Friday, November 5, 2010

Much maligned ingredients - a short series

Welcome to a short series on much maligned ingredients, those that are considered thisclose to being evil when it comes to cosmetic products. I'll be taking a look at propylene glycol and mineral oil first, then moving on to a few of those found on the Suzuki Foundation's "Dirty Dozen" list.

As a quick note, check out Health Canada's response to the Suzuki Foundation's list. I'm so proud of the diplomatic way in which this letter was written! This is a good example of providing studies and information in a sound and thorough way! 

I don't think I've seen an ingredient we use that hasn't received some bad press at some point. Even innocent things like olive oil have been derided for being occlusive (which is a bad thing to some people)! As you read these posts, keep an open mind. My goal is not to convince you to use these ingredients, but to learn more about them.

Why did you start making cosmetic products? You wanted a choice in ingredients. You wanted to make the most awesome products possible for your skin type. You probably wanted to make "all natural" products without preservatives (which, unfortunately, is an unsafe option if you want to make anything with water in it!) or make lovely products filled with decadent oils. (Or you're just a chemistry junkie like me!)

Making our own products is about choice, and should be free to choose any ingredients we want. That's the mission of my blog - to provide you, my wonderful readers, with information so you can make choices that fit into your philosophical beliefs and financial means. Hence this series on maligned ingredients - to help us all make choices about the ingredients we use! I'm not trying to encourage you to use ingredients you don't like or make you defend your choices, but to offer more information so we can all make the most awesome products possible.

A few tips when you're researching ingredients...

If you see the words "may" or "could" - as in "may be contaminated by x" - don't interpret it to mean it is a fact. It just means there's a possibility or a precedent. For instance, you could say something like "The water supply in Chilliwack may contain fluoride", which would be a reasonable assumption because a lot of cities add fluoride to their water supply. But you'd be wrong. Things can be contaminated by other things - there've been many scandals about olive oil contaminated by other oils to get higher profit margins - but that doesn't mean it happens in every bottle of olive oil.

Where's the evidence? Are there links to studies to back up the statements you see? Are they using inflammatory language like "toxic" or "lethal" when not referring to things that are normally toxic or lethal? (And remember that everything is lethal at some level, even water. It's all about the dose.)

Are they linked to some kind of product? If they're trying to sell you something - for instance, their acne medication or a lotion with some new ingredients - odds are pretty good they aren't the most reliable source in the world. Ask yourself about the motivation of the writer. If they're trying to sell you something, take what they have to say with a grain of salt. Same with studies done by companies! I've seen a study on honeyquat done by the honeyquat people that shows this product is a great humectant, even better than glycerin. But until I can see another study from an outside source confirming or denying this, I'm not comfortable stating this as fact.

Is this new information? If you see something you've never seen before - for instance, that preservatives can be inactivated by non-ionic ingredients - don't take it as fact until you see it backed up in another resource or you can see the study information for yourself.

Check the dates on your studies. Something from the 1960s might still have validity, but odds are good there have been many other studies since, some that might be confirming and others that might be contradictory. Remember how we all thought spinach was high in iron? If we only looked at the studies from 1870 we'd think it was true. Okay, this is an extreme example, but there's so many studies into things like polyphenols and phytosterols and all those other things we find in oils (for example), that looking at a study from twenty years ago might not be all that informative.

And if you find a site claiming something is "chemical free", click to close that window. Everything is a chemical - water, your dog, my cup of tea, that tree - and "chemical" does not mean synthetic or toxic. It means it is a chemical, a thing made up of atoms and molecules, just like every single thing in our world. (Synthetic is a valid word, but it's used in an inflammatory way most of the time.)

Finally, few notes about the Skin Deep cosmetics database or the Environmental Working Group's information...

If you visit the EWG website, look for the "data gap". They define this as "linked to data gaps that constitute the absence of basic toxicity studies and safety assessments in Skin Deep's core databases, or that reflect findings of data deficiencies in government or industry assessments." If you see a high data gap, this means they don't have the information they would like to have to make a determination (I think this is a very cryptic definition, and it confuses me that you see things like a rating of 4 for something with a 73% data gap.)

Another note about the Skin Deep cosmetics database. Read this paragraph...
Given the incomplete information made available by companies and the government, EWG provides additional information on personal care product ingredients from the published scientific literature. The chart below indicates that research studies have found that exposure to this ingredient -- not the products containing it -- caused the indicated health effect(s) in the studies reviewed by Skin Deep researchers. Actual health risks, if any, will vary based on the level of exposure to the ingredient and individual susceptibility -- information not available in Skin Deep.

This is an important paragraph when you're researching ingredients. You might come upon a study that shows that 80% propylene glycol applied neat to a rabbit's ears caused irritation. Does this mean that putting 80% on your skin will cause irritation? Does it mean that 10% in a lotion will cause irritation?

Finally, check the dates on the studies they quote. Some are current, but I've seen my share from the 1980s and earlier that I know have been replicated since.

If you have a suggestion for this series, please let me know in the comments!

Join me tomorrow for the first in this series - propylene glycol!

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