Decoding Personal Care Labels
Tocopheral, Methyl Paraben, Sodium Lauryl Sulphate, the secret compound Vita X…why is it that labels on cosmetics leave most of us (unless we are chemists or doctors) feeling like we’re illiterate, or plain dumb, or both? For manufacturers, it probably makes sense to list ingredients and product information in such a way that consumers still don’t know exactly what is in that goop they put on their face, or that stuff they wash their hair with. But for us, it makes all the sense in the world to decode those labels, so we can make informed choices about what we use – and what we don’t.
You don’t need a medical degree to figure that our bodies absorb significant amounts of what we put on our skins. With certified organic food rapidly becoming the nutrition of choice by the health conscious amongst us, why would we accept any less for our skin? In case you’re still not convinced about the importance of being able to decode cosmetics labels, here are some more reasons –
- You could get important health and value information from reading the ingredients list. For example, you can check whether a product is fragrance-free or truly natural, by reading the ingredients list.
- You could keep a red flagged list of compounds that are known to be harmful, that you won’t want to experiment with. And then, read the ingredients list of all cosmetics before buying them, to make sure they don’t have any of your red flagged compounds.
- You could also use the ingredients list to compare values of different products. So, for example you might find two face creams with equal amounts of Tocopherol – but costing different amounts of money. So being savvy about cosmetics labels will help you make an informed choice.
- Another fact that you may deduce from the label is the proportion in which an ingredient is present. Ingredients are listed in descending order, starting with the greatest amount in the product. A featured ingredient listed close to the end suggests that not much of that ingredient is present, while major ingredients are right at the top.
And by the way, Tocopherol is Vitamin E, Methyl Paraben is a synthetic preservative derived from a petroleum base, Sodium Lauryl Sulphate is what makes our soaps and shampoos foam.
- Make-up and body care products have been linked to allergic reactions, birth defects, and even cancer.
- Scientists have found common cosmetic ingredients in human tissues, like industrial plasticizers called Phthalates in urine, preservatives called Methyl Parabens in breast tumor tissue, and persistent fragrance components like musk xylene in human fat.
 What Most Labels Tell Us
Here is a list of the things most cosmetics labels tell us --
- Product Identity and a volume declaration
- Directions for use
- Name of manufacturer and/or distributor
- Country of origin
- Manufacturing and expiry (or best before) date
- Warnings and cautions about how to use the product
 What No Label Tells Us
It is unfortunate that there are so few checks and standards for what passes as cosmetics or personal care products today. But then, one can’t really blame the manufacturers, for there has not been adequate research to find what the exact effect of different cosmetics is. Here is a tentative list of some common ingredients that are suspected to have deleterious effects on consumers –
Sodium Lauryl Sulphate (other names include Sodium Alkyl Ether Sulfate, Sodium Lauryl Ether Sulfate – just look out for similar sounding variations) causes our bath gels, shampoos, detergents and soaps to foam. At best, it cleanses (but also removes moisture from our skins). When it is used by people with sensitive skin, it may lead to acute dryness and an exacerbation of existing skin problems. At worst, it is suspected of being a human carcinogen, but this has actually not been proven in epidemiological studies. The FDA has now begun to recommend manufacturers to stop using this compound, but there is no law binding them to do so.
So could this compound be a serious potential health threat from its use in shampoo, cleansers, and toothpaste? The answer comes from the Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) panel (established by the Cosmetic Toiletry, and Fragrance Association, a cosmetic industry trade association). It recommends that both sodium lauryl sulfate and its close chemical cousin ammonium lauryl sulfate "appear to be safe in formulations designed for discontinuous, brief use followed by thorough rinsing from the surface of the skin." Shampooing and bathing do represent discontinuous use, but what are the effects of using this compound every day? Nobody knows for sure yet.
Another chemical that’s received a lot of bad press recently, is Methyl Parabens (short for para hydroxybenzoate). Derived from petroleum products, Parabens are found in cosmetics, skin creams, hair colorings, sunscreen lotions, spermicides, shampoos, deodorants and even pet food. The US Environment Protection Agency states that Parabens interfere with our endocrine systems by mimicking natural hormones. It is now recognized that the dramatic increases of breast cancer, non-Hodgkins lymphoma and thyroid cancer have been linked to exposure to environmental estrogens. In the past twenty-five years in the US, alone, thyroid cancer has increased more than 45%, with more women being affected than men, and has become the number one cancer in children under age twenty, many of whom suffered from fetal endocrine disruption exposures. 
