The following information originally appeared in Naturally Better for You, the magazine about natural products, their health benefits, and where to buy them.
".... We've focused on facial moisturisers this time, in the end. But so as not to disappoint, we've also included a brief round-up of some baby products.
The natural beauty sector, it turns out, is clearly much bigger business than the other categories we have looked at before. As you will see, we have looked at a very wide range of products, and still we have probably only scratched the surface. There are many, many other brands out there other than these here. One word of caution though - "natural" and "organic" don't guarantee you a formulation free of controversial chemicals. The only way to be sure you are happy with a product is to look at its list of ingredients. Here at least, we hope to provide you with enough information to at least look at lists of ingredients and make an informed decision. And of course, you also have our brand and source listings, and our reviews to help you. And for those of you who don't use facial moisturisers, the ingredients referred to in our main article also appear in other product categories, so don't feel left out! We have covered ingredients used as emollients (helping the skin retain moisture), and preservatives.
SLIPPERY CHARACTERS LURKING
Recent studies have shown that we may actually acquire more toxins through skin absorption and inhalation than through the foods that we eat. This isn't actually surprising, because the skin is the largest organ in the body. It is a substantial surface area through which toxic chemical migration may occur. When you rub chemicals onto your skin, they can pass straight through and enter your bloodstream within minutes. We are all quite happy to accept that nicotine patches and birth control patches work this way, and yet we forget that the same applies to other chemicals that we apply to our skin. In fact, personal care products should be as pure as the foods we eat.
So, when did you last look at the label on your skin cream? (That's what we're going to focus on here, but many of the ingredients also appear in other products). I went to the supermarket and picked up a couple of packages. The lists were unbelievably long, and totally chemical. There is an example at the end of this article. Without a doubt, the best way to read a personal care product ingredients listing is to read each product ingredient as if it were something that you might put in your mouth. Remember, these ingredients are absorbed into your body through the skin. Here is a brief guide to some of the ingredients found in skin creams, including which are truly natural and which are synthetic. It is also worth bearing in mind that many so-called natural products can be called "natural" simply because they are predominantly water, and water is natural! Of course, it's everything else that needs looking at. When evaluating unfamiliar chemical ingredients you should know that, according to the Environmental Defense Group's ongoing research, "78% of the chemicals in highest-volume commercial use have not had even 'minimal' toxicity testing."
So, remember our friend propylene glycol? The one that can cause contact dermatitis, kidney damage and liver abnormalities? With tests on humans that have shown that it inhibits skin cell growth, damages cell membranes, and causes rashes and dry skin and surface damage to the skin. And with major associated effects related to its absorption into the body leading to gastro-intestinal disturbances, nausea, headache, vomiting and central nervous system depression. (All according to the manufacturers' material safety datasheet.) And with studies showing that it causes a significant number of reactions and is a primary irritant to the skin even in low levels of concentration. Well, yes, despite all this it is a popular ingredient in skin creams because it gives a nice glide. New findings suggest that using propylene glycol actually ages the skin prematurely as it absorbs moisture from the skin, robbing from the lower layers and bringing this natural moisture up to the surface. This is because it acts as a humectant. A property it has in common with many synthetic emollients used in skin creams (see examples below).
Another common effect of the emollient ingredients used in many skin creams is that they suffocate the skin. Mineral oil for example (also known as petrolatum, I believe), is in many moisturisers and is just refined crude oil. It puts a film on the skin that suffocates it. As your skin is a living breathing organ it needs to take in oxygen and then respire and give off carbon dioxide, moisture and toxins. Ingredients like collagen, elastin, glycerine, lanolin, liposomes, mineral oil, do nothing but clog the pores, suffocate skin, hold toxins in and keep oxygen out. Even though your skin may feel softer just after you apply creams with these ingredients, the long term effects combine to age the skin much faster than if you didn't use anything. Remember, the body is primarily comprised of water. Imagine a bowl of water and you pour some oil into it. The oil sits on the top and that's exactly what happens to your skin. This is known in the industry as the plastic bag effect and as we all know, plastic bags suffocate.
