin is already oily. In fact, it’s loaded with natural oils. Saying that putting mineral oil on your skin will cause an oily film to cover it is kind of like saying putting snow on an ice cube will make it cold. Even if the mineral oil did temporarily block air from reaching the skin, how long do you think that effect will last before the oil barrier begins to break down? Minutes? A swim in the family pool or a leisurely soak in the tub will block oxygen from reaching much more skin surface for a longer period of time. I guess a bubble bath would be downright deadly – you’re suffocating most of your skin and soaking in Sodium Lauryl Sulfate! Also, again, keep in mind that the mineral oil is usually only a part of the entire substance you apply to your skin, so the opportunity for it to be thick enough to completely block oxygen from reaching the skin is remote.
One internet (where else) based argument against Mineral Oil went so far as to invoke the urban legend about the actress who was painted gold in the James Bond movie Goldfinger. During filming the actress died of asphyxiation, you see, because the gold paint that covered over 90% of her body suffocated her skin. That actress, Shirley Eaton, went on to appear in several more movies. She didn’t really die. She didn’t even get sick.
Another alleged unhealthy side effect of mineral oil sealing the skin surface is that it can cause a “flooding” of the skin by holding in large amounts of moisture. Okay. So, what about products that contain mineral oil and alcohol and Glycerin? Will it flood the skin, or dry the skin? I’m confused again.
When questioned about this claim, Dr. McEwen commented “Some of these claims are hard to refute only because they are so ludicrous. Every system in your body operates on a fluid medium. You can’t ‘flood’ the body’s biology.” He goes on to explain that Mineral Oil will hold water beneath the skin surface, but the result is a slight plumping of the skin cells. “That’s a good thing” he says. After all, that is the objective of most moisturizing creams. They don’t really eliminate wrinkles, but the “appearance” of wrinkles by plumping up the cells within the epidermis (outer layer of the skin).
Alpha Hydroxy Acid
Alpha Hydroxy, glycolic, lactic, and other acids are generally referred to as AHAs. They are used to exfoliate the dead, dry or damages outer layer of skin and expose the younger skin cells. The result is a smoother skin surface and a reduction in fine wrinkles and minor blemishes.
The propagandists will tell you that this outer layer of skin protects the under layer from “harsh, damaging environmental agents.” They claim, “Use of AHAs could make you age much faster. You could look better today but it may not be such a pretty sight in ten years. Your outer layer of skin is your first line of defense. Everything should be done to make it healthy and keep it, not lose it!”
First let’s look at this logically. If the young, second layer of skin will be exposed to “harsh, damaging agents” by removing the top layer, isn’t the top layer also being exposed to these same damaging agents? So, are we to maintain this damaged outer layer of skin to protect the newer second layer from becoming – the damaged outer layer? If we should try to keep the outer layer healthy rather than lose it, well, why can’t we remove it then apply the same health maintaining regimen to the new, fresh second layer? Once again, I’m confused.
Author Paula Begoun states “Revealing new skin and improving cell turnover rates can absolutely improve the appearance of skin. That is the whole purpose behind facial peels and laser resurfacing. It is not dangerous; if anything, it removes potential cancerous skin growths.” The bottom line, she says, is that “Sun damage causes thickened, uneven skin, and getting that stuff off the face is good, not bad.”
AHA have been scrutinized by the FDA 25. They’ve just completed two studies to assess the safety of AHA and the conclusion was, put in laymen’s terms, your skin is more susceptible to sun damage if you remove the old, outer layer. In other words, if you’re using an Alpha Hydroxy Acid based product you might get sunburned a little sooner. The FDA’s recommendation? Protect your skin. The CIR also reviewed AHA. Their concern was the same as was their recommendation: Use sun protection.
Although not with AHA specifically, I have had personal experience with similar exfoliating products. From the age of 12 to 18 I was prescribed a topical vitamin E product for acne that would literally cause thin sheets of skin surface to roll off my face. Almost six straight years of treatments (most of them spent on a baseball diamond under the blazing sun), and today, at age 42, I not only have nary a wrinkle (in fact, I’ve been carded for wine purchases twice this year), but the horrible case of acne I had during those years has left virtually no scaring.
Diethanolamine (DEA), Triethanolamine (TEA), and Monoethanolamine (MEA) are amino alcohols used in cosmetics as emulsifiers, thickeners, and detergents. The nitrosation of the ethanolamines may result in the formation of N-nitrosodiethanolamine (NDELA), which has been shown to be carcinogenic in lab animals.
