Part 3 – more contested dodgy stuff…

There’s more…!

We are discussing the potential or possible dangers inherent in the skin care products we use. Protesters claim that on average a person may use 9 or 10 products in a day and often more. This ‘bioaccumulation’ of potential threat is the subject of these posts, and the puzzle of what is really to fear in these products…if anything…

These are a few of the ingredients people have asked me about since the last post…


Some people may want their products to be ‘fragrance-free’, ‘unscented’ or ‘unperfumed’. They may want the product but not like the chosen smell, or simply not want the scent to clash with their preferred signature perfume, but more often than not it is due to concerns regarding allergies. Many people think of their skin as sensitive (reacting as itchy, flaky or reddening) but it may well be the perfume in the products (both natural and synthetic) they use that is actually the problem. Brands add perfume, not only for the point of sale benefit (they know people often buy with their noses as-it-were), but to mask the smell of the base ingredients (both natural and synthetic) which might not be conducive in quite the same way! So, be aware that there is a possibility that those products marketed as unperfumed or unscented are not actually free of the fragrance compounds that may be be causing an allergy.

Any added fragrances are found in the ingredient list and identified by the inclusion of the word ‘parfum’. The warnings can also be applied to essential oils as they can be equally strong smelling but also contain the same natural constituents as the fragrances which would therefore trigger the same allergies if you are prone.

Bergamot oil is a case in point as it can react with sunlight and irritate skin.


There are phthalates in literally thousands of products. They are essentially a group of esters that are used to increase the flexibility, transparency and durability of another substance and are used a lot in conjunction with plastics. Obviously, not all phthalates are the same but the general grievance against them is that in laboratory tests they are thought to mimic hormones when they enter the body and disrupt the nervous and reproductive systems and recent research has suggested a link to an increase in diabetes in women and a general link to increased obesity. There are too many variations and purposes to list here as the area we are interested in is their use in cosmetic and personal care products.

Phthalates are often used in the packaging of products but the most common use is as part of a ‘fragrance’ and so it is not necessarily listed on the packaging as it is a component. If you see the word ‘fragrance’ then it’s likely that phthalates are in the mix (they’re actually there to render the alcohol undrinkable (!) as well and prolong the smell). It’s not easy to know which products contain it and, of course, they are not listed as ‘phthalates on the packaging but as their compound names. DEP (diethyl phthalate) is the only one actually allowed by the EU…but (there’s always a ‘but’ isn’t there?!?) the SCCS has acknowledged that there migh be traces of the other types of phthalate in a product cross contaminated from it’s packaging…and adds that, although these other phthalates are banned due to their confirmed dangers, up to some unfathomably blah blah parts per million it’s peachy. That’s not the technical term but pretty much what they are implying…

You’ll find DEP in deodorants, hair products, perfumes, after shaves, skin care products and make-up. The SCCS (Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety) considers it totally safe (it’s reviewed it twice due to pressure about concerns but each time been convinced it is safe), but there are many groups seriously concerned about it’s bioaccumulation in our bodies especially as it is in so many different products (entering the skin joined to penetration enhancers (I know, I know…) like propylene glycol for example or inhalation – no, not like glue sniffing but just as a by-product of spraying your fave perfume for example and wafting through it as you’re supposed to…) It may well be safe in tests on a single product with a moderate use but what about multiple products used by the same person on a daily basis…?

A criticism of the brands is that they just use words like ‘fragrance’ and ‘parfum’ to indicate the presence of some form of scent but ‘hide’ that fact there are phthalates within this cover all wording. This umbrella term is sanctioned by the EU and is not therefore considered to be sneaky. Brands that do not include phthalates like to list everything on their ingredients list…just to prove a point. That’s fine with me, I like the extra assurance…


I must confess that I have seen the word sulphates (or sulfates as our America cousins insist) loads of times and never really paid it much mind except to caution those who colour treat their hair (or chemically straighten) against shampoos with it in. I blithely extol the dangers of using these shampoos waxing lyrical about how they strip the hair and so on (actually very useful if you’ve had a home dye disaster and need to take the shade down a few notches…), but never wondered about any further dangers. I suppose I have always assumed that with the correct formulation (added humectants to counteract the drying and over efficient cleansing ability of sulphates) then there’s nothing to concern myself about. My hair is very forgiving (for a dead thing) and so…

Then I suddenly see now that there are a gajillion articles damning sulphate to hell and beyond. Yikes. So what’s the crack? Technically a sulphate is a salt of sulphuric acid (like plaster of Paris – stay with me on this) but it’s used in the beauty industry (!) is as a ‘surface active agent’ or surfactant. They essentially dissolve dirt, create a right crazy foam-on (no one loves rich lathers more than the product buying public), and prevent oils and dirt from doing anything but being washed away. It is two specific sulphates that are under attack. SLS (sodium lauryl sulphate) and SLES (sodium laureth sulphate) – there is an actual coconut derived version (sodium coco sulphate) that is often used by ‘natural’ brands but although SLS originates from coconuts it’s anything but natural. The plot thickens when it is revealed that often two different chemicals are added to the ingredients which when combined in water are effectively SLS but can allow the product to be labelled ‘free from…’ etc. Oh, the sneaky beggars…!