Emollients are liquid substances which help prevent drying of the skin by providing a barrier to trans-epidermal water loss. Some emollients are humectants as well, in that they attract water from their surroundings. This means that in dry conditions, they can draw moisture away from the skin.
Certified organic fixed or base oils are always cold-pressed (crushed under low-heat conditions) from fresh fruit and seeds/nuts to preserve the beneficial phytonutrients that are vital to human health. Cold-pressed oils and natural waxes have been safely used by humans for thousands of years. Examples of these natural emollient ingredients are almond oil avocado oil, coconut oil, hazelnut oil, jojoba oil, olive oil, palm oil, pumpkin seed oil, safflower oil, sesame oil, sunflower oil, tamanu oil, wheat germ oil, beeswax, cocoa butter, shea butter.
In contrast, synthetic emollients are modern chemicals and most are created under very energy-intensive conditions that involve extremely high temperatures (250-500 ºC) for 12-24 hours, along with very high pressure and/or vacuum. Many synthetic emollients also require toxic or carcinogenic catalysts or reactive agents in their manufacture. These conditions are required to transform or split the natural vegetable oil molecules into new molecules that are typically not found in nature. What delicate, vital nutrients could survive these destructive conditions? Indeed, new research shows that these industrial processes can cause the formation of trans-fatty acids or trans-isomers which have been linked to the creation of free radicals and other harmful substances. Ingredients that are synthetic emollients include butylene glycol, cetearyl alcohol, cetyl alcohol, stearyl alcohol, stearic acid, isopropyl myristate, cyclomethicone, dimethicone.
You will find many of these emollient ingredients towards the top of the ingredients lists, but there are also some controversial chemicals lurking towards the bottom of them. These are normally the preservatives, and usually include our other friends, the parabens. These, you may remember, are oestrogen-mimics and have been linked with fertility problems (male and female) and with cancer. It is not unusual to find more than one of these in a listing. Were their weights added together, they would no doubt appear higher up the lists.
Preservatives are substances which help to maintain the stability of a product by creating an inhospitable environment for bacterial growth. There are many natural and organic substances that have this useful quality. Ancient Egyptians, for example, were very familiar with the preservative qualities of botanical ingredients such as cedar, clove, frankincense, myrrh and many others. They discovered the natural preservatives and then, to prove their viability, left us some amazing proof in the form of human bodies preserved for several thousand years!
Unfortunately, chemical preservatives (hundreds of them) are used frequently because they are easy to obtain and very cheap and, until recently, no one questioned their prolific use. Real organic essential oils and herbal extracts can be used as part of a truly natural preservative system;but they are much more costly than petrochemicals. The benefit of real botanicals is that our bodies recognise and can process them safely as they are substances that we have evolved with over millions of years. Synthetic preservatives meanwhile are considered by leading dermatological associations to be the number one cause of contact dermatitis as well as causing the previously-mentioned problems when absorbed into the body.
What is frustrating is that synthetic preservatives are not necessary. Herbal extracts made in the traditional manner using nothing but the herb material and organic grain alcohol can contain some naturally acidic components that, while edible, are effective preservatives when used in a product formula. Acidic and alkaline environments are not bacteria-friendly and could be considered self-preserving. Most people have many products in their kitchen cupboards that are considered to self-preserving even without refrigeration. Some examples of these products are extra-virgin olive oil, peanut butter, honey, sugar, vinegar, salt and wine. Just as there are hundreds of organic food products that are made, sold and consumed every day that don't contain any synthetic chemical preservatives, one can also enjoy a wide range of personal care products without chemical preservatives. Some products can be made so that they are stable for twelve to fifteen months--just like organic olive oil. So, examples of natural preservatives are essential oils, honey, sugar, salt, vinegar. Even simply removing water from a formulation can leave it naturally preserved (think of dried fruit).