In English, these substances can react with other ingredients in shampoo or cosmetic products and form nitrosamines. And yes, high doses of nitrosamines ingested over prolonged periods have been shown to cause cancer in rats and mice. Not only that, but according to some propagandists SLS and SLES are two common ingredients that ethanolamines can react with to form nitrosamines. What’s more, a study by The National Toxicology Program (NTP) in 1998 found that repeated applications of pure DEA to mouse skin caused liver and kidney cancer.
According to the web site of a well known propagandist, in a recent edition of “CBS This Morning” Dr. Samuel Epstein, professor of environmental health at the University of Illinois claimed “Repeated skin applications of DEA-based detergents resulted in a major increase in the incidence of two cancers.” According to Dr. Epstein, the NTP report stated that “The mainstream U.S. industry has been unresponsive, even to the extent of ignoring an explicit warning by the Cosmetic, Toiletry and Fragrance Association (CTFA) to discontinue uses of DEA.”
Sounds like DEA may be guilty as charged. Or, maybe not. Before reaching a verdict, let’s hear from the defense.
First, MEA will not react with nitrosamines and create nitrates 26. This is only true for DEA and TEA. Furthermore, according to the CTFA and Dr. McEwen, “amines” must react with a “nitrocating agent” to form potentially carcinogenic nitrosamines, and although DEA and TEA are both amines, SLS and SLES are not nitrocating agents and can not react with DEA or TEA to form nitrosamines. Even the nitrates (a nitrocating agent) used as a preservative in bacon are not carcinogenic unless it reacts with “amines” which are generally not found in bacon products (in other words, as long as you don’t mix your bacon and shampoo together, you’re okay). What’s more, Dr. McEwen states, “Absorbic Acid would block the effect.” Absorbic Acid is a common ingredient in cosmetic products. Also, once again, we’re talking about a study done on mice. After reviewing the NTP study, the FDA stated “The NTP study did not establish a link between DEA and the risk of cancer in humans. The Agency (FDA) believes that at the present time there is no reason for consumers to be alarmed based on the use of these substances in cosmetics.”27
According to the CTFA, the NTP study was suspect.28 DEA was applied to the shaved backs of both rats and mice. Rats can’t lick their backs. Mice can. The rats never got cancer. The mice, who were able to eat the DEA, did. What’s more, the mice were obese, the rats weren’t. Also, mice from different strains were tested and only one particular strain contracted cancer. However, just to be safe, don’t go to a chemical supply company and buy pure DEA and eat it.
Every other test for toxicity conducted by the CIR found that “DEA was not a hazard as used in cosmetics.” Contrary to Dr. Epsteins claim regarding the NTP report, the CTFA explicitly denies ever warning against the use of DEA. The Cosmetic Ingredient Review board found “DEA to be safe when used as directed. Since no evidence that products containing DEA have been unsafe for consumers, it would be unnecessarily alarming for the news media to suggest there is a health risk.”
The well known propagandist’s version of the CBS interview with Dr. Epstein is based on comments taken totally out of context. Although Dr. Epstein did take an anti-DEA stance during this interview, his comments regarding “two forms of cancer” were related to the NTP study on mice, not humans. Reread the quote above and note how the propagandist left that part out creating the impression that the doctor was talking about people.
Finally, the International Agency for Research on Cancer found “no evidence of cancer risk in humans.”
It should also be noted that the DEA/cancer scare originated in the 1970’s. This is not a recent discovery based on the NTP research. It’s old news.
Miscellaneous Internet Rumors
If I were to attempt to debunk every piece of internet propaganda relating to “harmful” personal care products, this would be a very long article (and it’s already too long). Here are just a couple of the most recent internet myths orbiting cyberspace:
Sunscreens can cause temporary blindness.29
According to the CTFA, this is “typical of internet rumors notorious for inaccurate and false information. There is no evidence, scientific or otherwise, that any such harmful effects have ever resulted from using sunscreens.” The American Academy of Ophthalmology defined the e-mail as “erroneous and alarmist.” Neither the Poison Control Center or the FDA have ever heard of anyone being blinded by sunscreen. When asked what someone should do if sunscreen does get into the eyes, the American Academy of Dermatology responded, “Wash it out.”
Antiperspirants are the “leading cause” of breast cancer.30 The CTFA responds: “This anonymous e-mail is nothing else but an unsubstantiated internet rumor that has no factual basis.” The American Cancer Society stated, “There have been many extremely thorough epidemiological studies of breast cancer risk and they have not found antiperspirant use to be a risk factor for breast cancer, much less the ‘leading cause’ of the disease.” Scientists at the National Cancer Institute “are not aware of any research to support a link between the use of underarm antiperspirants or deodorants and the subsequent development of breast cancer.” The FDA also does not have any evidence or research to support the rumor.