A study in the Journal of Applied Toxicology (volume 24, issue 1, January-February 2004, pages 5–13) mentioned that “although recent reports of the oestrogenic properties of parabens have challenged current concepts of their toxicity in these consumer products, the question remains as to whether any of the parabens can accumulate intact in the body from the long-term, low-dose levels to which humans are exposed.” The study discussed the fact that traces of parabens have indeed been found in human breast tumors, but was quick to point out that it is unknown if this would be the same in healthy breast tissue.
Imidazolidinyl Urea and Diazolidinyl Urea are often used as preservatives as they prevent bacterial growth. In small amounts urea has good water-binding and exfoliating properties for skin; in larger concentrations it can cause inflammation.
They may also release formaldehyde, a potentially toxic chemical. Their potential for long term damage is likely, though as yet unproven.
Ethanolamines (other names include Monoethanolamine aka MEA, Diethanolamine aka DEA, Triethanolamine aka TEA) are common pH stabilizers. Upon oxidizing, they may form nitrosoamines, which are carcinogens in food. However before you hit the panic mode, keep in mind that the amount of nitrosoamines formed when you use a skin care product containing ethanolamines is probably going to be too small to cause a lot of harm.
Synthetic Colors (on the label as FD&C or D&C, followed by a color and a number, e.g. FD&C Red No. 6 or D&C Green No. 6) have not been proven to be harmful. But they don’t do much good either. How would it matter to you whether your shampoo is a natural green or a chemical yellow? That is why they are best avoided, unless it means you have to forego an otherwise great product.
Synthetic Fragrances are just mentioned on the label as "Fragrance." Their safety is an open question, and the fact is that they don’t have any skin benefits. But they do leave you smelling good, so use them with caution.
Some personal care products such as nail polish, hair sprays, soaps, and shampoos contain Phthalates -- a group of industrial chemicals linked to birth defects. In the forms of dibutylphthalate (DBP), dimethylphthalate (DMP), and diethylphthalate (DEP), these make nail polishes less brittle and hair sprays less stiff. They are also used as solvents and perfume fixatives in various other products. While Phthalates may be listed as ingredients in nail polishes or hair sprays, they will not even be mentioned on the label if they have just been used to perfume a product. Doctors believe that these chemicals are potential carcinogens and endocrine disrupters, but the jury is still out on whether they would have this effect even in minute quantities.
 How can you protect yourself?
- Read every ingredient on every personal care product label.
- Pay special attention to package directions and warning labels.
- Look at all chemical ingredients with suspicion.
- Before buying a product with listed chemical ingredients, do your research and ask yourself if you would ever eat that chemical. Remember when you apply a product on your skin, at least half of it gets absorbed.
- Before using a new cosmetic product, do a patch test on a small area of skin. Consider it safe to use only after there has been no reaction for a whole day. With hair dye, it is important to do the test each time you use it, even if you have not had a problem before.
- Keep cosmetic products and toiletries out of the reach of children. If you have small children in the house, keep the nearest poison control centre’s numbers on speed dial.
- If you have an adverse reaction to a cosmetic, stop using the product immediately. Call your doctor if the reaction is severe or prolonged, and report the reaction to your local federal product safety office.
- Question manufacturers about their synthetic chemical ingredients.
- If a product is labeled organic, but has chemicals listed as its ingredients – don’t buy it.
- Try and make your family and friends and friends aware about the chemicals in their personal care products.
While there isn’t enough research about the ill effects of personal care products for us to all stop using soap and shampoo, we must take adequate steps to protect ourselves. Avoid the sulphates, or at least make sure you rinse them off really well. Also, eschew synthetic fragrance or colours, petrochemicals, solubulisers and preferably parabens too. While it is not important to be able to identify every single chemical on that label, remember this rule of thumb most compounds that end with with 'thyl' and 'oxy' are chemically derived. The bottom line is that one should decide between natural and synthetic on a case-by-case basis. For example, natural Vitamin E is more effective since is contains only the more effective D form, while the synthetic one is a mixture of D and L. On the other hand, a well known anti-wrinkle agent tretinoin (in Retin A, Renova) is available only in synthetic form, so if you stick to natural formulas, you forego the option of using it.
Whatever products you choose, just being able to read the labels will go a long way in enabling us to protect ourselves and our loved ones.
- Cosmetic Labeling: An Overview
- Toxic Cosmetics and Environment - Toxic Body
- What's in cosmetics and personal-care products?