Be afraid, Be very afraid
Over the years I’ve spent a good deal of my time battling the endless bombardment of inaccurate and absurd information disseminated by cosmetics companies and cosmetics salespeople from every corner of the industry. Over the past several years the Internet has given rise to another form of cosmetics insanity, coming from grass-roots organizations trying to keep the cosmetics industry from killing us.
These Web sites and possibly well-intentioned people take a piece of information, a piece of a study, or a scientific point of view and make it sound like fact.
Also, read this:
They also tend to only use information that “proves” their point (that is, most cosmetics are killing us) by selectively using only the data that show they are right while ignoring any evidence to the contrary. I wish the world was that black and white, because decision-making would be so much easier, but that isn’t the case. Issues are more complex than the answers that are often presented, and getting to the facts can take a masters degree in way too many disciplines.
What almost always complicates matters is that there is a grain of a truth that gets blown out of proportion. Trying to balance out seemingly contradictory information is a challenge. It’s one of the reasons I get criticized for being long-winded and writing too much. My goal is to get all the facts out on the table and that takes a lot of words.
Although I am extremely critical of the cosmetics industry I also prefer a rational, balanced point of view. I prefer fact to supposition, I prefer critical analysis to a knee-jerk reaction, and I absolutely prefer reality to fiction. There is no question the cosmetics industry has its faults, but trying to kill us is not one of them.
It doesn’t take much to make a consumer afraid of just about anything; a little bit of science can sound so dire. For example, dihydrogen monoxide (DHMO) is a colorless and odorless chemical compound, also referred to by some as dihydrogen oxide, hydrogen hydroxide, hydronium hydroxide, or simply hydric acid. Its basis is the highly reactive hydroxyl radical, a substance that has been shown to mutate DNA, denature proteins, disrupt cell membranes, and chemically alter critical neurotransmitters. The atomic components of DHMO are found in a number of caustic, explosive, and poisonous compounds such as sulfuric acid, nitroglycerine, and ethyl alcohol. Dihydrogen oxide? That’s simply H2O—plain, everyday water.
We need to use safe ingredients that work on our skin to make it look and feel better. The cosmetics industry overwhelmingly complies with “safe” ingredients. Finding effective products (regardless of their origin) and getting past the fear-mongering generated by so many earnest as well as unscrupulous companies and Web sites can go a long way to helping you do that.
Mineral Oil and Petrolatum
The notion that mineral oil and petrolatum (Vaseline) are bad for skin has been around for some time, with Aveda being the most visible company to mount a crusade deriding these ingredients. But now there are dozens of others. According to many companies that produce “natural” cosmetics, mineral oil and petrolatum are terrible ingredients because they come from crude oil (petroleum) and are used in industry as metal-cutting fluids (among other uses) and, therefore, can harm the skin by forming an oil film and suffocating it.
This foolish, recurring misinformation about mineral oil and petrolatum is maddening. After all, crude oil is as natural as any other earth-derived substance. Moreover, lots of ingredients are derived from awful-sounding sources but are nevertheless benign and totally safe. Salt is a perfect example. Common table salt is sodium chloride, composed of sodium and chloride, but salt doesn’t have the caustic properties of chloride (a form of chlorine) or the unstable explosiveness of sodium. In fact, it is a completely different compound with the harmful properties of neither of its components.
Cosmetic/pharmaceutical-grade mineral oil and petrolatum are considered the safest and most nonirritating ingredients in the world of skin care. Yes, they can keep air off the skin to some extent, but that’s what a good antioxidant is supposed to do; and they don’t suffocate skin, at least not any more than any plant oil. In fact research shows plant oils and mineral oil have pretty much the same function on skin.
Moreover, petrolatum and mineral oil are known for being efficacious in wound healing, and are also considered to be among the most effective moisturizing ingredients available. The confusion around mineral oil is also caused by some cosmetics companies and people who use the information about non-purified mineral oil as a scare tactic. The mineral oil used in skin-care products is certified as either USP (United States Pharmacopeia) or BP (British Pharmacopeia). This is the type that’s used in skin-care products, and it’s completely safe, soothing, non-irritating, and perfectly healthy for skin.