Much sulphate bashing seems to stem from an email and subsequent rumour that has grown to urban myth proportions, but has never been substantiated, and that is that these sulphates cause cancer. I’ve found nothing in any research showing any link to cancer but there are a number of studies that show at high concentrations those with sensitive skin may find them to be a mild irritant. Again the bioaccumulation is the concern. They are aggressive cleansers though so if there is a warning then that’s clearly it. Go gentle if you’ve got sensitive skin and avoid it if you colour or chemically straighten your hair. It is also in toothpaste and, as a known skin irritant, that’s maybe not such a good look for the inside of your mouth, plus advice is against ingesting it so I guess don’t swallow it…?!

The only other issue I can turn up is that the sulphates effect the way the skin naturally sloughs off its dead skin cells meaning that they may fall of in clumps (not like a zombie…!) It’s still minuscule but not the natural process so maybe the bioaccumulation over years means there’s an issue?


The other issue seems to be fears over cross contamination of the SLS and SLES with 1,4-dioxane…


1,4-dioxane is a chemical that is a by-product made during the process that creates SLES, for instance, (also ALS and various PEG’s, ‘-eth’s’ and ‘oxynol’s’) and is left behind in the product (cannot be ‘reasonably removed’…well, most is but some remains basically…) In tests it is shown to be a skin irritant, cause damage to the liver and kidney and cause some types of cancer. Although I should stress that it seems this is only at levels that we wouldn’t be exposed to in our daily routines…except for bioaccumulation?!? Anyhoo…actually, both UK and EU regulations do not allow the use of this substance. It cannot be knowingly added (it never is as it’s a by-product), it can be if unavoidable though (i.e. allowed to be left in) or as the CTPA (Cosmetic, Toiletry and Perfume Association) puts it:

However, unavoidable traces, even of banned substances, that cannot reasonably be removed during the manufacture of ingredients or the cosmetic product itself, are allowed as long as there is no risk to health.



Also known as wool wax or wool fat, this soft yellow substance is secreted by the skin of the sheep to waterproof and protect their wool. It is used in moisturising and barrier creams. It is well established for its emollient properties. The issue as far as I can see is not the lanolin itself but the source of it. Commercial grade lanolin can often be from sheep that have been treated with pesticides such as DDT and lindane and these contaminate the lanolin.


Our skin contains natural moisturising elements and urea is one of these. The most effective natural humectant and is found in the epidermis (surface layer of the skin), and plays a vital role in maintaining the skin’s suppleness and moisture balance. Urea is listed as non-toxic, non-allergenic, colourless and odourless. Urea is actually the primary organic compound of urine. Mmmm. but that’s nothing to do with this as obviously a synthetic version is used in cosmetics…I hope…

When good levels of urea are present in skin it looks healthy and is supple, but when the skin is dry (and in some skin conditions such as eczema) the level of urea is reduced and this means less moisture is held to the skin and as a result it is dry, flaky and tight.

It is used often in dry skin products due to its strong moisture retaining properties but also to react with the skin’s barrier to help strengthen it, however, this process also allows other ingredients to penetrate the skin better. Urea is usually mixed with emollients and they work together to penetrate the skin and create the smooth and softness. Synthetic urea is recognised by the skin as if it were a natural version. Claims are made that the inclusion of urea means that continued use of the product will make the skin soft and have an improved texture but I see these products also tend to warn against use on acne prone skin, sensitive skin and any damaged areas…

The NHS say this about it:

‘Urea is not suitable for everyone and some people should never use it. Other people should only use it with special care. It is important that the person prescribing this medicine knows your full medical history.

Your prescriber may only prescribe this medicine with special care or may not prescribe it at all if you:

  • are allergic or sensitive to or have had a reaction to any of the ingredients in the medicine
  • have moist or broken skin in the area where you are planning to use Urea

Over time it is possible that Urea can become unsuitable for some people, or they may become unsuitable for it. If at any time it appears that Urea has become unsuitable, it is important that the prescriber is contacted immediately.’

Propylene Glycol (PG)

Propylene glycol is a much touted baddie in the ingredients list. Conversely it is also praised as having a long history of safe use. It is used in skin care products as a humectant (to hold water to the skin) and skin conditioning agent in a very wide range of products. ‘Its use in such products is without risk of harm to human health’ according to the CTPA. They go on to say, ‘It is often quoted that this is an ingredient used in antifreeze. This may or may not be true, but water too is a component of antifreeze. Neither fact is relevant to cosmetic safety, just as the corrosive nature of acetic acid is not relevant in its use as the food ‘vinegar’. In fact this claim about propylene glycol is often confused with ethylene glycol, which is the main constituent of common anti-freeze mixtures for motor cars.’


PG is a form of mineral oil (see previous post) and comes in various grades formulated for various uses in many different products from foods, through paint and varnish to skin care. Added to its humectant strengths it is also useful as a solvent and surfactant (for foaming, keeping oils and water together etc). The issue that is raging on is that it is toxic at high levels when ingested especially and is used in many products to increase their dissolving ability, The EU is quite strict about the uses and the grade that can be allowed in food and skin care products.