Some examples of synthetic preservatives are:
ascorbic acid, ascorbyl palmitate, benzethonium chloride, benzyl alcohol, BHA, BHT, boric acid, butyl paraben, captan, cetrimonium bromide, chloramine, chlorhexidine, chlorobutanol, chloroxylenol, chlorphenesin, denatured alcohol, diazolidinyl urea, DMDM Hydantoin, ethanolamines, ethyl paraben, euxyl, germaben, germall, hexachlorophene, imidazolidinyl urea, isopropyl alcohol, kathon, methenamine, methyl paraben, methylisothiazolinone, phenethyl alcohol, phenoxyethanol, phenylphenol , potassium metabisulfite, potassium sorbate, propyl paraben , quaternary ammonium compounds, salicylic acid, SD alcohol, sodium benzoate, sodium bisulfite, sodium borate, sodium hydroxymethyl glycinate, sodium propionate, sorbic acid, succinic acid, thimerosal , undecylenic acid, urea.
Finally, a word about a meaningless ingredient "parfum" that appears in many products. This means "perfume" and can be just about anything. It can be a combination of ingredients, natural or synthetic. Acknowledgement: Some material courtesy of Terressentials. Ingredients listing from a popular skin cream (randomly chosen):
Ethylhexylmethoxycinnamate. (Part of the family of cinnamates, used as sunscreens and with oestrogen-mimicking properties.)
Glycerin. (Can be naturally derived. Suffocates skin.)
Cetyl Alcohol (Synthetic emollient)
Cyclomethicone (Synthetic emollient)
Dimethicone copolyol (Synthetic emollient)
Petrolatum. ( Derived from crude oil. Suffocates skin.)
Stearyl Alcohol (Synthetic emollient)
Isopropyl Palmitate (Synthetic emollient)
Sodium Carbomer (Synthetic detergent)
Dimethicone (Synthetic emollient)
Parfum PEG 100 Stearate (Synthetic detergent)
Stearic Acid (Synthetic Emollient: can also be derived from natural sources)
Methyl Paraben (Oestrogen-mimicking synthetic preservative)
Titanium Dioxide (natural mineral sunscreen, colouring/whitener) EDTA Imidazolidinyl Urea (Synthetic preservative)
Propyl Paraben (Oestrogen-mimicking synthetic preservative)
Myristyl Alcohol Arachidyl Acid Palmitic Acid Myristic Acid BHT (Oestrogen-mimicking synthetic preservative)
Naturally Better for You - Review of Paul Penders Moisturisers for oily and combination skins
Paul Penders Hibiscus Rose Daytime Moisturiser
A very light moisturising lotion, ideally suited to oily skin. Just the sort I find difficult to track down. Pleasant, light floral smell. Because it's runny it's very easy to apply and there's no danger of dragging the skin. It stays white on the skin for a few seconds but then disappears nicely. I normally acquire a spot or two when I switch to a new moisturiser (even a natural one), but this left me spot-free.
Paul Penders Mangosteen Nighttime Moisturiser
Again, this is very light and more a lotion than a cream. It is aimed at oilier skin than normal. Fresh smell. Again its runniness makes it very easy to apply and it is absorbed immediately. Again, it has left me spot-free. The above information originally appeared in Naturally Better for You, the magazine about natural products, their health benefits, and where to buy them.
BABY IT'S A JUNGLE OUT THERE:
Most of us believe that the soft-look packaging and "baby" label on toiletries for babies indicate that the products are mild and gentle, and of course safe. But, actually most ingredients in baby products (like those for the rest of us) are not even tested fully. And of course, even those that are tested cannot be checked for long-term effects or for effects when they combine with other ingredients within products or inside our bodies. Whether they are safe or not, there is no disputing the fact that many ingredients accumulate in our bodies and they aren't supposed to be there. Babies not only have more sensitive skin that those of us that are older, but they also have proportionally more skin than we do, compared to their weight. This means that substances that pass through their skin end up in a higher concentration in their bodies than in ours. Worse still, according to one briefing on baby toiletries from the Women's Environmental Network, "Until they are six months old, infants lack a blood-brain barrier to prevent blood-borne toxins entering the brain: low-level exposures that would have little or no effect on an adult brain can sabotage a foetal one."
