Toxins and Personal Care

Toxins and personal care are two terms which you may think would never go together. However, it appears that personal care products may contain toxic ingredients or byproduct of the manufacturing process. In this article I would like to provide you with some information on what toxins are, what are the possible risks,  and what they have to do with personal care products.

What is Toxicity?

Toxicity is the ability of a substance to produce a harmful effect when the chemical has reached a sufficient concentration at a specific organ of the body. The more toxic a component is, the smaller the amount of it necessary to be absorbed before harmful effects are caused. The lower the toxicity, the greater the quantity of it is needed to create a harmful effect.

What is Toxic Material?

Toxic material is a substance that may cause harm to a person if it enters the body. It may enter the body in few different ways or in another word route of exposure. Exposure to a substance can occur by inhalation, ingestion or direct contact (through the skin). Inhalation (breathing) is one route of exposure, in which gas, vapors, airborne powders, can be inhaled and potentially cause harmful effect. Ingestion (swallowing) of food, drink  is another route of exposure and some of the ingested toxins may reach the blood stream and the may affect organs in the body.  And lastly, absorption through the skin is route of exposure where chemicals that come in contact with the skin may cause local effect but may also enter the blood stream and cause effects at distant areas from the localized skin area. Some materials can easily pass through the skin and through the blood stream enter the rest of the body. To prevent health effects from exposure to toxic materials, it is important to understand the potential hazards of substances and how to protect yourself. Before you use a product, read the labels, be aware of which ingredient to avoid and follow the direction of use.

Can Skincare Products be Toxic?

The short answer is YES. The long answer is:
Some chemicals used in cosmetics have never been tested for their effects on human health and the environment. Although Health Canada and Environment Canada are slowly assessing over 4,000 existing substances, including chemicals used in cosmetics, the assessment is often challenging due to lack of data on exposure and long-term health effects.
In general, everyone is exposed to many different toxins through different routes. One of them is the skin. Since the exposure process is accumulative, it is recommended to lower the exposure whenever possible.

Why Should I Substitute with  Less Toxic Material in Cosmetics?

We don’t often think of cosmetics, such as make–up, shampoo or skincare, as a sources of toxic chemicals which have potential harmful effect on our health. Studies show that some cosmetic ingredients may be toxic.

Whenever possible, it is always best to avoid using a toxic material either by eliminating its use or by replacing the toxic material with a safer and less toxic material. Sometimes, it is not possible to find a non-toxic substitute that still does the job effectively and safely. However, usually there are better alternatives.

Toxic Ingredients You May Find in Personal Care Products

Alpha Hydroxy Acids (AHA) and Beta Hydroxy Acids peel the skin and usually marketed as a way to remove wrinkles. The Environmental Working Group found that they were added to one out of every 17 personal care products on the US market. The FDA estimates that they injure 1,000 Americans every year by burning the skin. The FDA is also concerned that they contribute to UV skin damage and may raise the risk of skin cancer. In Canada, the Health Canada Cosmetic Hotlist allows concentrations of less than 10% in personal care products, but higher concentrations are allowed for professional use.

Aluminum compounds are the active ingredients mainly in antiperspirants by temporarily plugging the sweat ducts and by that stop sweat coming to the skin’s surface. Aluminum is known to be  able to induced carcinogenesis by its ability to bind to the estrogen receptor and mimic estrogen functions. Meaning that aluminum may play a role in breast cancer especially when antiperspirants containing aluminum applied  around the underarm. This area usually  are not effectively washed and some aluminum salts remains in the area, which gives rise to continuous exposure, and enhances the risk of breast cancer.  In 2005 a British study, published in the Journal of Inorganic Biochemistry, found that aluminum-based compounds may be absorbed by the skin and cause estrogen-like effects. Because estrogen has the ability to promote breast cancer cells, some scientists have suggested that the aluminum-based compounds in antiperspirants may contribute to the development of breast cancer.

Benzyl Alcohol and Isopropyl Alcohol are used as solvents, as preservatives and anti-foaming agents for hand sanitizers, sunscreens, lotions and baby wipes. Both benzyl alcohol and isopropyl alcohol may irritate the skin.

Butylated Hydroxy Anisole (BHA) and Butylated Hydroxy Toluene (BHT) are very similar molecules which act as preservatives and antioxidants. They can be found in lipsticks, eyeshadows and other types of cosmetics. Both BHA and BHT may induce skin allergens. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IRAC) classifies BHA as a possible human carcinogen. For BHT, there is some evidence that it promotes tumours and can disrupt the hormonal system.

1,4-Dioxane can be formed during manufacturing process as a byproduct and therefore doesn’t appear on ingredient labels. It is classified by the US Environmental Protection Agency as a probable carcinogen. Product tests done in 2009 for the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics found 1,4-dioxane in baby shampoos and in other bath products marketed for young children.

DMDM Hydantoin, Diazolidinyl Urea and Imidazolidinyl Urea are commonly used preservatives that can release formaldehyde after sitting on the shelves. Since formaldehyde is a byproduct, it doesn’t appear on ingredient labels. It is a known carcinogen for many years. In addition, people exposed to DMDM hydantoin may experience an allergic reaction. Imidazolidinyl urea may cause contact dermatitis in some people.

