Do you know what is in your cosmetics?
Do you have any idea what is lurking in the tube of hand lotion on your nightstand? And in your night cream, shampoo and conditioner, your body wash and many other toiletries and cosmetics?
Even if you managed to read their too-small-to-make-out, cleverly hidden, mostly unpronounceable, excessively long or bafflingly abbreviated, bewilderingly numbered, always incomprehensible list of ingredients, you’ll still don’t know.
For one thing, you don’t actually know what is under the term Fragrance on the ingredient list. And, if the product isn’t explicitly fragrance-free, you’ll always see this word or its synonyms on the list: Fragrance, Parfum, Perfume, Aroma. Sometimes, to throw you off the track, they will use the word Scent.
This is because manufacturers legally don’t have to say what ingredients their fragrances contain. Anything can be hidden under whatever is masking the bad smell of the chemicals they used in their product. The aim is to make you swoon: “Ahh, this smells so good!” And it works.
For another thing, even if you see words like methylchloroisothiazolinone, ethylhexylglycerin, cocamidopropylbetaine, polyquarternium-39, sodium lauroamphoacetate or butyrospermum parkii, do you know what they mean? If you do, congratulations. For the rest of you, here is a hint: the last word, the parkii one, means shea butter. Why didn’t they just say so?
However, chances are that you know what is not in your cosmetics. If you care at all about the welfare of animals, you’ll know if your cosmetics are cruelty-free; that they haven’t been tested on animals. They’ll carry the bunny logo as proof. You’ll also know if they are vegan; that they don’t contain animal products. This is usually written somewhere obvious, where you can’t miss it.
I used to think knowing these two facts was reason enough to purchase cosmetics. It should be, in a perfect world, because kindness to animals is important.
I also thought it would be enough if products further stated they contained no parabens, PEGs, sulphates or phthalates (DEP, DBP or DEHP).
But no, one should know much more than that.
I know, and not because I’m super skeptical, or overly clever, or understand exactly what is going on in ingredient lists.
I know because I had no idea of what was in my pretty purple tube of lavender-scented hand lotion, decorated with the picture of a lavender sprig. And because this blissful ignorance almost made me throw out my perfectly good, innocent, fragrance-free, vegan, cruelty-free, organic day cream.
I know because I started studying ingredient lists.
For many months I put on my day cream, and, unthinkingly, before or after, also my hand lotion. And then my eyes became really sore. I thought the day cream irritated my eyes, because my cosmetics had done that before.
In the end I put away the day cream and used something else. My eyes remained sore. I purchased eye drops.
It went on like that, until the day I thought it would be a good idea to write about the chemicals in our cosmetics.
I piled my cosmetics on my desk and tried to read the ingredient lists on them.
Most ingredients were written so small that I had to use a magnifying glass to read them.
Or they were written so small that I had to photograph them, and then zoom in on the words.
Some ingredient lists were written not only small, but on the products’ rounded surface, making it almost impossible to decipher. I had to pry the labels loose and glue them on a straight surface to read.
Other ingredient lists are on the outer box of the products, that one throws in the bin as soon as you get home.
And then there were those written on the inside of see-through bottles, behind whatever was in it. I had to finish the products before I could read the ingredient list.
To my shock I realised this: It contained not even one minuscule floret of a lavender sprig.
Instead, the lovely lavender scent was a result of the synthetic fragrances butylphenyl methylproponiona, benzyl salicylate and methylparaben. And they weren’t good for me.
Butylphenyl methylproponiona causes potentially so much skin sensitisation, that the International Fragrance Association (IFRA) restricted its use.
Benzyl salicylate might cause endocrine disruption, allergies and dermatitis. It is an environmental toxin. This too may only be used in limited quantities.
Methylparaben is a fragrance and preservative that, although it is debatable, might very well cause endocrine disruption, mimic estrogen and cause cancer.
This hand lotion, from a well-known shop and of a brand that boasts about its goodness, also contained:
- Retinyl (retinol): A chemical form of vitamin A, with anti-ageing properties. Can cause cancer and toxicity in the body. Becomes carcinogenic in sunlight.
- C1 170200: A synthetic colourant that has been linked to a variety of conditions, even cancer.
- PEG-40: Environmental toxicant. Concentration limit restricted.
- Trietthanolamine: Also known as TEA. An allergen that can be toxic to the immune and respiratory system. Harmful to the skin.
- Dimenthiconol: Toxic to aquatic life.
- DMDM hydantoin: May affect the skin, respiratory system, eyes, nose, ears and throat, as well as the central nervous system. Concentration levels are limited.
- C1 60730: Colourant that might irritate skin, eyes and lungs. Has use restrictions.
So much for my hand lotion. I cleaned it out, chucked it in my recycle bin and started using my day cream again.
I have no more sore eyes.
According to the American Environmental Working Group (EWG), our skin absorbs up to 60% of the chemicals in the products we use. From the skin the chemicals come into direct contact with the bloodstream. Even small amounts of the chemicals may have a negative health and hormonal impact on us.
The EWG also reports: “Since 2009, 595 cosmetics manufacturers have reported using 88 chemicals, in more than 73,000 products, that have been linked to cancer, birth defects and reproductive harm.”
This is what I found:
- The same ingredients were used in many different products.