Another aspect of propylene glycol that I have encountered is its use as a penetration enhancer (see previous posts about this and all previous jokes…) and the inherent dangers. I cant find any research that shows that propylene glycol at the levels it is used in products that shows it as an effective penetrator of the skin’s barrier. It seems it would have to be used over the 10% amount at which is becomes in irritant to the skin. So it would never really be practical for this use and is better by far at bonding to water to keep it on the skin.

Until this argument is lost or won the advice is to go for products with alternative ingredients, one being glycerol which is considered better as it is a natural component of the skin. Why use a foreign molecule when a more natural one (and a better hydrator) would d?…is the thought behind this recommendation.

PG is hugely researched and yet there is no conclusive, definitive, independent advice. As soon as I hear anything I’ll let you know, of course…!

Well, that’s it for now. Let me know your thoughts and ideas or any changes, further information you think is needed. Let’s go forward together and sort this puzzle out! Keep reading labels…!

And it’s always worth questioning things (isn’t it?!?) so here’s today’s conundrum…as we know that anything sold over the counter will have very little effect on the skin in the quantities allowed, will the rubbing of ‘penetration enhancers’ into our skin at least twice a day, over time, do permanent damage? After all, it is their purpose to break down the skin to allow stuff in, stuff that the skin is trying to keep out, even?


To be continued…

A story of ‘synthetic’ molecules…

I was given this interesting juxtaposition in response to a previous post. It’s thought provoking I should say…!

“Synthetic, by the way, is interestingly defined as ‘made by chemical synthesis especially to imitate a natural product.’”

That would actually be a ‘nature identical’ product. The majority of synthetic ingredients don’t exist in nature to start with, and those that do, and claim to be synthetic copies, are molecularly so different, they couldn’t possibly be considered the same and the body doesn’t recognise them as such.

That is not to say that un-natural products are inherently wrong. Let’s take an example of food: bread.
Putting to one side for a moment the carb bashers, bread is considered a basic (natural) food.
Yet bread doesn’t grow on trees. It doesn’t exist in nature. Like a beauty cream it is a concoction of ingredients that undergo chemical reactions (yeast), mechanical action (kneading) and heat reactions (baking) to produce a food that could never exist in nature even if they were lying side by side in the sun during an earthquake!

We (excluding the carb bashers) believe bread to be a nourishing healthy food. If made in the traditional way with fermented grains, milks, yeasts, leavened over a day or so… YUM!

But what about the way it is made today? Filled with Mono & Di-glycerides, Sodium Stearoyl Lactylate (SSL), and Diacetyl Esters of Tartaric Acid (DATEM), Lecithin from GM soy (yes, GMs may be banned here but so is horse meat), Azodicarbonamide (mainly used in production of foamed plastics as an additive and recently identified as a respiratory sensitiser), Calcium propionate, Hydrochloride and Sodium metabisulphate, Ammonium sulphate, Monocalcium phosphate or calcium carbonate… all ingredients used to ‘imitate’ fresh bread that has been made by hand in a time honoured manner, and can last weeks on end in order to extend shelf life. And some of those ingredients won’t even be labeled as such but instead are called whey extract and so on.

Oh, and if you’re older than 23, you’ve also been eating Bromide, only banned in the UK in 1990 as an endocrine disruptor.

And that’s just bread. The original, albeit un-natural food, is a delicious, probiotic concoction to be smothered in butter and jam. Nothing wrong with an un-natural product. But when you start messing with it, adding synthetic chemicals, emulsifiers and preservatives to benefit the mass manufacturers and supermarkets… well, it’s hardly bread anymore.

And if that’s what they allow to happen to our food, an essential resource, why on earth would there be concern over our vanity products?


Good point…

(Thanks Sarah)

I shall be making ‘proper’ bread over on the nutrition side…

part 2: some contested ingredients…

Concerns about lab created ingredients run rife with many of us. In the last post I mentioned that there are a number of ingredients that occur frequently in skin care products that have raised a few eyebrows to say the least, and raised our chance of a fatal disease to say the most.

It has been pointed out to me that Over-The-Counter products cannot actually change your skin otherwise they would have to be labelled as a medicine. As one expert puts it, ‘No OTC cosmetic product is legally allowed to make ANY change to the skin because if it did, it would be a medicine and have to be bought on prescription, [that] is enough evidence in itself to show that the industry is not there for the love of beauty!’

Hmmm…this is immediately food for thought. Does this render the whole skincare business, at least at the level we are discussing here, utterly redundant?!? I will have to come back to this, clearly, but let’s press on for the time being and explore the products and the ‘reactions’ they do create, at least at the shallowest level, and see if we can make a bit of sense of this.

A common overall concern is that the ingredients that are in our everyday products might stay in our body and build up over time to reach unsafe levels. This process is called bioaccumulation. This has probably been around as a factor in our lives forever but of course we can actually detect these things now with our technological advancements. Well, that’s progress right…?