Inaccuracy and Hypocrisy
Making bogus attacks on cosmetic ingredients in an effort to sell “safe” alternatives in not a new marketing invention. Indeed, it’s existed for as long as there’s been cosmetics. For exmaple, about 30 years ago a major hair care product company ran ads touting the fact their hair spray contained none of an allegedly toxic substance called PVP. Thing is, PVP was originally invented as a blood plasma extender and had been pumped through the veins of hundreds of thousands of people for many years without any ill effect. How then could there possibly be any danger in applying it to one’s hair? What’s even more ironic is that it was eventually revealed that the company’s products did, in fact, contain PVP and they just didn’t list it on the label.
What those companies who are hawking “safe alternative” products today really need to do is get together and coordinate their propaganda. As I visited the web sites of the various marketers of these products, I was amazed at how they stepped all over each other in their efforts to expose their competitor’s “harmful” ingredients.
By far the most common “safe alternative” to SLS is Ammonium Lauryl Sulfate. But according to one propagandist, “Ammonium Lauryl Sulfate is significantly more irritating that SLS and cannot be complexed (blended with other ingredients) to reduce its irritation potential. It should definitely be avoided.” 31Yet another lists “America’s Most Unwanted: Cosmetic Ingredients You Should Avoid!” Within that list are “harsh cleansers like Ammonium Lauryl Sulfate.”32
Dr. Doris Rapp, during her cassette tape presentation “How Toxic is Your Shampoo,”33 claims that different kinds of parabens can cause an estrogenic (feminizing) effect in men and can cause liver damage. Ironically, Dr. Rapp is a hired gun for a major MLM company who is in direct competition with the MLM company that initiated the “harmful ingredients” campaign – which also touts two forms of common parabens in several of their personal care products.
Companies who like to promote the “all natural” angle will claim Ammonium Lauryl Sulfate is a natural substance derived from coconut oil. However, as Paula Begoun explains, “Ammonium Lauryl Sulfate is the salt of a sulfuric acid compound… Associating it with coconut oil, a far-removed organic source, just makes for better, though misleading, marketing lingo.” Many of the sellers of “alternative” products claim to have “all natural ingredients” as if to suggest that makes their products better, or safer. Of course, opium and poison ivy are also natural substances. Also, plant oils decompose faster than mineral oils thus require a higher concentration of preservatives and fragrance. The fatty (saturated) acids that are often contained in “natural” plant extracts and oils can, in fact, clog the pores and cause acne. What’s more, according to Begoun, many plant derived substances can cause skin irritation, allergic reactions, skin and/or sun sensitivity, such as geranium oil, grapefruit, lavender oil, papaya, and sage. All of which are found in the formulations of many “alternative” products (including the MLM company most responsible for the “harmful ingredient” propaganda).
A front runner for the “most ridiculous” approach to attacking non-natural, allegedly harmful chemicals in cosmetics are the laughable comments such as: “I can’t even pronounce most of the ingredients in my shampoo. It’s scary!” As I listen to seemingly intelligent, rational folks make exclamations such as this, I wonder, do they actually believe that the number of syllables in an ingredient’s name somehow correlate to it’s level of toxicity? Ironically, these same people are distributors for a company who’s “safe” products contain Methylehloroisothiazolinone and Cocamidopropyl Hydroxysultaine. I certainly hope these folks don’t take their “long name” paranoia too far and attempt to rid their bodies of Olygomer Proanthocyanin (Picnogenol) or Dehidroespiandrosterone (DHEA, a life sustaining hormone).
The aforementioned Dr. Rapp34, a doctor of pediatrics and board certified in allergy and environmental medicine, is a well respected authority in her field. Her efforts are quite noble in every other area, however I think she diminishes herself by trying to hock products for an MLM company. To that end, during her live presentation she invokes most of the propaganda already discussed in this article. However, she goes even further. Dr. Rapp suggests that the cosmetic industry today is the tobacco industry of tomorrow. She suggests the manufacturers and marketers of these harmful products are knowingly putting their customers at risk, but refuse to switch to safer alternative ingredients. She believes that many years from now we’ll look back on the damage done by these products in much the same way as we look at tobacco products today. Of course, her mental bridge to the future has a huge gap in it. Namely, there is no substitute for tobacco (no legal substitute anyway).
