Parabens is the collective name for the chemicals Methylparaben, Ethylparaben, Propylparaben and Butylparaben - as well as a few others, just look for anything ending with "paraben". The most widely used chemical preservatives in the world, parabens are used to inhibit microbial growth and extend the shelf life of beauty products. They are mostly found in toiletries which contain a significant amount of water such as shampoo, shower gel, lotion, face cleanser, deodorant etc.
Studies have shown that the longer parabens are on the skin, the more opportunity there is for them to be absorbed into the bloodstream. Parabens have been linked with various health issues, including the premature ageing of skin and potentially skin cancer. A Japanese study demonstrated that when products containing Methylparaben are combined with ultra violet light ie sunshine, there is damage to the DNA and to skin; ironically the chemical is commonly found in anti-ageing skin care products!
Tests have indicated that parabens also have hormone disrupting properties, causing an increase in oestrogen which can affect the male and female reproductive organs. One of the biggest areas of concern is the effect of parabens on breast cancer. Several studies have found traces of parabens in women with breast cancer. Therefore it seems that parabens can affect breast tissue - whether they actually increase the possibility of breast cancer is still unproven.
SLS & SLES
The full name for SLS is Sodium Lauryl Sulphate and its close relative Sodium Laureth Sulphate is known as SLES. Both these chemicals are major ingredients in shampoo, hair conditioner, toothpaste, in fact in any cleansing product that foams. They are cheap harsh detergents used to create foam and lather in toiletries. Yet worryingly both are also used in car wash soaps and engine degreasers! Both SLS and SLES can cause eye irritation, as well as skin rashes, flaking skin, itchy scalp and hair loss. When used together with other skin and hair care products, SLS has the potential to react with their ingredients to form nitrosamines which are carcinogenic. Studies have also shown that SLS can build up in heart, liver, lung and brain tissue from skin exposure.
MethylisothiazolinoneIn July 2013 a steep rise in skin allergies such as contact dermatitis and eczema was reported to be linked to a preservative found in many toiletries - Methylisothiazolinone or MI.
MI is added to products to extend their shelf life by preventing the growth of bacteria and mould. It can be found in shampoos, moisturisers, shower gels, make-up and even baby wipes.
In the past MI was mixed with another preservative Methylchloroisothiazolinone (MCI). However concerns about MCI causing allergies meant some manufacturers started using MI on its own and in much higher concentrations - a move approved by EU regulations introduced in 2005.
Experts believe the higher concentration of MI being added to products is linked to the significant rise in cases of contact dermatitis. Dr John English, a consultant dermatologist at Nottingham University Hospital said "Every day we are seeing patients who are allergic to this chemical. Patients don't realise it's their cosmetics causing the problem so keep on using them.
Doctors alarmed by this "epidemic" of skin allergies are asking for the use of MI to be urgently examined by the cosmetic industry and are calling on the European Commission to investigate what levels of MI are safe for use.
Petrochemicals are by-products from the petroleum industry and the chemicals to look out for in skin care products include Propylene Glycol, Silicone, Mineral Oil, Paraffin Liquidum and Petrolatum (also known as Petroleum Jelly). While these chemicals are stable and cheap to use, there are a number of health concerns around their use in everyday toiletries.
Propylene Glycol is used in many skin moisturisers because it glides on easily, drawing moisture to the outer layers of the skin, giving the appearance of moisturising. However, it can weaken the cellular structure of the skin causing skin rashes, dryness, eczema and contact dermatitis, as well as ageing the skin. The industrial applications of Propylene Glycol include being used in making brake fluid and industrial anti-freeze! PEG (Polyethylene Glycol) and PPG (Polypropylene Glycol) are also ingredients best avoided, as they are related to Propylene Glycol.
Mineral Oil is found in face cream, suntan lotion, hand and body lotion, lipstick and baby products. It is colourless, odourless, tasteless and very cheap. Mineral Oil binds well with other ingredients to form a smooth, creamy lotion. However, it forms a film over the skin, clogging pores and trapping toxins and waste and keeping oxygen out. This helps to encourage acne and other skin disorders. The slow-down in skin function also results in premature ageing of the skin! Paraffin Liquidum is another name for Mineral Oil.
Petrolatum or Petroleum Jelly is a mineral oil derivative which can interfere with the body's own natural moisturising mechanism, leading to dryness and chapping. Ironically it is commonly found in products claiming to treat sensitive skin conditions!
Widely used in industry since the 1930s, phthalates (pronounced thalates) are a family of chemical plasticizers found in glue, paint and are added to plastic to make it more flexible. Phthalates are used in beauty products to help the fragrance last longer and are often listed under "parfum", rather than separately. They are found in products including perfume, nail polish, soap and hair care products. Phthalates have hormone disrupting properties and have been linked to reproductive health issues, such as decreased fertility in females and faulty reproductive development in male foetuses.
In July 2012 an American study was the first to examine a connection between phthalates and diabetes. It showed an association between increased concentrations of phthalates in the body and an increased risk of diabetes in women, finding that women with higher levels of phthalates in their urine were more likely to have diabetes. The researchers concluded that although more research was needed, the study was an important first step in exploring the connection between the two.