Arguably detecting the presence of an ingredient in the body is not evidence of bioaccumulation or of any harm being done subsequently. It simply shows that the person has come into contact with that ingredient at some point. The supporters of this theory will expound upon the miraculous efficiency of our bodies and say how our bodies are especially adept at eliminating undesirables from itself, but they also rely on us not questioning this…

The potential for bioaccumulation is one of the factors that scientists look for when assessing whether an ingredient is safe to use or not. As I said before, all products must be ‘rigorously assessed for safety’ by appropriately qualified and authorised personage before they may be placed on the market. The safety assessment is supposed to take into account all the different situations and conditions in which the products are likely to be used. This is all well and good for individual products but I am beginning to wonder what if the same ingredients occur in the many different products I use, and therefore the cumulative use of these so-called safe products might become unsafe? Is that possible? Do these super qualified scientists test for that too? Hmmm…it’s unlikely they do isn’t?

I was given this example and I add it here for us all to think about…

‘Let’s take Sodium Hydroxymethylglycinate, for example, a preservative often used in ‘natural’ products. It is an inert salt distilled from soy glycine with one of the lowest reaction rates of any preservative used on skin care.

HOWEVER it is made with formaldehyde and can break down back into formaldehyde at 1% concentration. Bearing this in mind we’d use it at a maximum of 0.5% in the EU, and so this breakdown is highly reduced – apparently 1 in 2,500 applications, or using it once a day, every day for 7 years.

And so it is allowed. But what if we use face cream twice a day? And what if it’s also in our cleansers, our eye creams, shampoo and body wash? That’s just over a year before the ‘risk’ of formaldehyde build up occurs. And even if it’s 7 years, wouldn’t you rather not take the risk if an alternative was available?’

Hmmm…preservatives are the stickiest of these quandaries. A product pretty much has to have a preservative in it to last more than a day or two right? So we are on the search for a friendly one aren’t we? Right let’s get picking through the carcasses of these ingredients…

These are a few ingredients you may well have seen and heard denounced on the packaging of the ‘natural’ brands products. Conversely, the beauty industry justifies and substantiates these additions and blames the media for jumping on some flimsy new band wagon and vilifying them when in scientific tests they are safe and effective and have been passed by the EU as safe after rigorous testing. Who can we trust?!?

Here are some things to think about:

Dermatologically tested

There is no industry-wide or legal definition of any of the terms like ‘dermatologically tested’, ‘dermatologically approved’ or even ‘hypoallergenic’ when applied to a cosmetic product, nor are there any medical, scientific or regulatory standards. The phrases just mean tested for skin to a certain level of safety or effectiveness but, importantly, does not reveal what the tests were for or why or even if the tests mirror the way the product will be used! There is no enforceable requirement for the involvement of a medical professional or dermatologist…in fact there isn’t even a standard definition of what constitutes sensitive skin!

Mineral oil

Mineral oil is a term usually applied to a by-product of the distillation process of petroleum. It is a common ingredient in cosmetic products and has various uses. It is odourless and colourless and very cheap to produce. It is hotly contested by the two sides of the argument regarding its safety and, come to that, its actual benefit.

Mineral oil is widely used to soften and soothe the skin (an emollient) and also because skin reactions to it are almost unheard of. It provides a thin barrier on the skin which helps slow down the loss of moisture and re-hydrates the skin quickly, but it is exactly this ‘barrier’ that it’s detractors condemn, saying it doesn’t allow the skin to breathe as well as pointing out it is ‘made from petroleum’.

I’m going to be a little contentious here and just throw some thoughts about this out there for you to chew on and we can discuss anon. The environmental issue about products derived from petroleum I totally get. We are clearly in the throes of a problem. This prehistoric source is finite and has been linked consequently, by it’s uses, to global warming etc. But, he says tentatively, the problem is so much more massive than a beauty product. The same brands will undoubtedly be headed up by brow furrowing über concerned execs who drive and fly everywhere furrowing and concerning themselves with spreading the word about the lack of mineral oil in their products…but not about the car and the plane they are using…hmmm…well, whichever way you slice and dice it, I guess mineral oil is not a green item. Ever.

The other contention with  mineral oil is that it is harmful to skin because it doesn’t let it ‘breathe’ – blocking it from carrying out it’s detoxing processes. Again I find myself questioning this as the skin clearly doesn’t actually breathe but I assume ‘they’ are referring to the skin’s ability to absorb and expel, so we are entering into the area of questioning the ingredients of products that remain on your skin against those that are rinsed off. Detoxification is limited through the skin in fact (some through sweat) but I seriously wonder if the presence of mineral oil (unless in a thick lard like layer?) would truly prevent the skin from sweating or sloughing of its dead cells? My personal experience is that it doesn’t…make of that what you will…

So the only issue left is the possible safety breach caused by the absorption of the mineral oil whilst it stays on the skin. The skin is by nature a barrier so it is always trying to protect the stuff inside from anything attacking from the outside but there is provision for the skin to ‘allow’ molecules of external substances through – some researchers saying that up to 60% of what we put on our skin makes it’s merry way into our bloodstream and organs – can this be true though?!? If so wouldn’t we be a tad heavier and fuller from soaking in a hot bath?! (Some companies say mineral oil stops this completely and ‘prove’ this by dunking a cream cracker in mineral oil…let’s leave it at that I can’t even begin to explain and really can’t be naffed with such tosh).