(Sources: Journal of Dermatologic Science, May 2008, pages 135–142; International Jour-nal of Cosmetic Science, October 2007, pages 385–390; European Journal of Ophthalmology, March–April 2007, pages 151–159; International Wound Journal, September 2006, pages 181–187; Ostomy Wound Management, December 2005, pages 30–42; Dermatitis, September 2004, pages 109–116; Cosmetics & Toiletries, January 2001, page 79; Cosmetic Dermatology, September 2000, pages 44–46; and Cosmetics & Toiletries, February 1998, pages 33–40.)
Parabens and Preservatives
You may not think of them as an essential part of your skin care and cosmetics, but without question skin-care and cosmetics products need preservatives. This is especially true for products that contain plant extracts—just think about how long a bunch of broccoli lasts in your refrigerator before it becomes a mushy, discolored mess.
Whether it is a cleanser, lotion, toner, blush, foundation, or mascara, without preservatives these everyday items would become overloaded with bacteria, mold, and fungus, making them harmful to skin, eyes, and mucous membranes. However, as necessary as preservatives are to the safety of cosmetics, they’ve had their share of woes over the years. For example, back in the early ’90s, it was discovered that when formaldehyde-releasing preservatives (such as 2-bromo-2-nitropane 1-3 diol, or DMDM hydantoin) are combined with amines (such as triethanolamine), something called nitrosamine forms, and nitrosamine (in its various forms) is, in fact, carcinogenic. This problem was viewed as inconsequential for cosmetics because the amount of preservatives used in cosmetics is minute. No test has shown it to cause problems for people applying makeup or using skin-care products. Studies relating to carcinogenic properties of nitrosamine were done by feeding it orally to laboratory rats. Still, it is not a pleasant thought to associate a “carcinogen” with your cosmetics in any way, shape, or form. As a result, and despite their effectiveness, formaldehyde-based preservatives are not as popular as they once were.
Another group of preservatives, called parabens, is now in a predicament similar to that of formaldehyde-releasing preservatives, and this has become a common subject for questions from my readers. These parabens may come in the form of butylparaben, ethylparaben, isobutylparaben, methylparaben, or propylparaben, and they have been linked distantly (meaning in limited studies and with only a handful of subjects or animal studies) to breast cancer due to their weak estrogenic activity and their presence in breast-cancer tumors, as well as to low sperm-count rates in men. But even from a distance that has some people worried, especially considering that, by some estimates, more than 90% of all cosmetics products contain one or more parabens. In fact, parabens are the most widely used group of cosmetic preservatives in the world because of their efficacy, low risk of irritation, and stability.
What started the concern about parabens was a study published in the Journal of Steroid Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, January 2002, pages 49–60, that evaluated the estrogenic activity of parabens in human breast-cancer cells. The very technical findings of the study, which involved both oral administration and injection into rat skin, did show evidence of a weak estrogenic effect on cells in a way that could be problematic for binding to receptor sites that may cause proliferation of MCF-7 breast-cancer cells.
A single study identified parabens in human breast-tumor samples supplied by 20 patients. This study was concerned primarily with the use of deodorants that contained parabens rather than with cosmetics in general, but it has been extrapolated to the cosmetics industry as a whole, prompting many consumers to check the ingredient lists of the products they’re using. But more to the point, the presence of parabens in human breast tumors doesn’t mean they caused the tumors.
Pervasive fear was generated by these well-circulated facts. What didn’t make the e-mail spam rounds is that all the researchers who are studying this issue, as well as health organizations around the world, agree that the information to date is hardly conclusive and at best vague, and that potentially parabens require more study (Sources: Journal of Applied Toxicology, January–February 2004, pages 1–4, September–October 2003, pages 285–288, and March–April 2003, pages 89–59; and Journal of the National Cancer Institute, August 2003, pages 1106–1118).
With regard to deodorants in general, it turns out parabens are rarely used as the preservative. A scientific review paper published in the Bulletin du Cancer, September 2008, pages 871–880, concluded that “After analysis of the available literature on the subject [of deodorants causing cancer], no scientific evidence to support the hypothesis was identified and no validated hypothesis appears likely to open the way to interesting avenues of research.”
