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Here we explore some of the myths & legends!

Wednesday
Aug312011

Quaternary Ammonium Compounds

Called "quats" for short, quaternary ammonium compounds are used commonly in hair conditioners, shampoos, and even lotions, to impart a slippery feel to the hair and skin. Quats are the chemicals that enable you to have a little dollop of conditioner and let it easily glide and be distributed throughout your hair. They also have anti-microbial properties and are commonly used as preservatives. There are a number of problems with quats, however. First, they are known to cause skin and respiratory irritation, and some people are highly allergic to them. Second, some quaternary ammonium compounds, like benzalkonium chloride, are phenolic and have been found to be endocrine disruptors, meaning they interfere with hormone function within the body. Third, they are toxic to aquatic life, so they're not good for the environment when washed downstream.

Some examples of quaternary ammonium compounds:

babassuamidopropalkonium chloride
benzalkonium chloride
benzathonium chloride
Grapefruit Seed Extract
methylbenzethonium chloride
cetalkonium chloride
Vegetable Oil Quaternary
Quaternium-15
stearalkonium chloride
Polyquaternium
guar hydroxypropyltrimonium chloride
behentrimonium chloride
behentrimoniu methosulfate

Check out what this chemical safety database says about quats:

"Quaternary ammonium compounds can cause toxic effects by all routes of exposure including inhalation, ingestion,dermal application and irrigation of body cavities. Exposure to diluted solutions can cause mild and self-limited irritation. Concentrated solutions of quaternary ammonium compounds are corrosive and can cause burns to the skin and the mucous membranes. They can produce systemic toxicity due to their curare-like properties. They can also cause allergic reactions.

Mild to severe caustic burns of the skin and mucous membranes can occur depending on the agent and the concentration. Other signs may include: nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, anxiety, restlessness, coma, convulsions, hypotension, cyanosis and apnoea due to respiratory muscle paralysis; death may occur within 1 or 3 hours after ingestion of concentrated solutions. Haemolysis and methaemoglobinemia have been reported infrequently."

Here is a report that the SCCS (Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety, an organization in the EU) did on a number of quats. The SCCS recommends that based on the skin reactions and toxicity seen in the studies, that concentrations of behentrimonium chloride shouldn't exceed 3% in a rinse-off product, and should be no more than .5% in a leave-on product.

Thursday
Jul212011

Dangers of Sunless Tanners

Most sunless tanners you see on the market contain an ingredient called dihyroxyacetone (DHA for short.  Not the same kind of DHA you find in omega-3 fatty acids, by the way.) Many people think that using a sunless tanner is a safer option than tanning outside.  The truth is that they're not, and they may be more harmful.

First of all, it has been found that using DHA based sunless tanners can inhibit the production of vitamin D in the body. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19496990 When exposed to sunlight, a response in the skin is triggered and vitamin D is created.  Low levels of vitamin D have been associated with higher cancer risk, depression, and heart disease. Many people, if not most, are highly deficient in this important vitamin.  Using dihyroxyacetone inhibits the production of vitamin D, thus leading to further deficiencies. 

Second, products with dihydroxyacetone can have a very limited shelf life, and must be formulated in a very specific manner to be stable. The formula has to be quite acidic in order to stay stable, and that can be irritating to skin. And if not formulated properly, the DHA can break down and create strong skin irritants.

Finally, when applied to skin, it has been found to generate high amounts of free radical damage: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18024196 While you may be thinking you're protecting yourself from "the sun's damaging rays" using DHA products, you're creating invisible damage to your skin that is possibly putting you at a higher risk for skin cancer. 

DHA is found in even the (fake) "organic" sunless tanners.  It's in the paraben-free formulations.  It's everywhere.  It might be mixed in with organic botanicals, and you might even see endorsements from "green experts."  But DHA is DHA.  It's damaging to skin, highly unstable, and inhibits one of the most important vitamins our body needs. 

Wednesday
Jul132011

What are Oleochemicals?

