Oftentimes, you see labels claiming that they are “free” of something. This something has a chemical-y sounding name, which means that I have no clue what it is or what it is supposed to do. You must have heard it as well, sometime: sulphate free, paraben free, formaldehyde free (or three free)… As I am completely clueless, I figured that there should be at least one other person out there who also has not the foggiest notion about what is going on. For you, comrade, I have compiled a list describing what the hell these things are, and why people are going crazy.
Parabens are a group of chemicals that act as preservatives, to stop the growth of microbes (little tiny organisms, for example bacteria or fungi). They can be identified by looking at the ingredients list, they are all long words ending in “paraben”, for example methylparaben, butylparaben, and propylparaben.
The concern over parabens is mainly linked to cancer. Some studies have shown concentrations of parabens in the tumors of breast cancer patients. This is not a clear link at all, they did not investigate paraben levels in the tissue of non-cancer patients, or in other body tissue. According to the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, the concern comes from the fact that the chemicals are not altered at all by the body’s metabolic processes, and is free to penetrate the tissue and accumulate there. This may or may not be bad. In addition, the parabens have the tendency to mimic the activity of estrogen, a hormone that the body produces. Estrogen has established connections to breast cancer, around 80% of breast cancer tumors rely on estrogen to grow (Wikipedia). Parabens bind to the estrogen receptors on cells, perhaps leading to breast tumor cells growing and multiplying. According to the FDA, parabens don’t have nearly as much estrogenic activity as actual estrogen, so they may not be able to aid in the growth of the tumors.
Nothing has been proven, and the FDA has investigated the harmfulness of parabens more than once. However, I think it is better to be safe than sorry when it comes with cancer, so I think I will start to avoid parabens.
Here is the place where the beauty community is split right down the center… sulfates are the ingredients in shampoo or body wash that make them foam up. There are three that are most commonly used: sodium laureth sulfate, sodium lauryl sulfate, and ammonium laureth sulfate. What they do is break down the oils in your hair, stripping your hair. Some say that this is a horrible thing, some say that it is a necessary ingredient for clean hair. Who’s right? LIke in most circumstances, they both are to a certain extent. Based on what I have read, it really depends on the individual. From what I can tell, if you have curly hair sulfates are pretty bad. Curly hair is more porous than straight hair, making it more brittle and more likely to get dry. It also means it soaks up the shampoo better, and the sulfates really dry it out further. Some people actually say that you shouldn’t wash curly hair at all! I assume they mean really curly hair, like African-American hair. So if you have curly hair, sulfates are definitely a problem. Similarly, if you have skin that tends to be dry, or a sensitive scalp, sulphates may irritate that, maybe giving you eczema. For other hair types, sulfates may be necessary to give you really clean hair. But you can’t use it every single day, and you can’t use it without conditioner, if you do it will dry out your hair too much. With these products, there have also been claims that they thin out your hair. I have not seen any evidence to back up these claims, although there may some out there.
Formaldehyde is a colorless, strong-smelling gas that is a cancer hazard and can cause irritation in the nose, eyes, skin, and respiratory tract. It is supposedly found in some cosmetics, most commonly nail products and keratin treatments (it’s one of the “three free” toxins). This is a well established fact that you can read about on the websites of many government institutions, including OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) and the California Department of Public Health. However, formaldehyde is not what is being used in cosmetics, as it is a gas. Instead, formalin is used, a solution of formaldehyde and water, normally with a stabilizing agent (mostly methanol is used). This is where the debate comes up. Many cosmetic manufacturers believe that the formaldehyde is soluble in water, although the Cosmetic Ingredients Review (CIR)* recently proved that this was not the case. When introduced to water, the formaldehyde produced a new chemical called methylene glycol, which is safe for use in concentration under 0.2%, but the safety of the chemical when used in aerosol cans is sketchy. However, the California Department of Public Health says that formalin is dangerous. It is unclear whether they have taken the methylene glycol into consideration.