On the other side of the coin, there is research showing that parabens are absorbed through intact skin and are not broken down (Source: Journal of Applied Toxicology, July 2008, pages 561–578), but once again the association as to its effect is just not known.
It is also important to realize that parabens are used in food products as well (Source: Food Chemistry and Toxicology, October 2002, pages 1335–1373), which could very well be the source, not cosmetics. What is surprising to some is that parabens actually have a “natural” origin. Parabens are formed from an acid (p-hydroxy-benzoic acid) found in raspberries and blackberries (Source: Cosmetics & Toiletries, January 2005, page 22). So much for the widely held belief that natural ingredients are the only answer for skin-care products!
As yet, no one has any idea (or has evaluated) whether it is the consumption of parabens or their application to the skin that is responsible for their presence in human tissue. And no one knows what the presence of parabens in human tissue means. In terms of the low male sperm count in relation to parabens, research published in Birth Defects Research, Part B, Developmental and Reproductive Toxicology, April 2008, pages 123–133, concluded that parabens had no effect on sperm count in an in vivo experiment (meaning it was done on real guys).
Does this mean you should stop buying products that contain parabens? I mean who wants this stuff being absorbed through their skin whether there is conclusive research or not? That’s a good question, but the answer isn’t simple and the studies are hardly conclusive on any front. Clearly it is a serious issue, and the FDA is conducting its own research to determine what this means for human health (Source: The Endocrine Disruptor Knowledge Base (EDKB), http://edkb.fda.gov/index.html). But a definitive answer is far from close.
As a point of reference, and just to keep the concern over parabens in perspective, it is important to realize that parabens are hardly the only substances that have estrogenic effects on the body. The issue is that any source of estrogen, including the estrogen our bodies produce or the types associated with plant extracts, may bind to receptor sites on cells, either strongly or weakly. This can either stimulate the receptor to imitate the effect of our own estrogen in a positive way, or it can generate an abnormal estrogen response. It is possible that a weak plant estrogen can help the body, but it is also possible for a strong plant estrogen to make matters worse. For example, there is research showing that coffee is a problem for fibrocystic breast disease, possibly because coffee exerts estrogenic effects on breast cells. (Sources: Journal of the American Medical Women’s Association, Spring 2002, pages 85–90; Annals of the New York Academy of Science, March 2002, pages 11–22; and American Journal of Epidemiology, October 1996, pages 642–644.)
To quote some studies directly: “Although parabens can act similarly to estrogen, they have been shown to have much less estrogenic activity than the body’s naturally occurring estrogen. For example, a 1998 study (Routledge et al., in Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology) found that the most potent paraben tested in the study, butylparaben, showed from 10,000- to 100,000-fold less activity than naturally occurring estradiol (a form of estrogen) [found in our water systems]. Further, parabens are used at very low levels in cosmetics. In a review of the estrogenic activity of parabens (Golden et al., in Critical Reviews in Toxicology, 2005), the author concluded that based on maximum daily exposure estimates, “it was implausible that parabens could increase the risk associated with exposure to estrogenic chemicals” (Source: www.fda.gov).
Ironically, the endocrine-disrupting potencies of ingredients like parabens or phthalates “are several orders of magnitude lower than that of the natural estrogens” (Source: Environment International, July 2007, pages 654–669). Human endocrine-disrupting sources have their origin in plants, such as marijuana (Source: Toxicology, January 2005, pages 471–488), or in medicines such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) (Source: Water Research, November 2008, pages 4578–4588).
A study conducted at the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, investigated the estrogenic effects of licorice root, black cohosh, dong quai, and ginseng “on cell proliferation of MCF-7 cells, a human breast cancer cell line….” The results showed that “Dong quai and ginseng both significantly induced the growth of MCF-7 cells by 16- and 27-fold, respectively, over that of untreated control cells, while black cohosh and licorice root did not” (Source: Menopause, March–April, 2002, pages 145–150). Another study concluded that “Commercially available products containing soy, red clover, and herbal combinations induced an increase in the MCF-7 [breast cancer] proliferation rates, indicating an estrogen-antagonistic activity….” (Source: Menopause, May–June 2004, pages 281–289). Despite this evidence, when was that last time you read a media report or received a forwaded e-mail about the breat cancer risk from soy or ginseng?
