April 17, 2014
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Healthy Skin

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Caution at the cosmetics counter

You wake up in the morning and plod into the shower. You massage shampoo and conditioner into your hair. You scrub soaps and gels across your skin. Emerging from the shower, you may rub on any number of potions, powders, and lotions: deodorant; hair de-frizzers or gels; moisturizers to apply on your face, under your eyes, and on your legs.

Many of you ladies will also apply makeup: foundations, powders, mascara, and colours across your eyelids, cheeks, and lips. Some women may spritz on perfume or some men, cologne. You should, of course, not forget to brush your teeth.

By the time you walk out of the bathroom, you may have sprayed, slathered, and coated your body with over a dozen different products. And if you've ever read the back of your shampoo bottle, you know that many products contain a long list of barely pronounceable ingredients. It's not exactly light reading. Have you ever stopped to wonder about those lengthy, hyphenated chemical ingredients? What are they? What do they do? Are they healthy or dangerous?

Are beauty products only skin deep?

Only about 11% of personal care product ingredients have been tested for safety. That leaves about 9,000 untested ingredients lurking in the personal care and cosmetic products you use everyday. The list of some 10,000 ingredients includes allergens; irritants; and possibly human carcinogens, neurotoxins, and hormone disrupters. Others on the list are just plain puzzling.

Take nanoparticles, for example. These microscopic flecks of metal or ceramics go by compelling names like crystals, beads, or microspheres. Manufacturers have added nanoparticles to over 100 known products, including sunscreens, concealers, and lip pencils. Far from washable, nanoparticles have the ability to burrow deeply into body tissues and travel to the brain and into red blood cells. Long-term health impacts of these tiny metals are unknown and virtually untested. Sounds like something you'd want to steer clear of, right? Definitely, say some researchers.

This is not to say that cosmetics ingredients are an immediate threat to your health and safety, but you should stop and think about your own personal care and cosmetic habits. Remember: all of those cleansers, moisturizers, and perfumes don't just wash away down the drain. Your body can absorb some of the chemicals, which may accumulate over time, and the long-term impact of many of the chemicals on the human body is still scientifically uncertain.

Until government regulating bodies are required to test the safety of all cosmetic products, you may wish to consider the following recommendations.

Overcome product addiction

Oh, how the cosmetic aisles tempt us. All of those colourful bottles, all those amazing scientific-sounding claims of ageless beauty, and those promising words of wonder - revitalizing, brightening, rejuvenating, enhancing, and contouring. Next time you feel the urge to snap up the latest and reputedly greatest new product, ask yourself, "Do I really need this?" Chances are you already have a half-used bottle of something like it sitting on the shelf at home.

Go to your bathroom and tally up the products you use on a regular basis. If you're using more than 15 items in one day, you may be a product junkie. Think about scaling back your whole personal care routine. Do you really need to subject your hair to that intense leave-on conditioner everyday and follow it up with a shine treatment and a smoothing serum and a styling gel?

Become a label-scanner

Beauty buyers, beware. The scientists and cosmetic industry reps continue to argue about the health and safety impacts of cosmetic ingredients. While they duke it out, you as a consumer can decide for yourself if you want to use products with some of these hotly contested ingredients:

  • Organic: Pick up a product with the word "organic" on it, and you might feel comforted. Ah, you think, it must be made from the pure bark of some sapling tree from the rain forest. Organic is no assurance of purity in cosmetics, and currently no standards govern labels claiming "organic" benefits.
  • Fragrance: The word "fragrance" should give you pause, too. In the US, labels don't have to list the ingredients of "fragrance," while in Canada, manufacturers can choose to list fragrance ingredients or to use the ambiguous term "parfum." Fragrances may mask the presence of phthalate, a suspected reproductive toxin. You may also consider freeing yourself from fragrances due to the high potential for allergic reactions and skin irritations.
  • Phthalates: Mentioned above, phthalates show up most often in nail polishes, perfumes, deodorants, and hair sprays. Phthalate compounds are sometimes listed by sneaky acronyms: DBP, DEP, DEHP, BBzP, and DMP.
  • Parabens: Thank goodness for preservatives! Without them, our makeup and lotions would go rancid. Some preservatives may do as much harm as good. Parabens, a common cosmetic preservative, can cause skin allergies and can mimic naturally produced estrogen, a fact which has perpetuated the fear of breast cancer with paraben use. There are studies that show the presence of paraben in breast cancer tissue, but the proof of the link between paraben and breast cancer is inconclusive. The research has sparked much heated debate. Still, there are many paraben-free alternatives if you'd like to dodge potential risks all together.
  • Lead: Lead is a known neurotoxin, meaning it can cause learning and behavioural disorders, and you may smear trace amounts of it onto your lips everyday. In a study of 33 randomly-selected brand name lipsticks, more than half contained lead. And these are big names you'd know. Though the amount of lead in each tube of lipstick is very low, think about how many times you apply and reapply lipsticks everyday. Unfortunately, this is one of those ingredients that don't turn up on the ingredient labels. So, what's a glamour puss to do? Seek out brands that note lead-free ingredients or visit the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics website to read more about the issue.
  • Petrolatum: Wow, this stuff is in a lot of products - everything from shampoos and conditioners to Styrofoam and gasoline. Yep, the stuff you put in your tank you may be rubbing into your scalp. Petrolatum (or petroleum, petroleum jelly) and its byproducts go by many names, and they have sparked contamination concerns and been linked to increasing the risk of developing skin cancer. In general, petrolatum is considered to be safe in humans.

Amy Toffelmire


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