Even if the use of harmful chemicals is limited in one product, and we are exposed to the same ingredient in a couple of products every day, often for years, don’t we then exceed the limit of our exposure to it? It stands to reason that it does.
It is difficult to measure the total toxic overload one has been exposed to over many years and from many products. But our exposure to harmful chemicals, even with restricted use in a single product, must be alarmingly huge. An ingredient that one finds in several products is, for instance, ethylhexyl glycerin.
It is even more worrying that some of the repeated ingredients are also in chemical household cleaning products we use regularly or even daily.
- Even though I searched the internet, on many ingredients there was not enough data on risk assessment.
This was clearly stated on some research websites.
- Many harmful chemicals were preservatives.
Why is it necessary that one’s cosmetics last months or even years? Most come in small quantities, and we use them daily. Wouldn’t it be better to buy something that has a shorter shelf life, and is good for you?
- Even if some ingredients weren’t pronounced harmful to humans, they can accumulate in the environment. Many were even bad for both us and marine life.
Why use anything that might be good for us, but has the potential to kill marine life? Think for instance, of face scrubs that contain microbeads.
- Chemicals were also mainly used for:
Lathering, creaminess, spreading, drying, preserving and fragrance.
- Many of the chemicals mentioned on ingredient lists were harmful, but there was no warning about that.
- Each product contained around 20 chemicals, often more.
- All the products I looked at were vegan and cruelty-free, most contained active ingredients from nature and some did not contain sulphates, colour, parabens and phthalates. Although, almost all contained harmful chemicals.
- Only in a few products from reputable brands I found none, or almost none, harmful chemicals.
- Most harmful chemicals caused allergies, skin and eye irritations, eye damage, disrupted hormones and some were even linked to cancer.
My face wash was drying and irritating to my skin. Further, it contained a preservative that could cause eye damage and was an allergen. It was also non-biodegradable and toxic to aquatic life. One ingredient was even banned in several countries because of possible health problems from overexposure and environmental harm.
My night cream was a toxic concoction that could disrupt hormones, harm the reproductive system and cause dermatitis and irritation to my skin, eyes and lungs. Some ingredients accumulated in nature and were suspected environmental toxins. The use and concentration of many ingredients were restricted.
Chemicals in my shampoo caused allergies, eczema and skin inflammation. They irritated the eyes and lungs. Concentration in their use were limited. Some were harmful to aquatic life.
In my body lotion I found possible carcinogens.
The bubble bath that I used to love, could cause skin irritations and allergies. It was suspected to be toxic. One chemical could even have been carcinogenic. There were limitations on concentrations and use.
My antiperspirant was supposed to be good for me, and boasted: Aluminium-free, no alcohol, colour, parabens. Enriched with witch hazel.
Yet, I found two ingredients on the list that could have been toxic or harmful. There were restrictions on their concentration.
My lavender and sugar beet shampoo declared itself to be natural, non-toxic, biodegradable, with no harmful chemicals, no synthetic fragrances, sodium laureth or lauryl sulphate, no animal ingredients, synthetic dyes or preservatives, animal testing and petrochemicals.
Yet, it contained ingredients that could cause allergies, skin burns, eye damage and could even be fatal if swallowed. There were limitations on their concentrations and use.
Olefin sulfonate, ethylhexylglycerin, caprylic/capric triglyceride, isopropyl, isopropyl myristate, propylene glycol (PG), cyclopentasiloxane, cyclohexasiloxane, polyacrylamide, butylene glycol (BG), 1,2 hexanediol, decyl glucoside, lauryl glucoside, cyclopentasiloxane, phenoxyethanol,sodium laureth sulfate, propylene glycol (PG), benzophenone-4 (sulisobenzone),
methylchloroisothiazolinone, methylisothiazolinone, alpha-isomethyl ionone, geraniol, butylphenyl methylproponial (lilial, lily aldehyde), hexyl cinnamal, CI 45100, polyacrylamide, butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT), cocamidopropyl betane (CAPB), pheno-oxyethanol, disodium (EDTA), butylhexylglycerin and butyloctanol.
I was a victim of greenwashing.
What is greenwashing?
Greenwashing happens when companies convey false messages that their products are good for us, animals and the planet.
For instance, a product might claim that it is cruelty-free, vegan and doesn’t contain parabens. It gives out misleading messages of goodness and concern, so we buy it. But, all the while, it might contain many ingredients that are harmful to our health and that of marine life and the environment.
Because there are no regulations regarding what is organic or natural, companies often make misleading or false claims about their products. Products that tout these terms on their labels often contain very little of anything natural or organic.
We have to be cautious and scrutinise the labels when we see terms like organic, natural, no harmful chemicals, cruelty-free, hypoallergenic and vegan on anything we buy or use.
Tips when choosing cosmetics:
- Don’t be fooled by greenwashing.
- The fewer ingredients the better.
- Go for fragrance-free, or fragrance only from natural essential oils.
- Choose products with ingredients that you know.
- If necessary, take a magnifying glass to the shops, to make sure you can read the tiny scrip of the ingredient lists.
- Take your time in the shop to make sure you buy the right product.
- Stick to products and manufacturers that you know can be trusted.
- When possible, choose cosmetics that carry the ECOCERT, COSMOS, MADE SAFE and EWG verifications.
As far as possible, buy products in glass and not in plastics, that may leech harmful chemicals into the content.