One more point about the risk of breast cancer related to underarm deodorant. In October 2002, a study conducted at the Seattle-based Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, looked at the issue of underarm deodorant use and breast cancer. The study compared the use of underarm deodorant in 810 women who had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and 793 women who were not affected by the disease. When the two groups were compared, researchers found no evidence of an increased risk of breast cancer linked to using antiperspirant or deodorant, or using antiperspirant or deodorant after shaving with a traditional razor blade. In short, the researchers believed their study proved there was no link between underarm deodorants and breast cancer risk.
Getting to the truth about the use of nanoparticles in cosmetics, like many issues in the cosmetics industry—with its confusing screen of distorted information—isn’t easy. But getting it right is important, particularly because the sunscreen ingredients titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, so essential to the health of skin, are involved. Nanotechnology is about changing any material from its original size and making it much, much smaller. This technology is used in a wide variety of industries, from medicine to agriculture to cosmetics. In the case of cosmetic products and over-the-counter drugs such as sun-screens, making particles nano-sized has two chief advantages: it can make the product more aesthetically pleasing (this is often the case with mineral sunscreens—making the particles of the active mineral smaller allows them to be applied without leaving a noticeable white cast), and it can enhance penetration of certain ingredients, such as vitamins and other antioxidants.
You may have seen concerns expressed in the media, online, and by certain lobbying groups about the use of nanoparticles in cosmetic products, both in general and in particular, when it comes to using nanoparticles of titanium dioxide and zinc oxide as the active ingredients in sunscreens. What’s been reported about these benign sunscreen ingredients often sounds scary, with some reports going so far as to state that nanoparticles of these sunscreen actives reach the bloodstream and are potentially dangerous. Some articles about sunscreen nanoparticles have even stated these can interact with sunlight and cause cellular damage to skin. As alarming as this sounds, these assertions are not supported by any published information and they are without support from the medical world or the FDA.
Reviews of scientific data by major regulatory agencies have concluded that nanoparticles of titanium dioxide and zinc oxide remain on the surface of the skin and in the outer dead layer (stratum corneum) of skin. They are not absorbed into the bloodstream and do not affect living skin cells. Studies coming to these conclusions have tested these nanoparticles on healthy, intact human skin and on various types of human and animal skin samples.
Based on these conclusions and those of other studies I have reviewed from toxicologists, the question of nanoparticle risk from the mineral sunscreen actives is not a human health issue. There is no proof that these sunscreen actives absorb into skin. And in fact, regardless of any potential risk, you would never want that to happen since sunscreen actives need to remain in the surface layers of skin in order to protect it from UV damage.
Further, in terms of the potential risk that titanium dioxide could generate free radicals in the presence of sunlight, it has been shown that adding antioxidants to the mix (whether they’re in your sunscreen or already naturally present in skin) eliminates this risk, and other research has established that both zinc oxide and titanium oxide are stable substances that don’t elicit free-radical damage at all.
(Sources for this information: www.tga.gov.au/npmeds/sunscreen-zotd.htm#pdf; Experi-mental Dermatology, August 2008, pages 659–667; Environmental Science and Toxicology, July 2007, pages 5, 149-153; Critical Reviews in Toxicology, March 2007, pages 251–277; Skin Pharmacology and Physiology, January 2007, pages 148–154; and Skin Pharmacology and Applied Skin Physiology, September–October 1999, pages 247–256.)
Interestingly, a study from Taiwan demonstrated that applying nanoparticles of titanium dioxide to pinprick sites actually had an antibacterial effect in the presence of sunlight. The nanoparticles actually kept the pinprick wound sites from becoming infected (Source: Artificial Organs, February 2008, pages 167–174)! That would not be the expected outcome if nanoparticles of titanium dioxide were inherently harmful to skin cells.