So, if you would rather avoid starting off a lifelong accumulation of chemicals in your baby's body, what should you do? Simple! Avoid products that contain chemicals that you don't want to risk using.
The usual controversial ingredients are ones you might like to consider avoiding. They all appear (sometimes in high concentration), in baby products: sodium lauryl sulphate and sodium laureth sulphate in baby body washes and shampoos; propylene glycol in lotions and baby wipes; parabens in most things. Another ingredient that you should avoid is one you are more likely to use on your baby than on yourself. That is talc. Talc is linked to cancer, particularly through inhalation.
All these ingredients are avoidable. As ever, some companies manage to make products that work perfectly well with no chemical ingredients at all. A final few words on nappies. Paper nappies also contain chemicals. The moisture-absorbing gel inside them is controversial as it leaches and leaks out. There are several paper nappy brands avoiding these chemicals. However, if you want also to prevent the environmental damage caused by the non-disposable nature of paper nappies (they form a frightening proportion of waste going into landfill sites and they do not biodegrade), then cloth nappies are the answer. This is really a subject in itself, but modern cloth nappies are easy to put on, not too bulky, and far more reliable than old-fashioned terries. Below is a brief directory of baby products and suppliers.
WHAT IS SODIUM LAUROYL SARCOSINATE?:
My husband has been using Aloe Dent's Sensitive Aloe Vera Toothpaste ever since I found it when writing up the issue about toothpastes. Since then I have also started using it on Edward, our 5-year old son. We bought a new tube the other day, and so I had a fresh look at the ingredients (they appear only on the box, not on the tube). This time I noticed "sodium lauroyl sarcosinate" lurking there, a few ingredients down the list. I made a mental note to investigate it as it was something I hadn't noticed before.
Then I also took a closer look at some Neal's Yard Geranium & Orange Shower Gel I had been given recently. And there it was again, this time the top ingredient after water. This has spurred me into action - time to find out what the chemical is. Sarcosinate surfactants are mild, biodegradable anionic surfactants derived from fatty acids and sarcosine (amino acid). These compounds feature lather building and resistance to sebum delathering in cleaners, polymers, industrial chemicals, petroleum and lubricant products. Sodium Lauroyl Sarcosinate is used as a foaming and cleansing agent for shampoo, shaving foams and foam washes. It is used as a corrosion inhibitor and in formulating textile treatment agents.
This to me is not too bad. Personally, I would prefer products without any "derived" ingredients, but the products above derive it from natural sources which I feel is more acceptable that totally synthetic.
So, what about health effects? One source states "no information available". Another states "May form carcinogenic compounds called nitrosamines on the skin or in the body after absorption. Alters skin structure, allowing other chemicals to penetrate deeper into the skin, increasing the amounts of other chemicals that reach the bloodstream. Insufficient toxicity data to determine safety in products that will be inhaled, or where chemicals become airborne and can be inhaled."
I find a lack of data worrying. Of course it could mean that the chemical is so mild that nobody has bothered to study it. However, it is more likely to mean that it is simply not fully tested.
Here is a tip about toothpaste kindly sent in by a reader: "… For years I have cleaned my teeth with neem oil and bicarb. One 100ml bottle of neem oil lasts me for two years+. Put two drops (you have to warm it on cold mornings - I stick it in the basin of hot water I'm going to wash my face in) on a damp toothbrush, dip this in bicarb. Taste is unusual to say the least but you get used to it - but my dentist says he doesn't know why I bother going for my (annual) check-up. The dental hygenist says she feels guilty taking the money because there is never anything to do - no plaque, disease etc."