There's a fellow organic company that has published an article that talks about the "dangers of oleochemicals."  While this company has my utmost respect, I wanted to respond to some of the claims and implications in this particular article because I feel that they may not be fully accurate.

What is an "oleochemical?"

Oleochemical is an industry term for "any chemical compound derived from animal or plant fats or oils." Source The term's counterpart, petrochemicals, are, of course, derived from petroleum oil.  The main point of their article is that, while oleochemicals are being marketed as natural because they're derived from natural oils, the chemical processing these compounds endure are not all that natural and can sometimes leave impurities in the finished product, and are not very environmentally friendly.  While I do agree with them on this point, and love their enthusiasm for truly organic products, there are a number of things that I disagree with them on.

First of all, they make a few claims that have no apparent backing.  They say: "New evidence shows that oleochemical trans fats used in virtually all "natural" and "organic" body care products, when topically applied to the skin, can inhibit prostaglandins."  They cite no sources for this claim, or any at all for the entire article.  A search through the National Library of Medicine for "trans fats and prostaglandins" or "topical trans fats prostaglandins" or "prostaglandins skin trans fats" "skin and trans fats" or any other related search yields no results that would back up this assertion.

Second, the article implies that all oleochemicals contain trans fats. It repeatedly uses the phrase "oleochemical trans fats" as if they were completely interchangeable terms.  Trans fats equals oleochemicals and oleochemicals equals trans fats, it seems. Hydrogenated oils, because they are substances derived from vegetable oils, by definition, are oleochemicals.  But not all oleochemicals contain trans fats.  This is a baseless claim that has no proof or backing.  Perhaps some isolated fatty acids would contain trace amounts of trans fats, but it's highly unlikely. The distillation process is highly selective, and since a trans fat molecule would have a completely different molecular weight than the isolated fatty acid, they would be separated easily during this process.

Third, they state "body care products aren´t currently covered by the National Organic Program."  That's simply not true.  According to the Code of Federal Regulations:

§ 205.100   What has to be certified

(a) Except for operations exempt or excluded in §205.101, each production or handling operation or specified portion of a production or handling operation that produces or handles crops, livestock, livestock products, or other agricultural products that are intended to be sold, labeled, or represented as “100 percent organic,” “organic,” or “made with organic (specified ingredients or food group(s))” must be certified according to the provisions of subpart E of this part and must meet all other applicable requirements of this part."

There are no exemptions included in §205.101 relating to personal care products (it mainly describes the exemption for operations running under $5000 in annual sales.)  Thus, ANY product claiming to be organic falls under the National Organic Program.  

Finally, the term "oleochemical" seems to be guilty just by its scary-sounding name alone.  By definition, cold-processed soap is an oleochemical.  It's a substance that has been created from vegetable oils.  So, technically, the company who wrote this article, uses "oleochemicals" in their own products!

Not all oleochemicals are dangerous or processed with toxic chemicals. The article has a link to a diagram that implies that vegetable glycerin is harmful because it's an oleochemical.  Yes, it is true that vegetable glycerin is considered an "oleochemical" but it also naturally occurs in all soaps.  So, because vegetable glycerin is an "oleochemical" should it be removed from the soap?  If it were, the soap would be quite harsh on the skin.  That's because the vegetable glycerin and the free fatty acids (yes, the same isolated fatty acids that the article warns against) is what gives cold-processed soaps their great moisturizing properties. Soy lecithin (which the company who wrote the article uses) can be considered an oleochemical, as it is a substance derived from vegetable oils.  Natural tocopherol can be considered an oleochemical, and yet it carries numerous health benefits.  Astaxanthin, curcumin, quercitin, and resveratrol all carry incredible promise as antioxidants as well as other health benefits, and they all could be considered "oleocemicals" as, again, they are separated from plant sources.  Just because it can be called an oleochemical, doesn't mean that it's bad.