BUT, on a mini tangent, I am discovering more and more that the reason the skin care and related products (and the nicotine patches and oestrogen etc!!) are actually penetrating the skin is not due to a natural process at all, but rather because a ‘penetration enhancer’ (no, not Viagra…) has been added to the product to breach the skin’s barrier and allow the product into the skin proper. These are often glycols (or other AHA’s) and it’s instantly apparent therefore that we could be allowing all sorts of synthetic creations to absorb into our bodies. The added ability to penetrate into the skin is neither a good or bad thing particularly as I see it…it’s the thing that’s actually sinking into our skin that we must be wary of, surely?

Anyhoo…in a nutshell, the data that claims mineral oil to be toxic is all based on ingestion and then in large quantities and, it seems from further digging, to be referencing a different grade of mineral oil all together! The purest grades are required for cosmetics and daily intake allowances (just like with foods!) are set for products most likely to be ingested like lipstick and lip balms. Industrial grade is the type that recent studies show block pores not cosmetic grade (that’s a bit of  no-brainer surely?!?) Alternatives are abundant and equally inexpensive so there shouldn’t be too much hardship in finding a product without mineral oil should you wish (although knowing it is there might be harder than it seems as I’ve been told of over 40 names for it’s varying forms to date…there’s probably more!)

So what’s the deal here? Research your products and keep mineral oil to a minimum in products that stay on your skin? Seems sensible…

Palm oil

I am adding palm oil here because it’s an issue I feel we are all going to have to face sooner rather than later. Those of you who also read my ramblings about nutrition (bless you for your tenacity) will know that I have voiced these concerns there as well because palm oil is also included in heaps of food products.

Palm oil and palm kernel oil are natural oils extracted from the fruit of the palm plant. Might be listed on ingredient lists as many things such as Elaeis guineensis, hydrated palm glycerides or anything with ‘palmitate’ or ‘palmate’ (and is often the vegetable oil when a specific isn’t listed in food – btw). The demand for this ingredient is huge and to supply the demand vast areas of forest are being destroyed to make way for the plantations. Indonesia is particularly at the centre of this storm as it has the fastest rate of deforestation, it is emitting carbon dioxide at the third highest rate (after USA and China) and forcing indigenous peoples off their land and pushing already rare creatures like orangutans to the brink of extinction. The food industry uses large quantities, using it in crisps, baked goods and ready meals (all worth avoiding anyway frankly) and the cosmetic industry (albeit in smaller quantities) as skin conditioning and viscosity increasing agents. Don’t get me wrong the oil has been used for thousands of years and has its benefits due to its high levels of vitamin A and E but with the demand so high from so many sectors (it’s even a bio-fuel being touted as a replacement for finite fossil fuels) we must make some effort in our small corners to ensure sustainable sources at least, right?

Take a look at these sites for more information:


Hmmm…I mentioned parabens in a post earlier and just how contentious the issue is. The many concerns are to do with allergic reactions and skin rashes, breast cancer, osteoporosis, the resulting imbalance of hormones as many parabens are said to mimic estrogen in the body and even links to autoimmune diseases. Bioaccumulation due to the huge amount of them used in a vast array of food stuffs and products this has led to fears of dangerous levels of build up. BUT the conclusive facts have remained a mystery to me even though I’ve read a whole heap of stuff on the subject.

Parabens are preservatives and are used to prevent the growth of bacteria, moulds and fungi and prolong the shelf life of products. After water they are the most common ingredient in cosmetic products. The Cosmetic Directive has approved a huge array of plant, animal and synthetic parabens for use in EU products and the industry claims they all have an excellent safety record. Here’s what the CTPA (Cosmetic, Perfumery and Toiletry Association) have to say on the subject:

‘Sadly there is a lot of misinformation about parabens, including allegations that they are linked to cancer. In fact, they are not a cause of cancer of any kind. A widely repeated allegation. Parabens are non-toxic to human cells. This is because our own skin cells rapidly and easily break parabens down into harmless smaller pieces. This means they are not able to cause harm and do not lead to skin sensitisation. It also means they won’t persist in the environment or harm wildlife in any way.  None of the extensive research carried out on the parabens has indicated a potential risk of harm to human health and parabens remain amongst the safest of preservatives in today’s cosmetic products.’

‘In fact, the European Commission’s own committee of independent experts, the Scientific Committee for Consumer Products (SCCP) (now known as the Scientific Committee for Consumer Safety (SCCS)), has issued an official statement on parabens’ safety. In it, the committee confirms that there is no evidence of any risk of breast cancer caused by the use of underarm cosmetics, including those that contain parabens.’

Specifically about the parabens in cosmetics they say this though…

‘The safety of all cosmetic products and their ingredients is governed by strict European laws.  As well as this, cosmetic ingredients and their safety are kept under constant review by the European Commission and Member States, assisted by the SCCS.  The committee has, in 2010 and 2011, confirmed the safety of four parabens used in cosmetics.  For other, less used parabens, the SCCS found insufficient data to set a safe limit and additional data were not generated in their support.’ and their consumer information website is

The initial research that triggered much of the cancer scare link to parabens was rubbished at the time (mostly due to the fact that there was no conclusive proof that the parabens were in anyway linked to the disease – they were just present), so for now perhaps the defendants of parabens can still feel that they are wholly vindicated but there are factors still to erase completely before they can rest on their laurels. However weak the case against parabens may seem to be I think it’s substantial enough to warrant a few watertight answers.

