It’s easy to not realize and to even forget that our skin is a thriving, breathing organ (the largest!) of our bodies and the true gatekeeper to our health. But how much does our skin actually absorb?
A study published in the American Journal of Public Health looked into the skin’s absorption rates of chemicals found in drinking water. It showed that the skin absorbed an average of 64% of the total contaminant dosage. One other study found the face to be several times more permeable than broad body surfaces and an absorption rate of 100% for underarms and genitalia. Another peer-reviewed study showed 100% absorption of ingredients with fragrance.
This is pretty alarming when you think about how much product we use daily and weekly, not to mention all the pollutants in the air that our skin is exposed to on a daily basis. For this reason, shouldn’t we be paying attention to the ingredients in our personal care products? The reality is that most of our personal care products consist mostly of synthetic and chemically derived ingredients that either have been found to be toxic or lack long-term data simply because the industry is always introducing new synthetics to use in our cosmetics. Of course, not all chemicals are bad. Many have helped advance the human race but others should be used with caution.
Here are the top ingredients to avoid in your personal care products.
POLYETHYLENE GLYCOL (PEG)
PEG is a nonbiodegradable petroleum derived mixture of polymers that are bonded together. PEG’s act as an emollient, emulsifier, a penetration enhancer and a solubizer for other ingredients. You can recognize a PEG in it’s most simplest form as PEG-4 or PEG-100. The lower the number after the dash, the more easily it is absorbed into the skin. You might also notice other ingredients with numbers following them. Those ingredients are technically not PEG’s but they do have one significant thing in common with PEG’’s and that is ethylene oxide. Ethylene oxide is a compound used to create PEG’s as well as a host of other chemicals through a process called ethoxylation. According to EWG (Environmental Working Group), Ethylene Oxide is extremely toxic and a known carcinogen. Ethoxylation (the process in which ethylene oxide is used to produce PEG’s and other chemicals) produces an unwanted byproduct contaminate called 1,4 dioxane and is found in a whopping 1,817 ingredients (46% of products tested) that are used in most of our commercially sold personal care products! PEG’s have also been found to be contaminated with other impurities as well as heavy metals like lead, iron and arsenic.
In addition to PEG’s, be on the look out for these other major offenders such as Ceteareth-20, Polysorbate-20, Sodium Laureth Sulfate and Dimethicone which are all found in the majority of products sold at most retailers, even when the product claims to be “Natural” or “Organic”. Notice the “eth” in most of these? That is a signal that the ingredient was treated with “eth”ylene oxide.
So why shouldn’t you use products with PEG’s?
On top of exposing your skin and body to a known carcinogen and other contaminates, PEG’s enhance the penetration of other undesirable ingredients across the epidermis like bacteria, pollutants and anything else foreign that shouldn’t be on our skin.
PEG’s also compromise the barrier function of injured or sensitive skin types and makes the skin far more vulnerable to bacterial infection while also upsetting the natural moisture balance of our skin.
PEG’s are basically the fluid form of plastic and are not biodegradable. They run into our water ways and can have a negative impact on the ecosystem.
Propylene Glycol is a non-renewable crude oil from petroleum and natural gas refining. It’s a major ingredient in many products because it acts as a solvent for active ingredients that are hard to break down such as salicylic acid. It’s also used as a stabilizer, emulsifier and a humectant. It should be noted that some companies have begun replacing PG with a natural vegetable derived Propylene Gycol which is more environmentally sustainable. Most of those companies will let you know if the form they’re using is plant-based.
Why should we avoid it?
There is evidence that PG can cause contact dermatitis, rashes and skin cell growth. It also dramatically enhances the penetration of whatever comes in contact with your skin be it good or bad.
Products that us PG form a seal over the skin that prevents the escape of water. This might sound good at first BUT it doesn’t add moisture, it only draws moisture from the lower layers of your skin to the top layers. This only provides short-term hydration. Eventually, the lower layers will gradually dry out. This leads to the degradation of your skin and with long-term use, your skin will begin to look unexplainably dull and dry which leads to fine lines and wrinkles.
Propylene Glycol ends up sitting on the skin even after washing, dissolving the fats and oils your skin needs to stay healthy. As a result, your skin reacts by becoming dry which requires more and more applications.