Again, I want to reiterate that I agree with the spirit of this article.  There are too many companies trying to pass of synthetic chemicals as "organic" and "natural," and there definitely are hundreds of dangerous oleochemicals.  But just because a substance falls under the term "oleochemical" does it mean that it's dangerous, scary, or harmful.

Thursday
Mar172011

Are Parabens Natural?

A reader wrote this statement on my entry of parabens:

Plants which produce significant amounts of parabens include carrots, olive, cucumber, honeysuckle and ylang ylang (Bach M et al, Plant Physiol, 103(2), 1993); (Aziz N et al, Microbios 93(374), 1998); Smith-Becker J et al, Plant Physiol, 116(1), 1998); (Dweck A, “Natural Preservatives”, Cosmet Toilet, Aug 2003).

Plants known to synthesise Methylparaben include Guan pepper (Piper guanacastensis) (Pereda-Miranda R et al, J Nat Prod, 60(3), 1997); Thale cress (Arabidopsis thaliana) (Walker T et al, J Agric Food Chem, 51, 2548, 2003) and Oca (Oxalis tuberosa) (Pal Bais H et al, Plant Physiol Biochem, 41(4), 2003).

Mangoes produce Propylparaben as a self defense mechanism (Mangifera indica) (Chirawut B, Sangchote S, 15 th Australasian Plant Pathology Society Conference, Deakin University, Geelong, 26-29 September, 2005).

In fact, parabens have been used as preservatives in foods and beverages and exhibit little or no toxicity in the concentrations used. The cancerous breast tissues that had parabens were probably caused by preserved food rather than underarm deodorants!

Is this true?  Do parabens occur naturally in foods?  Do they pose a risk to our health?  If parabens occur in nature, does that mean that parabens in personal care items are safe?

These studies do appear to be true and credible.  P-hydroxybenzoic acid and its esters (aka, parabens) do occur naturally in foods and plants.  So, does this mean that we shouldn't eat cucumbers, carrots, olives, or mangoes?  No, not at all. 

Parabens that are present in foods act very differently than those applied in personal care products.  First of all, in a food, other compounds are present in nature's perfect balance. We're talking antioxidants and enzymes that work together to create an overall healthful effect on the body.  Second, when parabens enter the body through foods, they have a much better chance to be metabolized because they're going through the digestive system.  Stomach acids and other enzymes help to break them down to metabolites that are easily flushed out of the body.  Third, parabens behave much differently when applied to skin than when ingested in a food.  

A recent study found that parabens, when applied to skin, react with an enzyme called SULT.  In simplified terms, SULT is the enzyme that helps the body flush out estrogen.  So, when SULT enzymes are deactivated, estrogen levels increase.  Parabens were found to deactivate these important enzymes.  The study states "...these results suggest chronic topical application of parabens may lead to prolonged estrogenic effects in skin as a result of inhibition of estrogen sulfotransferase activity."  Supporters of parabens are always talking about how little parabens are absorbed and how weak their estrogenic activity is--but with this study in mind, absorption and estrogen receptor activity really are moot points.  It's a reaction with parabens in the skin that increases overall estrogen levels in the body.  Many reproductive cancers are estrogen-dependent and tumor growth is fueled by an excess of estrogen.  Uterine fibroids, endometriosis, adenomyosis, irregular menstruation--all of these reproductive problems are caused by an excess of estrogen.  So why would you want to apply these compounds to your skin!?

Another pro-paraben argument that you'll hear is that the skin metabolizes parabens quickly and they're flushed out of the body.  Not so!  This study found that after a month of applying methylparaben to skin cells, it "remained unmetabolized and persisted slightly" in the stateum corneum. Additionally, it was found to affect DNA expression in the skin cells, inhibiting collagen production, and possibly leading to early aging of cells. 

So, just because parabens may have been found to be in foods, doesn't mean that personal care products with parabens are safe.  Parabens applied to your skin behave much differently, likely increasing levels of estrogen and leading to premature aging and other changes in the skin. 