So, we now know there are only a small set of parabens allowed (methyl, propyl, butyl, ethyl) and, although lack of data for the others doesn’t mean they are unsafe, it does muddy the water about their definitive safety. So read up and be thorough but don’t be alarmist! The beauty business is a vast money maker for many different companies and so it’s important to be aware who is saying what and why. Also consider that until any research is conclusive (about lots of ingredients actually in many things) there are people who eat unhealthy stuff, smoke and carry on and seem to live for eons, my point being that some people will react to these things and some people simply wont.

Just before I go and leave you to think these things through (ready for the next lot in the next post!) a word about paraben replacements. Obviously, to be thorough, we cannot just accept that things are good or bad because someone else says so, and with this in mind I turned to wondering what the alternatives to parabens were and why they aren’t simply just used instead? One that is mentioned all over the place is Phenoxyethanol.

Phenoxyethanol is itself now under the critical scrutiny of many. It is a oily colourless liquid (glycol ether family) that seemed to be the answer to the paraben free question. Already used as a fixative and stabiliser in perfume it was found to be adept at keeping many bacterias and moulds at bay too. Incidentally it can only be used up to 1% so if you see it high on a ingredient list then ask questions! Because, as with many research findings, the claims are made based on isolated use at higher concentrations it does mean that it is not conclusive evidence of any danger to us but the lit of things it is linked to doesn’t make pretty reading. Contact dermatitis, increased eczema and deadening of the central nervous system.

And finally (yes, really!) remember that products that have an ingredient that is susceptible to bacteria such as water, milk, aloe vera etc will need a proper, sturdy preservative in it if it is to last more than a few days without exposing you to potentially much more harmful lurgies than a the preservatives themselves.

I don’t know the answers any more now than I did before I started but I think we need to arm ourselves, as ever, with information…so we shall keep our wits about us and keep investigating…!


What’s all this natural product business…?

As I have confessed before (without pride) I could be perceived as a tad cavalier in my attitude to the products I use on my skin. This is partly because I cannot bear to throw things away and, unless it’s utterly repellent, I will use it till it is done…although more liberally! But with all this recent posting regarding men’s skin, and its differences from women’s and subsequent possible need for special attention, I thought perhaps I should consider the facts and rethink my so-called regime. I say facts because I know that there are strong arguments in many directions that counter attack, discount and sneer at whatever ‘truth’ might be proclaimed. After all, the beauty business is mega and worth a kingly sum to those that corner it.

We’ve all seen the bold exclamations emblazoned across a myriad of products (gifted to us by Hathor and Aphrodite themselves you’d have thought by the adverts accompanying them) announcing the lack of something or other that is therefore apparently better for us. Now you may be savvy in the world of product ingredients and read the packaging and nod sagely at the inclusions or exclusions boasted there. I, I’m not embarrassed to admit, have not a flipping clue. Paraben? Er… Glycol…? Erm… Well, I can have a pretty standard guess at what these things are and I’ve definitely heard of mineral oil but what’s the fuss?! In the name of Venus will someone please just tell me what the deal is?!? But can I find a straight forward answer?? Can I peptide!! Maybe there isn’t one…

I took a quick poll of my friends (all skin types, ages and both sexes) and discovered that the range of knowledge and the divide between the attitudes to synthetic lab created products and natural was quite a spectrum. Also in the understanding of what actually constitutes either of these and how much they might overlap in any single product etc. There were those who almost shrieked at the mention of a high street product, wailing and keening about the chemical toxins contained therein and really sticking the boot into those brands for their lack of humanitarian and environmental care. Their arguments were so convincing that I totally believed them and wanted to instantly change my ideas. I vowed to whip up a batch of home made organic herbal cleanser the minute I’d finished my goats milk latte with hand ground ‘chicory coffee’. Then I spoke to the other end of the spectrum, to those who literally swear by the big name brands anti-ageing products, have no beef whatsoever about synthetic (‘it wouldn’t be allowed if it wasn’t safe!” they’d exclaim), as long as they see results (immediate gratification!) and apply them like a religion and with the strictest of regularity. Such is their belief in the brilliance of the scientists behind these skin regenerating products that I believed them too! So, I immediately vowed to rush out and buy every chemical laden, lab created masterpiece product irregardless of my future or the planet’s – I knocked back my bourbon and thumbed my nose at the crunchy granola naturals. Argh…I’m swinging wildly between the two sides!! But I also encountered those who don’t even sling anything on their skins…at all…and thoroughly poo-poo the exorbitant weekly changing claims of the beauty industry (‘well, they would say that wouldn’t they!’ kinda reaction) and only daub a bit of ‘own brand’ moisturiser on when absolutely necessary – usually literally a minute before their skin cracks open! And when I say ‘moisturiser’ I mean it in the loosest way…

