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Dying to look good: Ingredients in personal care products harmful to health and environment

by Sarah TurnerThe Manitoban
March 28th, 2013

Every day we lather, spread, scrub, blend, apply, and swipe personal care products like shampoo, deodorant, eye makeup, shaving cream, lipstick, and moisturizers all over our bodies. These products are important to our image. They help us look clean, fresh, put-together, and mask any unwanted odours; but is there more to these products than what meets the eye? Could their routine use actually pose a threat to our health and the health of the environment?

Take a look at the ingredient list on any given product you use. Chances are you will only recognize one ingredient: water. You might also find phthalates, polyethylene glycol (PEGs), aluminum, parabens, sodium lauryl sulphate, and a multitude of other unpronounceable words.

When used chronically, all these ingredients have potentially deleterious effects to humans and the environment. To further complicate the equation, these ingredients also fall under several alternate names depending on their chemical structure, so identifying them becomes complicated.

Phthalates are one of the most common contaminants in our environment. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found dibutyl phthalates present in the systems of all 289 people that participated in one particular study. Dibutyl phthalates are used as plasticizers and prevent the cracking and drying of an array of commercial products, including shampoo, body wash, and moisturizer. Phthalates may cause reproductive and developmental abnormalities, exhibiting their largest effect in males through testicular malformations and reduced sperm count.

Polyethylene glycols (PEGs) are found in soaps, deodorants, and moisturizers, and act as solvents and moisture carriers. They also function as “penetration enhancers” and increase absorption of chemicals into the skin. PEGs themselves pose little threat to our health, but are often contaminated with measurable levels of 1,4-dioxane, and ethylene oxide, which are probable and known human carcinogens, respectively. Any contact with these two contaminants poses a threat to human health. Additionally, 1,4-dioxane acts as an environmental contaminant and is toxic to aquatic life once it has been washed down the drain.

Aluminium is a common active ingredient in many commercial antiperspirants and deodorants and functions to block the sweat ducts from releasing sweat. The sweat-blocking mechanism of aluminium is potentially harmful to breast tissues and has been associated with increased rates of gross breast cyst growth – cysts that may be associated with breast cancer. Aluminum also acts as a metalloestrogen, which may increase risk of breast cancer due to elevated estrogen levels.

Though perhaps startling, the clinical research behind such claims may not always convince consumers to rethink their loyalty to a cosmetic product that has served them well. The trouble with guaranteeing the harmful effects of the aforementioned ingredients is that not much is known about their long-term effects. Similar to the recall of bisphenol A or BPA-containing plastics such as water bottles in 2008, there may be more convincing scientific evidence in years to come after significant human or environmental harm has already occurred. Unlike the European Union, the Canadian government does not follow the “precautionary principle,” which protects citizens from potentially harmful ingredients even if they are not 100 per cent scientifically proven.

So, where can you find products that do not double as potentially toxic concoctions? Search for name brands such as Live Clean, Burt’s Bees, Rocky Mountain Soap Company, Tiber River Naturals, and Aveda. These product lines may cost a few dollars more, but they are for the most part free of some of the common ingredients just mentioned.

Many of the ingredients in our daily-use personal care products can pose a threat to human and environmental health. Above all, it’s important to be mindful consumers, informed about what these products are actually doing to our bodies and the earth.

A complete synopsis of these and multiple other potentially harmful ingredients can be found by following this link to a website created to increase campus awareness on this very topic: cosmeticsdyingtolookgood.weebly.com. 

Research for this article was done by: Shawn Saleem, Christey Allen, Gerry Lockhart, Feng Ding, and Sarah Turner – students currently enrolled in the U of M course, Advanced Issues in Environmental Health.