Saturday
Jan222011

Ethoxylated Compounds

When a chemical is produced using the carcinogen ethylene oxide, it is known as an "ethoxylated" compound.  During the processing of an ethoxylated compounds, a carcinogenic byproduct is created called 1,4-dioxane.  Many ethoxylated compounds are used in cosmetic and personal care products, and commonly contain traces of 1,4-dioxane.  This carcinogen has been found in even in supposedly "natural" brands.  Thanks to the Organic Consumers association and the EWG Cosmetics Database, the word about ethoxylated compounds is spreading every.

How to spot an ethoxylated compound. 

 

There are three easy ways to spot an ethoxylated compound. First is looking out for "PEG." PEG stands for polyethylene glycol. Polyethylene Glycol is used in cosmetics as a skin conditioner and emulsifier. It usually is followed by a number, reading PEG-200. The number following the PEG is the number of moles (a unit of measure in chemistry) that the glycol has been treated with. So PEG-40 is polyethylene glycol treated with ethylene oxide 40 times, in simplified terms. The higher the number, the more ethylene oxide it's been treated with.  Second, look for the suffix "eth." Sodium laureth sulfate or ceteareth-20 are two examples. The "eth" indicates it has been treated with ethylene oxide.

Third, look for dashes followed by a number, as in steareth-20.

 

The CosmeticsDatabase has become a go-to resource for thousands of people looking for safer cosmetics.  It lists many ethoxylated compounds and flags them for their hazard with 1,4-dioxane conamination.  However, the database has missed this hazard on a number of ingredients.  Let's help the Cosmetics Database spread the word about the dangers of ethoxylated compounds and get the correct scores assigned to these ingredients.  Cut and paste the following in an e-mail and send it to skindeep@ewg.org

Thank you for the work you do at the Cosmetics Database!  I wanted to bring a number of ethoxylated compounds in the database that have not yet been flagged for 1,4-dioxane contamination. 

 

Polysorbate-20 is also known as PEG(20) sorbitan monolaurate.  It currently scores a 1, "low hazard" score and needs to be much higher, like other PEG compounds for its 1,4-dioxane contamination concern..  

 

Polysorbate-40 is also known as PEG(40) sorbitan monopalmitate.  It currently scores a 1, "low hazard" score and needs to be much higher, like other PEG compounds for its 1,4-dioxane contamination concern..  

 

Polysorbate-60 is also known as PEG(20) sorbitan monostearate.  It currently scores s 1, "low hazard" score and should be much higher, like other PEG compounds for its 1,4-dioxane contamination concern..

 

Polysorbate-80 is also known as PEG(20) sorbitan monooleate.  It currently scores a 2, "low hazard" score and should be much higher, like other PEG compounds for its 1,4-dioxane contamination concern..  

 

Steareth-20 is also known as PEG-20 stearyl ether.  It currently scores a 1, "low hazard" score and should be much higher.  According to this ingredient listing:  "About STEARETH-20: Steareth-20 is a synthetic polymer composed of PEG (polyethylene glycol) and stearyl alcohol. Due to the presence of PEG, this ingredient may contain potentially toxic manufacturing impurities such as 1,4-dioxane." Yet, the box for "contamination concerns" is not checked; it should be!  

 

Steareth-100 is also known as PEG-100 stearyl ether.  It currently scores a 1, "low hazard" score and should be much higher, like other PEG-compounds for its 1,4-dioxane contamination concern.

 

Other listings that need to be updated with 1,4-dioxane concerns include:

 Steareth-21

 Steareth-2

 Steareth-10

 Steareth-4

 Isosteareth-20

 Acrylates/Steareth-20 itaconate copolymer

 Steareth-16

 Disteareth-75 IPDI

 Isosteareth-10

 Isosteareth-2

 Disteareth 100 IPDI

 

Thank you for your attention to the matter

We CAN make a difference!  Spread this through e-mail, Facebook and Twitter until these chemicals get the score they deserve!

 

 

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