*the CIR is an organization that reviews the safety of ingredients used in cosmetics. It is sponsored by, and works closely with the FDA, but it is an independent organization.
**The Nail Manufacturer’s Council is an organization founded by the Proffesional Beauty Association.
Dibutyl Phthalate (DPB)
DBP is one of the “three free” toxins found in nail products. As for acute toxicity (how bad it affects you if you are exposed to it only briefly) is low, even in concentrations higher than is what is in nail polish. According to OSHA, someone who swallowed 10 grams of the stuff got sick, but he recovered completely. There goes my habit of drinking my nail polish…? Anyway, you probably don’t even get 10 grams of nail polish in the bottle, let alone 10 grams of pure DPB. However, a study on the effects of DPB introduced to pre-natal boys found that “environmental levels” of the substance impaired testicular function. They didn’t specify what the “environmental levels” were, so I don’t know if that is more or less than what is found in nail polish. I guess just make sure the area where you’re painting your nails is well ventilated, and don’t use nail polishes containing DPB if you are pregnant. Oh, and don’t drink the nail polish…
Toluene is an ingredient in nail products that makes them easy to apply, the last of the “three free” toxins. It is a clear colorless liquid, and has been found to be highly toxic. According to the National Library of Medicine, exposure to low levels of toluene can result in confusion, light-headedness, dizziness, headache, fatigue, weakness, memory loss, nausea, appetite loss, coughing, wheezing, and hearing and color vision loss. Exposure to toluene can cause birth defects in pregnant women. Yeah, that sounds pretty bad. The concentrations of toluene in nail products were deemed safe for use by the EU, but they recommend that the areas where you do your nails be kept well ventilated. Still, I think I will not risk this: no more toluene for me! Luckily there are some fabulous brands that make toluene-free nail polish…
Three Free/Toluene Free Nail Polish Brands:
butter London (3 Free)
Wet n Wild (3 Free)
Orly (3 Free)
Essie (contains formalin, called formaldehyde resin)
Nicole by OPI (3 free)
Ulta (3 free)
Red Carpet Manicure (3 free)
Revlon (toluene and formaldehyde free)
OPI (toluene and DPB free, some hardeners contain formaldehyde)
Campaign for Safe Cosmetics on Parabens: http://safecosmetics.org/article.php?id=291
Wikipedia article on Estrogen: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Estrogen#Breast_cancer
OSHA fact sheet on Formaldehyde: http://www.osha.gov/OshDoc/data_General_Facts/formaldehyde-factsheet.pdf
California Department of Public Health fact sheet on Formaldehyde: http://www.cdph.ca.gov/programs/hesis/Documents/formaldehyde.pdf
Article by Doug Schoon (Co-Chair of Nail Manufacturer’s Council) on Formaldehyde in Cosmetics: http://personalcaretruth.com/2010/08/exposing-the-formaldehyde-myth/
CIR Council Thing (not quite sure what it is called…): http://www.cir-safety.org/sites/default/files/119_final_formyl.pdf
Report on CIR decision: http://personalcaretruth.com/2011/11/cir-confronts-confusing-chemistry/
Nail Manufacturer’s Council: http://www.probeauty.org/nmc/
Cosmetics Ingredients Review: http://www.cir-safety.org/
NY Times article on Sulfates: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/30/fashion/30Skin.html?pagewanted=all
TheBeautyBrains.com on Sulfates: http://thebeautybrains.com/2007/06/30/sulfates-in-shampoos-what-are-they/
Environmental Health Perspectives study on DPB: http://ehp03.niehs.nih.gov/article/info:doi/10.1289/ehp.8100
National Library of Medicine on Toluene: http://toxtown.nlm.nih.gov/text_version/chemicals.php?id=30
European Union Scientific Committee on Consumer Products on Toluene: http://ec.europa.eu/health/ph_risk/committees/04_sccp/docs/sccp_o_076.pdf