Fragrance or “perfume”, may be a mixture of hundreds of different synthetic ingredients. Fragrances often trigger of asthma or allergy. Reported symptoms include headaches, dizziness, rashes, skin discoloration, violent coughing and vomiting, and allergic skin irritation. In a 1991 study, the US Environmental Protection Agency found that 100% of the perfumes they tested contained toluene, which can cause liver, kidney and brain damage as well as damage to a developing fetus. Certain fragrance ingredients, such as phthalates, have been found to have hormone disrupting properties. Many of the fragrance ingredients are not listed on ingredient labels.

Hydroquinone is found in many skin lightening products. Hydroquinone works by reducing melanin in the skin, and therefore increases exposure to UVA and UVB rays of the sun. Hydroquinone is classified as a cancer causing agent by Health Canada and has been linked to kidney damage. It was assessed under Canada’s Chemicals Management Plan as a chemical of high concern. As a result, it has been added to Health Canada’s Cosmetic Hotlist and is restricted to use in hair dye and nail products.

Iodoproponyl Butylcarbamate is a preservative found in baby wipes, moisturizers, sunscreens and shampoos, as well as other cosmetic products. It is a pesticide that is registered for use again fungus and as a wood preservative. It can cause skin allergies

Lead is a known carcinogen and neurotoxin that can lead to learning and behavior problems especially in children. It has also been linked to reduced fertility. It is readily absorbed through the skin, and accumulates in the bones. Although lead is prohibited from use in lipsticks, it can be found in color additives or as impurities in ingredients and would not be listed in the label . Lead can be a contaminant in different kinds of products including sunscreens, foundation, nail colours, whitening toothpaste, and lipstick. A 2008 study by Health Canada found lead in 21 of 26 lipsticks tested. It is an ingredient in Grecian Formula 16 and other dark hair dyes for men available in the US, but it is banned from the formulas used in Canada and Europe.

Parabens are preservatives. They are widely used in all kinds of personal care products. Paraben on the ingredient list is usually preceded by the prefixes methyl-, ethyl-, butyl-, or propyl-. Parabens mimic estrogen, a hormone that is associated with breast cancer. Parabens can cause allergic reactions or contact dermatitis in some people. Parabens are absorbed through the skin and have been found in biopsied tissue from breast cancer tumours.

Phthalates – Most people in the general population are exposed to different levels of phthalates. Phthalates are found in many products from soft plastics and air fresheners to shampoos and nail polish. There are few types of phthalates. The most commonly used and studied is DEHP (diethylhexyl phthalate). The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classifies DEPH as a possible cause of cancer. There is also evidence that certain phthalates disrupt the hormonal and reproduction system. In 2008, a University of Washington study tested the urine of 163 infants and found that all the babies had at least one type of phthalate in their system while 81 per cent had at least seven different types. Phthalates are also used to enhance fragrances to make them last longer and to denature alcohol.

Polyethylene Glycol (PEG) and Ceteareth, are found in many personal care products, such as body washes, liquid soap, baby wipes, sunscreens and shampoo. In cosmetics dofferent type of PEGs can be found, PEG 6, 8, 32, 75, 150 and more. They are used as thickeners, softeners, moisture-carriers and penetration enhancers. Both PEG and ceteareth may be contaminated with 1,4-dioxane, a probable carcinogen, and ethylene dioxide, a known human carcinogen. 1,4-dioxane readily penetrates into the skin. Labels are not required to show information about contamination with 1,4-dioxane.

Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS) is a known skin and eye irritant and enhances allergic response. It is used as a lathering agent and detergent, and is present in many shampoos, body washes, and bubble baths, as well as skin creams and some brands of toothpaste. When sodium laurel sulfate is combined with ethylene oxide (ethoxylized) to create the milder sodium laureth sulfate, it may become contaminated with 1,4-dioxane, a probable carcinogen.

Triethanolamine (TEA), diethanolamine (DEA) and monoethanolamine (MEA) are ingredients used in sunscreens, moisturizers, foundations and hair colour. Other DEA compounds ( cocamide DEA and lauramide DEA) are used in soaps, cleansers and shampoos. DEAs are used to adjust the pH of the products and also work as emulsifiers or wetting agents. DEA and TEA are known to combine with nitrates to form nitrosamines. Nitrosamines are reported as possible human carcinogens by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, the U.S. National Toxicology Program Report on Carcinogens and by the California EPA.

Triclosan is a synthetic antibacterial agent used in soaps, toothpastes, mouthwash, deodorant, shaving cream and other personal care products. The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES, 2003) measured triclosan in the urine of 2,517 participants aged six years and up .Triclosan was detected in the urine of 75% of the people tested. Studies show that triclosan might be hazardous to human health, alters hormone regulation in animals, might contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria and might be harmful to the immune system.

I hope that you found this article interesting and informative. Feel free to share it with others.

Your comments, questions and personal experience stories are welcomed. You can post it below and I will reply as soon as I can.

  Yours, Dr. Irit Van-Ham

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