Polysorbates are sugar based alcohols and are used as emulsifiers. Emulsifiers marry oil and water solutions together.
Why should we avoid it?
While there is no visible “eth” in the spelling of Polysorbates, they are in fact “ethoxylated” or treated with ethylene oxide and thus, contaminated with 1,4 dioxane which is a known carcinogen. You will often see a number after Polysorbate such as Polysorbate 20. That number represents the amount of ethylene oxide used in it’s creation.
Dimethicone is a popular synthetic used in most commercial skincare products. It is a nonbiodegradable silicone-based polymer. It helps to provide a smooth application of cream and lotions and creates a protective cover over the skin.
Why should we avoid it?
While not generally toxic or contaminated, dimethicone and other silicone ingredients interfere with the skin’s natural processes like sweating (releasing toxins from the body), and sloughing off dead skin cells. Prolonged use of silicones creates a dependency and your skin eventually stops producing it’s own moisture which in effect, locks in bacteria that causes acne. Over time, your skin also becomes dry, dull and lackluster contributing to fine lines and wrinkles.
SODIUM LAURETH SULFATE
Found in 90% of personal care products, SLS is a surfactant. It’s that thing that makes your cleanser or household cleaner foam. Many companies will tell you that it is “coconut derived” but it uses petro-chemicals in it’s processing and the final product is very far from being plant-derived.
Why should we avoid it?
Notice the “eth” in SLS? It is another popular ingredient that has been treated with ethylene oxide.
Apart from being extremely drying to your skin, it is also a known lung and eye irritant and has been linked to kidney and respiratory damage. It also has the potential to interact and combine with other chemicals to form nitrosamines which are a known carcinogen.
ARTIFICAL ADDITIVES & INGREDIENTS
There are host of artificial ingredients that make up this category. Here are the worst offenders.
Parabens are a widely used preservative in personal care products. We don’t need to go into detail as chances are you’ve heard it all about parabens. They have estrogen mimicking properties and are linked to breast cancer.
Phenoxyethanol is actually an alternative dubbed “natural” preservative that was created to address the problems associated with parabens. Notice the “eth”? That’s right, it is petro-chemical derived and treated with ethylene oxide. It has been linked to cancer as well as reproductive and nervous system defects.
Phthalates are widely used in certain personal care products like hair sprays and nail polishes. They are also added to plastics and it’s main use is to increase flexibility and softness of the product it is in. Phthalates are also a component in fragrance! If you see”Fragrance” listed as an ingredient in your product (which comes with it’s own issues), Phthalates could be included in that but there is no law that requires companies list it just like there is no law that companies have to disclose what ingredients make up the “Fragrance” used in their product. Phthalates are endocrine disrupters in females with links to breast cancer and reproductive birth defects in both males and females.
Artificial Colors should also be avoided. Almost all artificial colors are made from coal tar while some are petroleum derived. These dyes are used in foods, over-the-counter and prescription drugs, textiles, cosmetics, and personal care products like hair dyes, shampoos, and deodorants. Their use in products that go on or in the human body is regulated by the FDA, which labels each dye type with a letter indicating its approved uses. “F” means approved for food. “D” means approved for drugs. “C” means approved for cosmetics. In this system, for example, FD&C Blue #1 is a blue dye permitted in food, drugs, and cosmetics. There’s evidence that artificial colors increase hyperactivity, ADHD and learning difficulties in children. Other studies have implicated coal tars in lung and skin cancers (though a direct relationship remains unproved).
Cosmetic and personal care industries are given permission to just use the word “Fragrance” in their ingredients list instead of disclosing exactly what chemicals are used to create their signature scent. Fragrance is essentially code for a toxic concoction of who knows what?! Fragrance has been associated with allergies, dermatitis, respiratory distress and reproductive issues.
Most of the ingredients we’ve covered above are petro-chemically derived. Studies have found that topical application of petro-chemicals on rodents resulted in anemia, kidney degeneration, nerve damage to the brain and spinal cord as well as cancer. A lot of what’s in our skincare is a form of plastic and does absolutely nothing good for the environment. These ingredients run off into our waterways and disrupts eco-systems. A study conducted in 2008 revealed that Marine litter is now 60-80 percent plastic, reaching 90-95 percent in some areas. Plastics are also known to absorb additional pollutants, creating unknown health hazards.