Every “alternative to tobacco” gimmick has failed. However, there are several effective, comparably priced substitutes for SLS, Propylene Glycol, and the rest. So, this begs the question, If these ingredients are so harmful to human health, and will inevitably destroy so many cosmetic companies in the years to come, why don’t all the cosmetic companies just switch now? Well, because, unlike tobacco 50 years ago, there are numerous studies being done today that have shown these substances to be safe. It’s not at all like the tobacco industry!
Dr. Rapp also does a great slight-of-word routine with this observation: “SLS stays in the body at least seven days.” (Remember, Dr. Green’s studies showed SLS completely left the tissue within 96 hours). “If the body can’t get rid of (SLS) it will tend to store it in fat places, such as the breast… That’s where the body stores chemicals and that’s why women who have breast cancer, some of them have four times more pesticides in their breast tissue than other women who didn’t.” How did we get from SLS to pesticides? As has already been discussed, adnauseam, SLS does not cause cancer. But, if one were to listen to Dr. Rapp’s presentation one could easily surmise she was suggesting otherwise.
She also states that mineral oil has been linked to “numerous forms of cancer” according to Rawlin’s School of Public Health. I contacted this institution and after much searching did finally locate the author of the report. Her report analyzed “formulations” that included various type of oils, including mineral oil. However, mineral oil found in cosmetic formulations was not part of the study. When specifically asked if the mineral oil found in cosmetics could cause cancer, as Dr. Rapp claims the report suggests, the author responded, “It’s a complex area – mineral oil formulations have changed through time and there are varying levels of evidence for different cancer sites for different formulations
I don’t intend to slather us in the subject of mineral oil again, but it does seem appropriate at this juncture to address an example of the “varying levels of evidence” that mineral oil of any kind might cause cancer. At the same time I can provide yet another demonstration of how the propagandists fold, spindle and mutilate the facts to fit their own personal agenda. According to a comment found in (guess where) an internet chat room, a “Canadian study” revealed that mineral oil in skin lotions increased the risk of contracting non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (NHL). Well, I located that study (emphasis mine)… I can’t comment specifically on the mineral oils used in cosmetics.” In the actual report, the author specifically states that the study was limited to “substantial dermal and inhalational exposure” to pure mineral oil of the type used in machine lubrication. The report goes on to specifically and clearly state that mineral oils in “end-use” products, such as cosmetics, can be derived from a different source, have a different method of refinement, and a variety of additives, thus making an analysis of it’s toxicity “inappropriate.”35 (it was a shock to discover it even existed) and here’s the rest of the story: The study assessed the risk of occupational exposure to “benzidine, mineral, cutting, or lubricating oil, pesticides, and herbicides.” Seventeen different chemicals were studied. Mailed questionnaires were used to obtain data from 1469 individuals who were newly diagnosed with NHL to determine what amount, if any, exposure they had to these 17 chemicals. The study found there was a 1.3% increase among men in the chances of getting NHL among those who were exposed to “mineral, cutting, or lubricating oils.” Since men are far less likely to be using skin care products, it would be reasonable to assume the exposures related to long term industrial applications (i.e. motor oil, axle grease, etc.). Additional evidence exists that mineral oil in cosmetic products suffers only a guilt-by-association by the fact that this same study found no significant increase in the rate of NHL among women exposed to the same group of oils (which would have been primarily mineral oils in cosmetics).
Virtually all of the “harmful ingredient” propaganda can be traced back to one particular MLM company. Ironically, this same company once sold (as recently as 1994) a thigh cream based on Aminophylline. This substance is used to treat asthma, but was also found to reduce the circumference of the thigh when applied topically. However, after prolonged, repeated applications it also caused mild to severe skin irritation. They now use the milder, safer, Theophylline.
This same company, during the height of their anti-harmful ingredient campaign, had one of their popular diet products recalled by the FDA. It contained a full medical dose of the drug furosemide, a potent diuretic.36
Here’s a brief run down of some of the other “safe” alternative ingredients this company uses in their skin and hair care products:
Ammonium Lauryl Sulfate: The Cosmetic Ingredient Review has found that ALS can “produce eye and/or skin irritation.” Dr. DeSalvo observes that while some companies vehemently warn consumers away from SLS and SLES “they’re turn around and use virtually the same material, made of the same cut of coconut oil or palm oil, sulfated in the same manner, but using ammonia rather than sodium as the salt, and claim that their surfactant (ALS or ALES) is safer, when the truth is that the ammonia ion can be much more irritating than the sodium ion.”
