Beasts Masquerading as Beauty
Feel free to print this shopping guide and take it with you while shopping.
Let’s begin by alerting you to some potentially dangerous and scary chemical “beasts” that have invaded the products we use for personal hygiene and beauty. If you extend the concept of “personal care” to your general environment, you may wish to note that many of these chemicals appear in food and household products as well. Many consumers are surprised by the unseen toxicity of seemingly innocent and everyday products. We will also discuss why products have become so toxic. (The profit motive in that discussion will probably not surprise consumers).
Then the beautiful news — as with all aspects of healthy living, there are good choices to be made. Elsewhere on this web site you will find information about many safe and effective products that are easy to obtain.
A “No Shopping List” of “Beasts” to Avoid
Please read the labels on all your personal grooming products – including shampoo, creme rinse, soap, hair spray and gel, moisture lotion, shaving creme, deodorant, and toothpaste. This also goes for your make-up, including base, eyeliner, mascara, blush, lipstick, and nail polish. Strive to eliminate all of the products with obvious toxic solvents.
Among toxic alcohols, key terms are “butyl,” “ethyl,” “prop,” and “methyl.” Details about these forms of alcohol and products they are found in follow.
As for poisonous petro-chemicals, the task is more challenging. This is because “benzene,” “toluene,” “styrene,” and “xylene,” among others, are used in production and found in packaging, and are not required to be listed on labels.
In production, these four aromatic hydrocarbons are used widely as cleaning agents, solvents, and degreasers, and are also used in the extraction of certain fragrances, colors, and other ingredients. Therefore avoid the brand name products listed in the details that follow, and generally avoid perfumes, most cosmetics and personal care products, and all household cleaners not bought at the health food store or coop. Also beware of candy and chewing gum, throat lozenges and all medications if possible, as well as cold cereals, ice cream, fruit juices, and water in plastic bottles. Even most pet foods contain these toxic chemicals. Again, details about specific chemicals follow.
As ingredients in packaging, sometimes the only way to avoid them is to transfer products to lead-free glass containers as soon as possible.
Toxic Alcohol Solvents
Butyl alcohol or butanol is manufactured from the fermentation of maize, or synthesized from acetaldehyde. It is a solvent and clarifying agent that is a strong irritant and toxin. Forms of butanol are variously associated with skin, eye, and lung irritation, suppression of the central nervous system, and toxicity to the kidneys. Beware of any chemical with “butyl” in the name.
Butanol is used in cosmetics and the manufacture of perfumes. It is also used in the lacquer and dye industries; the hat, textile and shoe industries; in the production of food flavorings; and in the manufacture of safety glass.
Butylene glycol, common in hair sprays, is known to be toxic to the central nervous system and kidneys. Butylparaben is used as an antifungal agent and is also toxic.
Ethanol, also called ethyl alcohol, cetyl alcohol, and S.D. alcohol, is made from the fermentation of sugars and starches. In fact, in its pristine form ethanol or regular drinking alcohol is not toxic, because of its similarity to alcohol produced in the body from the fermentation of sugars. However, for use in cosmetics it must be made undrinkable (denatured) by toxic solvents such as acetone, turpentine, and benzene. Consequently it is poisonous in moderate to large amounts. Ingestion may cause nausea, vomiting, impaired perception, stupor, coma and death.
Grain alcohol is the only non-toxic alcohol derivative; it is not denatured. Therefore some companies break the guidelines and do not denature their ethanol.
Yet ethnanol is used as an antibacterial agent in mouthwashes, skin care astringents, and nail enamel. It is the base for many perfumes and colognes, and many cosmetics. It is used medically as a topical disinfectant, sedative, and blood vessel dilator.
Other members of the “ethyl” family to beware of include ethylene glycol, used as an antifreeze and solvent, and very toxic to the central nervous system, lungs, and kidneys; ethylene dichloride, a solvent and wetting agent, highly toxic even when absorbed through the skin; and EDTA or ethylene diamine tetraacetic acid, a common preservative that is highly allergenic, and can cause kidney damage and cancer. EDTA is also used in carbonated beverages.
Isopropanol or isopropyl is a by-product of the petroleum and natural gas industries, and is considered twice as toxic as ethanol. It also has a longer cumulative effect in the body because of the toxicity of acetone, its oxidation product. Isopropyl intoxication can cause skin irritation, nausea, vomiting, headache, dizziness, mental depression, narcosis, coma and death. Beware of any chemical listed with “prop” in the name.
Isopropanol is used extensively in cosmetic products including make-up, shampoos, and moisture lotions. It is perhaps best known as rubbing alcohol and used as a mild antiseptic and in fever reduction, but it is also used widely in medications like aspirins and Alka-SeltzerTM. Isopropanol is also found in paint thinners, racing fuels, fuel line deicers, antifreeze, paint removers, cleaners and disinfectants.
Propyl alcohol or propanol has effects similar to isopropyl alcohol, but has an additional drying effect on skin.
Propylparaben, composed of propyl alcohol and ester form p-Hydroxybenzoate, can cause contact dermatitis and is toxic.
Propylene glycol permeates the skin better than glycerin and is less expensive. It is widely used in cosmetics (and hydraulic and brake fluids), and can cause liver abnormalities and kidney damage.
Methyl alcohol or methanol is made from the distillation of wood. Though only 1/3 as intoxicating as ethanol, in the liver methanol is converted to toxic formaldehyde and formic acid. It is particularly toxic to eyes, and many cases of blindness following an overdose have been reported. Avoid any chemical with “methyl” in the name.