So the truth is in the middle somewhere isn’t it? Has to be! I hope…

As I am particularly exploring the skin care and product possibilities for men I thought it best to ask their thoughts – on specific products, beauty regimes, the outlook for the future of their skin etc. I tried to be as inclusive as possible and asked a range of chaps of all ages, colours and sexuality (genetics, lifestyle, stress etc are factors too, of course). The obvious stereotypes didn’t really play out and it seemed the men that used the most products were usually those with the most awareness or, at least, contact those others who used products! Men with partners that are using products tended to use some too (often the exact same product and usually purchased by that partner also). Most men felt they ‘should’ be using something but many felt it was a palaver at best and certainly weren’t about to begin some three step pre-bedtime regime! The willingness to ‘put up with’ something was greater than I had anticipated. For instance shaving rash was just accepted as part of it all and, even though they admitted they’d like to not have the rash, didn’t take steps of prevent it. Those who used products confessed that vanity played a significant part (therefore a sudden urge to moisturise after the wrinkles began…or a divorce…) or being nagged by a partner who was, after all, the one who had to look at the dry, flaky or rash-y skin! Interestingly very few were bothered about the ingredients, again faith and an  assumption of safety, but when pressed did think that natural would be better. Why?! I challenge…just to earn my investigative journalist stripes (I know, it’s hardly gonna challenge Donal McIntyre but stay with me). ‘Dunno really…’ was the usual reply and further questioning revealed that the definition of natural wasn’t remotely clear either. Oh, and it wasn’t to be prohibitively expensive (they’re happy to spend £50 on a liquid night out that’ll rinse straight through them but not on a product that might save their skin…literally). All of them, however, were clear on one thing, they wanted speed and a single procedure – a wonder product that did everything. Oh like self polishing shoes or a pill to create a six-pack, I enquire? No answer was the firm reply…

I’ll level with you, but don’t you dare tell them…if I were to be mean (oh go on then…) the ones who do bog-all (the same ones who apply shampoo and then use the lather on ALL areas of themselves…) looked rougher (but hot in that Hans Solo kinda way) and, at the other extreme, the blokes who spend endless hours smearing some unguent or other on every mentionable and unmentionable part of themselves, looked better (but in a Luke Skywalker kinda way…almost bordering on Princess Leia actually in some cases!) We could spend a good few posts on the psychology of that alone but let’s return to the investigation of the products themselves…shall we?!?

OK, we know we are looking for a product with the least confirmed nasties, that will perhaps do the job of a couple of separate ones and won’t break the bank. Hmmm…

So, the ultimate question we need to answer first is: ‘What’s it to be? Natural or…’…er…hold on what’s the opposite? Not unnatural obviously so…synthetic? Science based? Lab created…? Well, you get the idea…! I’ll run with ‘synthetic’ and you’ll know what I mean. Come to think of it what does ‘natural’ even mean? Well, apparently, a natural product is deemed to be something that has been derived from its organic form without any synthetic additions and then suspended in ‘neutrally occurring medium’ (eh?) to preserve and emulsify it. A ‘natural’ product of one sort or another has been used on the skin for thousands of years. There is abundant evidence the prosecution for the defence could quote to show this. For example, the ancient Egyptians used all sorts of potions derived from all sorts of natural sources (if a little unnerving – crocodile dung and donkey milk as a body wash anyone…no? Just Cleopatra then…awkward…) in an effort to cure all sorts of skin issues. However, I’ve discovered there is currently no official international standard for cosmetics as to what is natural (or organic) and the criteria for natural (and organic) are not legally defined. Hmmm…

To be fair, people aren’t dropping dead from using synthetic hand creams or wiping their faces with lab made cleansers but it does seem logical, at least, to err on the side of caution bearing in mind how much of the many elements that make up a product could potentially enter our bodies, from the lipstick that gets eaten to the nanomaterials (micro particles that can be naturally occurring or synthesised as such) that penetrate your skin’s barrier. Skin largely acts as a waterproof, protective, temperature regulating wrapping but it does absorb substances too (consider nicotine and contraceptive patches). However, more about the truth behind this in a later post…

A word about chemicals though. Everyone is bandying about words like chemicals as if the devil himself has possessed them but don’t be fooled into thinking that a product that says ‘chemical free’ and ‘all natural’ all over the packaging doesn’t contain chemicals – it has to – everything is made up of chemicals technically so it’s just divisive semantics drawing your attention away from where your eye should be – on that ingredient list. Another very important similarity with food consumption! There are rogue chemicals of course but the mere presence of them does not definitively signal something bad. Think on…

Let’s be systematic about this and start with the products that are synthetic – pretty much, at least. Synthetic, by the way, is interestingly defined as ‘made by chemical synthesis especially to imitate a natural product.’  There are, of course, many products on the market that use organically derived plant elements as their base but it is the added supporting ingredients that are the ones the critics are potentially against. We are asked by these companies to bear in mind that many beauty products are very complex and difficult to make and each of these extra ingredients have very specific roles to play and they are all tested and passed as safe. Also, the reputation of these companies is on the line and with over £500 million at stake (and that’s just the estimated yearly spend in the UK on moisturisers alone!) you can imagine they don’t particularly want to put a foot wrong! Just look at the horse meat scandal and the damage it caused to the reputation of many household names and the trust of their buyers…

All cosmetic, toiletry and perfumery products placed on the market in the UK (and throughout the EU) are regulated by European legislation – it’s called the Cosmetics Directive. The purpose of these laws is to protect us and make the manufacturer or supplier of the cosmetic product responsible for ensuring that their products are safe for us to use. The Cosmetics Directive controls what may or may not be put in a cosmetic and only items pre-approved may be used. The controls in the EU are much tighter than the USA (where the industry largely self regulates) and there are over 1100 ingredients banned from use in beauty products by the EU, compared to only 10 banned substances in America.