Ammonium Chloride: The Material Safety Data Sheet warns users to “prevent skin contact” (it’s in their skin cleanser, shampoo, and shave gel).37
Chitosan: The MSDS warns this substance can cause eye, skin and lung irritation.38 According to the National Council for Reliable Health Information (NCRHI), Chitosan can cause illness to those with shellfish allergies39 (this is the primary ingredient in one of their weight loss products).
Calcium Sulfate: The MSDS warns of irritation to eyes, skin and respiratory system… Can cause nose bleeds… used to make plaster of Paris (it’s also in their arthritis product).40
Methylchloroisothiazolinone: According to The National Library of Medicine, this substance can cause contact dermatitis and is used in house paint.41 According to the American Journal of Contact Dermatitis, this substance can cause “chemical burns”42 (it’s in their shampoo and skin cleanser).
Methyllisothiazolinone: Same as Methylehloroisothiazolinone (also in their shampoo).
Phenoxyethanol: The MSDS on this substance warns that it can cause severe irritation or burns to the skin and eyes and suggests it should only be handled while wearing gloves and goggles43 (it’s in their hair conditioner and shave gel). This substance usually replaces Propylene Glycol. However, according to Gary Neudahl, the Technical Services Manager at Costec, Inc. (a leading manufacturer of cosmetic products), he advises clients to use Propylene Glycol because it is “less toxic and safer than Phenoxyethanol.” (Costec supplies both substances).
Of course, if this company were to respond to this rather scathing information, I’m sure they would plead that many of the dangers listed above involve applications unrelated to personal care use, or that the harmful effects were only on lab animals and only after repeated, prolonged exposure of the raw material, and that these substances are safe when diluted and applied momentarily to the skin, and that most of this information is coming from overly protective MSD sheets, and so on and so on.
And my response would be… EXACTLY!
In fact, every one of these counter arguments would be valid. In fact, every one of the above listed substances are perfectly safe as used in their personal care products. In fact, they could use the very same defense I am presenting here to defend their choice of ingredients. And they’d be right!
Again, if you work hard enough you can dig up data to make anything sound harmful.
A great resource is the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).44 Here you will find a list of potentially harmful chemicals found in the work place. According to Dr. Rapp there are 884 “toxic” chemicals on this list found in common skin and hair care products (in spite of the fact there are only 670 chemicals on the list in total). After a careful review of this list (which, by the way, did not include SLS, SLES, Propylene Glycol, or Mineral Oil), I found some interesting inclusions. For example, Acetoxybenzoic acid was there. That’s Aspirin. Isopentyl Acetate was there. That’s banana oil. The dust from oats, wheat and barley and the mist from vegetable oil all made the list (irritating when inhaled – like, no kidding). Such vile substances as sugar, table salt, and corn starch made the list, as did Propenyl Propyl Disulfide. Now, PPD is some nasty stuff. This can cause irritation of the eyes, nose, and respiratory system. It can also cause lacrimation! Would you want to eat Propenyl Propyl Disulfide? If not, you’re missing out on a lot of great food. It’s onion oil. Lacrimation means it makes your eyes water.
Considering sugar, salt and onion oil are all classified as “chemical hazards,” as well as the aforementioned horrors of dihydrogen monoxide (water), it’s got to make you wonder…
How toxic is your spaghetti sauce?
4. National Institutes of Health; Annual Report to the Nation on the Status of Cancer (May, 2000)
6. Dickenson Library, UNLV
7. San Francisco Chronicle (approx. 1994)
8. American Cancer Society web site (www.cancer.org)
22. Funk, J. O. % Maibach, H. I. Propylene Glycol Dermatitis: Re-evaluation of an Old Problem. Contact Dermatitis 31:2, 36-41 (1994).
23. Final Report on the Safety Assessment of Propylene Glycol, Cosmetic Ingredient Review, J. Am. Coll. Toxicol. 13(16), 473-91 (1994).
26. 2000 CIR Compendium, p. 236
28. Telephone interview with Dr. McEwen
29. CTFA Response Statement; July 29, 1999 (PRST 99-19)
30. CTFA Response Statement; May 19, 2000 (PRST 00-16)
31. Cosmetic chemist Will Evans in PURE magazine
33. Can be obtained via numerous web sites
35. Health Canada Cancer Bureau; 1997
36. San Jose Mercury News; p. 20A; November 13, 1993
39. NCAHF Newsletter; V.21/N3 (May-June, 1998)