Methanol is found not only in cosmetics, but also in some herbal products, in infant formula, carbonated drinks, household cleaning products, and antifreeze.
Methylparaben, widely used as a preservative in cosmetics, can cause allergic reactions. Methylcellulose, a binder and thickener, has caused cancer in rats.
Benzene is the simplest of the aromatic hydrocarbons (C6H6) and the most common of the top 10 chemicals produced. It was available as a household solvent until it was taken off the market because of the bone marrow toxicity it caused. Further, benzene exposure has been associated with leukemia since 1897.
Research, primarily from Scandinavian nations, indicates immune suppression, cancer, neurotoxity and neuropsychosis are associated with benzene exposure. Occupational exposure occurs in the gasoline, chemicals, plastics, transportation, iron, steel, pharmaceutical, and pesticide industries.
Virtually everyone is exposed to benzene, however. We inhale it from automobile exhaust in concentrations of 0.5-2.0%. We inhale it from cigarette smoke, though of course smokers suffer more exposure than non-smokers – average smokers inhale 10 times the amount of benzene that non-smokers do. Benzene is also found naturally in fire smoke, and in micro quantities in our fruits, vegetables, and meat and dairy foods.
Benzene is used in the manufacture of cosmetics, most medications, and is in VaselineTM, NoxzemaTM, ChapstickTM, and other personal lubricants. Most surprisingly, it is found in trace amounts in most natural vitamins and mineral supplements. Benzene is also found in all glues, inks, rubber, paints, oils, and plastics. Further, it is present in many flavored foods, including some yogurts, cold cereals, Jell-OTM, candy and chewing gum, ice cream, cooking oils and shortenings, fruit juices and bottled waters, pet foods, throat lozenges, and tea tree oil products.
Toluene or methylbenzene is another common component of solvents and cleaning agents. It causes symptoms of neurotoxicity, such as ataxia (loss of muscular coordination), tremors, optic neuropathy (nervous system disease affecting vision), hearing loss, dizziness, delusions, and so forth. The skin absorbs toluene easily. As with benzene, the major sources of exposure are the inhalation of automobile exhaust and cigarette smoke.
Toluene is commonly found as a contaminant in that basic commodity of our personal care: tap water. It is used in solvents, printing ink, paints, adhesives, many household cleaning agents, carpets, and even carbonated beverages.
Xylene is another widely used solvent. It causes central nervous system depression, and even brief exposures to xylene have resulted in short term memory loss and prolonged reaction time. It also irritates mucous membranes and eyes.
Xylene is a contaminant in our tap water, and is used in many household cleaning products. It is also commonly used as a solvent in paints, varnishes, glues, printing inks, and carpets.
Styrene is an 8-carbon molecule used as a solvent. It has known neurotoxic effects for both the peripheral and central nervous systems. Styrene has also been found carcinogenic in laboratory animals.
It may be present in plastic containers for a number of products. We are most commonly exposed to styrene through fast food or take out Styrofoam cups and containers.
How did the world become so poisonous?
Why are all these toxic alcohols and petro-chemicals in our cosmetics and personal care products – and, for that matter, all through our households? On the surface, it is because they have shown mild antiseptic, anti-bacterial, and anti-fungal properties, and good solvency and skin-penetration qualities in laboratory tests. But consider that there is actually more research data that attests to these chemicals’ irritation to skin and mucous membranes, their depressive effects on the cardiovascular and central nervous systems, and their carcinogenicity.
And consider that these toxic ingredients are not even necessary! There is plenty of research on the antiseptic, anti-bacterial, and preservative properties of herbs like echinacea, goldenseal, and chamomile, and other plant derivatives like those from grapefruit seed and aloe. Products from these natural sources are among the safe alternatives to toxic chemicals.
So why even have products with such strong “side effects”? Of course, the real, below-the-surface reason is profit. Such chemicals are often by-products of the oil and gas industries. For example, Standard Oil (Rockefeller) sponsored some of the early research reports that concluded isopropyl alcohol is a safe additive in cosmetics and medicines. Imagine the financial benefits when major oil and gas companies, after refining their oil, continue to make profits on their waste products. How would you like to be paid for your garbage?
However, the safe alternatives from natural sources are not patentable, so, as with vitamin and mineral supplements, mainstream companies fear competition and reduced profits.
Another reason for our toxic environment is that the FDA does not regulate cosmetics, which are defined as any “product that improves appearance, versus drugs that diagnose, relieve, or cure disease.” It is left to us as consumers (as usual) to read labels carefully and choose products that are free of propyl, methyl, butyl, ethyl, benzene, toluene, xylene, and styrene, among other poisons.
Don’t be discouraged by the apparent immensity of the task of purifying your environment. Even though on occasion you unavoidably inhale hydrogen cyanide, benzene, formaldehyde, arsenic, etc., from second-hand smoke, and benzene, butane, pentane, xylene, toluene, etc., from car exhaust, eliminating the immediate toxins in from your body does make a significant difference.
The toxic solvents we have been microdosing ourselves with since our first Johnson and Johnson’sTM baby shampoo to the NeutrogenaTM soap we used this morning, have had profound effects on our immune systems. Eliminating toxins from our personal care products can enable to better withstand the air pollution and other environmental toxins we can’t always control.
by Louisa Williams, MS, DC, ND