There is a three tiered process in place in the EU designed to regulate the industry and set the buying public’s mind at ease. The initial multi-level laws and legislation (Cosmetic Directive) followed by rigorous safety assessments. These safety assessments are only allowed to be done by qualified professionals and must assess not only the finished product and all of the ingredients, but also how the product will be used. The criteria and knowledge base these professionals must meet to become assessors are so stringent that there are only around 400 in the the UK. They must be medically qualified, registered pharmacists, Chartered Biologists or Chartered Chemists. And finally, the Trading Standards people can assess the assessors at any moment potentially forcing the cosmetic industry to be accountable for every decision it makes and at every stage. In addition, there is an independent expert scientific committee (SCCS – Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety) that advises the European authorities on safety assessment and the safety of individual ingredients…

..AND there is a EU law (REACH) that governs all chemicals made in or imported into the EU as well as many natural substances used in beauty products, which evaluates and registers them all and records all data regarding their safety in regard to us and the environment.


It is law that all ingredients used in a product must be listed on the ingredients list for our benefit. This list uses a common naming system so that it can be recognised worldwide, especially for those with specific allergies. I bet very few people do actually read them though…! It’s hardly surprising when the items listed are as unknown and unpronounceable to us as a foreign language.

Synthetic creations are the product of science and new things are constantly being created. Innovations and new technologies have transformed our every day lives and will undoubtedly continue to do so – some great, some arguably not. The benefit of synthetic compounds is found in the stabilisation of some compounds that would ordinarily just deteriorate, or in the reliability of quality and effectiveness and in the ability to use a synthetic version of a compound that would ordinarily be derived from animal sources. Science can replicate some elements perfectly well and the controlled conditions under which they are made can ensure a purer more reliable source. However, as with all these aspects the careful selection and sifting of the truth from the rhetoric is vital.

Natural is still considered better though by the brands that celebrate these sources due to the fact that even though science can replicate some things perfectly well it cannot quite always capture the complexity of nature’s molecules. The scent of a flower in the wild is often sited as an example of this as it is always better (more multi dimensional depth and subtlety) than the lab created version. Some of nature’s compounds used in products have complex multi functions allowing them to have two or more benefits at once – a natural synergy that is hard to replicate.

The sustainability of an ingredient and the environmental issues surrounding this are becoming more high profile. The aggressive harvesting of a certain plant (palm oil is a key example – see following posts) can have dramatic and irreversible consequences on the biodiversity of a natural habitat. Quality control to ensure a reliable source of an ingredient (i.e. from nature or from a laboratory) which does not get produced in a damaging or exploitative way is a factor we all must take some responsibility for.

I asked the most noticeable names on the high street L’Oréal, Clarins, Clinique, Dove, Nivea and Boots No.7 what their position is on these arguments for or against natural and lab created ingredients and, even after lovely chats and positive discussions, not one of them actually answered the questions. The PR departments all just sent me product details and ingredients (which I could get from the Internet anyway so they’re really earning their money aren’t they?!?) but no stance or defence for their products, no supportive evidence of what they are doing, testing, or their ethos/attitude, in any way shape or form, to the actual human element of the business. Why not? Is it because they just think this is small fry and they are far too busy to bother? Maybe. Is it because they simply don’t know or perhaps care? Maybe. Is it because they are in a business to make money and most certainly are and will continue to do so regardless of what I say? Most definitely…

As always and ever the staff at the front line are the most useful. They are always willing to discuss their products but of course can only serve me the party line. I understand this completely and see that their sales, and therefore their jobs, depend on it. Whatever their personal opinions they give me the full pitch. Some frankly admitted they didn’t know the pluses or minuses of the ingredients (outside of the designed product use) and spent time instead describing the way the company plows back into the communities. You know, the usual things, fair-trade programmes, sustainable plantations etc. but all this is harder to investigate because we are not always aware of the complexities of the trade world that brings our desired ingredients to our shopping baskets. (Questions like exactly what have these proudly sustainable plantations replaced? Whose and what’s habitat has been stripped and destroyed?) These salespeople  assumed that all the used ingredients are safe (well, the EU says so…), well tested and brilliant to keep us ageless and glowing until death us do part…which is of course exactly what we do isn’t it?

But what if you don’t trust them and the possibilities of rhetoric over substance concern you then you will be looking for the more ‘natural’ brands OR you may well be asking why should I use natural products at all then, when the tests are so rigid and thorough? OR maybe like me you are thinking there is a middle ground here where these two worlds collide and the ideal product is created (this does seem the most logical..captain…)? Perhaps as this question is huge and difficult to answer without emotion and the bias of opinion it’s best to look first at the substances that the pro-natural lobbyists are the most keen to avoid. The natural based brands are the ones who make a concerted effort to support and validate their choices and reasons for excluding certain ingredients. The most denounced are investigated next, in Part 2…

See you then…