Nutritional and exercise science have demonstrated that what we eat and what we do can make a huge difference in a multitude of disease end-point markers; but what about what we soak in? Despite many advancements in science very little is known about chemicals we put on our skin and the impact that it has on our system. Over 10 500 ingredients are used in personal care products. The average person uses 10 different cosmetic and personal care products daily, each of which contain a plethora of chemical ingredients. You must be thinking sure that is probably true but why should we worry? They must be tested for safety and properly regulated, right?!?
The purpose of this article is to shed some light of what we do and don’t know about this subject and most importantly to give you some practical tips on how to decrease your exposure to some potentially harmful chemicals.
The reality about regulation
“Cosmetic products and ingredients are not subject to FDA premarket approval authority, with the exception of color additives. Cosmetic firms are responsible for substantiating the safety of their products and ingredients before marketing.” -FDA
Bottom line: Proving safety is the responsibility of the cosmetic firm. The same firm who will be economically benefiting from this product. Ideally, the manufacturer is accountable, responsible and is not influenced by the financial impact of these decisions. The reality is that making unbiased decisions can be very difficult with the lack or minimal research that exists on these chemical ingredients. The research has not been able to keep up with the 10 500 chemical ingredients in existence. Does the lack of research equal safety? Many would argue that it does not. However, it appears many cosmetic firms will say it does until proven otherwise.
Um, but there are many chemicals that do show preliminary animal in-vivo studies that indicate potential carcinogenic and hormone disrupting properties. A common response is that the exposure of the chemical ingredient in their product is not in any considerable quantity that is proven to be potentially dangerous to humans. In addition, this means that everyone is only concerned about one product at a time. No one stops to think, “well if these chemicals are in most of the products, what is the synergistic exposure?” Not one manufacturer needs to consider overall exposure and synergistic risk. No one has to take specific responsibility.
So what role does the FDA play in cosmetic regulations?
“Must be made and packaged in clean factories. Cannot contain poison, rotten, or harmful ingredients. May only use color additives that are FDA-approved. Must have a clear, truthful label.” -FDA
In a dichotomous system, a product is either safe or harmful. If safety is decided by the manufacturer then by default, a harmful ingredient is greatly influenced by what they don’t consider safe. See a problem with this? This really only leaves the chemicals that have had the opportunity to be scrutinized by very good research to otherwise be labeled as harmful. Since most don’t have the research to support their safety or lack of safety then many are considered safe until proven otherwise. Well that’s great, no lead in our personal care products. Fewf!
“FDA does not test cosmetics before they are sold in stores. Companies must make sure their products and ingredients are safe before they sell them. FDA can take action against companies who break the law.” -FDA
Bottom line: This quote very clearly and eloquently states that there is no pre-market research required and safety is greatly defined by the cosmetic firms who create them. A system that has been set up so that we must have the research to prove an ingredient unsafe rather than research to prove safety prior to being on the market.
Well I’m located in Canada. Things must be different, right?
“All cosmetics sold to consumers in Canada must meet the requirements of the Food and Drug Act, the current Cosmetic Regulations, and all other applicable legislation to ensure that they are safe to use and do not pose any health risk.” -Health Canada
A great part of our regulation is tightly dependent on that of the FDA.
Exposure and human absorption
What we know:
We are exposed to many of these chemical ingredients, some are absorbed and some are found in human tissue- phthalates found in urine, parabens found in breast tumours and fragrance xylene found in human fat among others.
A study in 2000 analyzed perinatal exposure to phthalates and demonstrated that some but not all phthalates alter sexual differentiation in the male rat. Changes such as reduced distance between the anus and genitalia, retained nipples, cleft phallus with hypospadia (abnormal location of the male urethra).
A study in 2006 found that women with occupational prenatal exposure to hormone disruptor were more likely to have a son with hypospodias.
A study in 2006 analyzed human semen quality and phthalate exposure and found as phthalate concentration increased, a reduction in the quality of semen was found.
What we don’t know:
We don’t know how the synergy of the chemicals are reacting in our body and how they impact our health or specific disease outcomes. The concerns are that studies done with rats use chemical exposures greater than what is expected in humans. In human studies, we lack long-term prospective studies. In order for us to make any comments based on better research we would need quality chemical exposure data from 20 years ago and follow specific outcomes. Unfortunately this quality data does not exist. Our studies are done based on the information we have had for the past 20 years, despite it lack of specific parameters that would be helpful for today’s analysis. What we can do today is urge that research be re-directed to seek answers for tomorrow. We require research that will follow prenatal and life chemical exposure and analyze outcomes such as fertility, cancer and other diseases. Current trends of concerns that are likely multifactorial but of great importance is the earlier age of menarche in girls and the decrease in sperm count in men. Our reproductive health is being threatened.
What I know for sure is that none of us have deficiency in any of these chemicals and that if they are proven to be safe in the future you are unlikely to suffer consequences from having avoided them. There is unconvincing evidence that the opposite will always be true.
Precautionary measures and empowering choices
Precautionary measures are an essential part of the solution as we wait for the evidence in the next few decades to build and establish a verdict. Remember, it took over 100 years to say confidently that smoking was highly associated with lung cancer despite preliminary evidence 100 years prior. This leaves a multitude of products available for use. There are manufacturers who do go the extra distance to use ingredients with a strong safety profile.
The environmental working group (EWG) is a non for profit research and advocacy group. They have created Skin Deep, a cosmetic database that ranks products based on ingredients and safety. For specific information check out their database.
Here are some general simple tips recommended by the scientist at EWG.
- Use fewer, simpler products.
- Read the ingredient label and ignore claims.
- Read label warnings. Look up the product review and safety rating on the cosmeticdatabase.com
- Major ingredients to avoid: Fragrance and dyes, parabens, “PEG” and “eth”, triclosan and triclocarban, triethanolamine (TEA)
A tip of my own
- Avoid loose powders including mineral powders. There is some evidence that breathing these small particulates induce inflammation in our lungs that could cause long-term consequences.
Take a deep breath. Environmental science can at times be overwhelming in a world where exposure can not be fully controlled. The key take home message is to do the best that you can. Think of the impact it could have on your overall exposure if you found safer alternatives for 8 out of the 10 daily products you use. This doesn’t need to be an all or nothing. What needs to change is our awareness that the chemical world we live in does and can impact our life to a degree that has yet to be fully elucidated.
Image Credit: Renjith Krishnan / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Barrett. Fertile grounds of inquiry: environmental effects on human reproduction. Environ Health Perspect (2006) vol. 114 (11) pp. A644-9
Gray et al. Perinatal exposure to the phthalates DEHP, BBP, and DINP, but not DEP, DMP, or DOTP, alters sexual differentiation of the male rat. Toxicol Sci (2000) vol. 58 (2) pp. 350-65
Main et al. Human breast milk contamination with phthalates and alterations of endogenous reproductive hormones in infants three months of age. Environ Health Perspect (2006) vol. 114 (2) pp. 270-6
Zhang et al. Phthalate exposure and human semen quality in Shanghai: a cross-sectional study. Biomed Environ Sci (2006) vol. 19 (3) pp. 205-9