Many toiletries contain a long list of ingredients, with long names. People are rightly concerned about what they put on their bodies, so what are the problem ingredients and can they be avoided? This is an area where there is controversy, with disagreement on the safety or otherwise of ingredients. Much of the information below is drawn from the Women’s Environmental Network’s campaign ‘Ending the cosmetics cover up’ and from online sources such as Wikipedia.

The Women’s Environmental Network (WEN) explains that the majority of modern toiletries and cosmetics are complex mixtures of industrially produced synthetic chemicals and their concern is the cumulative and combined effect of applying these ingredients which are found in many everyday products. There is evidence that some commonly used chemicals can trigger allergic reactions or chemical sensitivity and that products may contain ingredients that increase the effects of ageing, impair fertility, disrupt hormones and are linked to cancer, allergies or other health problems. Their factsheet provides details. Many of the concerns relate to the possible results of interactions between them and the risks of them reacting with nitrites to produce nitrosamines, which are carcinogens, or other harmful products. For example, one concern about benzoic acid, used as a preservative, is that it may react with other acids to produce benzene, a carcinogen.

Lots of products contain detergents but many of these, such as sodium lauryl sulphate (SLS) and sodium laureth sulphate (SLES), are powerful degreasers that can dry and irritate skin and hair. Others, such as diethanolamine (DEA) and related compounds (TEA) and (MEA), can interact with other ingredients to form nitrosamines which are carcinogenic. Extra detergents may be added to make the product foam more. While detergents have to be biodegradable which reduces their impact on the environment, some biodegrade quicker than others and too much of any of them puts a strain on natural ecosystems.

Most products contain preservatives, many of which can irritate the skin and some may be neurotoxins or potentially carcinogenic. Parabens are used as preservatives but there is evidence that they may have an estrogenic effect and act like hormones. Disodium EDTA and other preservatives ending in EDTA not only may irritate the skin but do not readily biodegrade, binding with heavy metals enabling them to re-enter the food chain. Some companies minimise the use of preservatives by using combinations of ingredients to stabilise the products – many plant based ingredients have preservative properties – and some forms of packaging, such as tubes, reduce the risk of contamination by dirt while in use. Increasingly, companies mark when their products were made and when they should be used by.

Palm oil is one of the most widely-used vegetable oils in the world, heavily promoted for use in catering, including margarines, bakery products, coffee creamers, and ice cream and as a frying oil. It is also used in many toiletries and cosmetics and is a source of biodiesel. However, Friends of the Earth is campaigning on impacts of palm oil plantations and concerns that they are destroying biodiversity, particularly rainforests in Malaysia and Indonesia, and threatening the habitats of orang-utans and the Sumatran tiger. Friends of the Earth claim that most of the UK companies that buy palm oil and palm oil products have failed to take any effective action to stop sourcing palm oil from destructive sources and that the vast majority do not even know where their palm oil comes from. They are urging changes in the law to require company directors to report on and take steps to minimise their companies’ negative impacts. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil seeks to develop a globally acceptable definition of sustainable palm oil production and use and promote the sustainable production and use of palm oil. Its members include all the major UK supermarkets.

While one does not think of toiletries and cosmetics as containing petrochemicals, some products, such as Vaseline, do contain petroleum jelly. This may be called ‘petrolatum’ in the ingredients list and is a heavy oil extracted from petroleum. It can be allergenic, does not absorb well and so may clog pores and prevent skin from breathing naturally. Propylene glycol, is also derived from petroleum and is used as a humectant (moisturiser), surfactant and solvent in many products. It may cause allergic and toxic reactions including dermatitis and has been linked to depression of the central nervous system, according to the Women’s Environmental Network (WEN).

WEN also say that synthetic fragrance, often labelled ‘parfum’, can contain between 50 and 100 chemical fragrances and may indicate the presence of phthalates which have been linked to reproductive damage.


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