Potentially harmful chemicals safe in dilute amounts

by Michelle Deng

Each day, students coat themselves with synthetic chemicals. In the morning, girls daintily brush chemicals on their eyelids and cheeks; in the shower, people vigorously scrub them on their scalps and over their bodies; at times, some spritz them on their necks and wrists.

From time to time, foreboding calls warn of the toxic chemical doom—irritation, hormone disruption, cancer, neurotoxicity, and so on—soaking through millions of people’s skins daily. However, such alarms may be overblown.

First, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has banned the use of the most virulent chemicals and has restricted the maximum permitted concentrations of other potentially detrimental chemicals in cosmetics. Experts say that more important than the presence of chemicals is the dosage, and few products on store shelves contain high enough concentrations to precipitate such drastic consequences.

For instance, high dosages of parabens, the most common antimicrobial preservatives used in cosmetic products today, have been associated with skin irritation, hormone disruption, neurotoxicity, immunotoxicity, and cancer, according to the website of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. However, studies by the FDA suggest that parabens in cosmetic products are safe at concentrations up to 25% but typically are at levels from 0.01% to 0.3% in cosmetic products.

Similarly, lead and other heavy metals, used in a wide range of cosmetics from lipsticks to foundation to sunscreen, are toxic at high enough concentrations to various human organ systems. An FDA study indicated, though, that the mean level of lead in cosmetics is well below the maximum level of color additives allowed.

Moreover, some of the adverse health effects linked to chemicals may not actually relate to the context of cosmetic use on humans.

“Sometimes, just because an ingredient in high doses may have been linked to adverse reactions in animals when testing doesn’t necessarily mean that the same thing would happen in humans and that it should be banned if found in cosmetics,” said Stephanie Yao, FDA Public Affairs Specialist.

For example, studies have shown that triclosan, a common microbial agent used in soaps and toothpastes, causes hormone disruption in animals, but according to the FDA, there is not sufficient evidence to indicate that it affects human hormones as well. Yet, some media and organizations still warn of the potential horrors that triclosan can inflict upon the endocrine system.

Nonetheless, chemical ingredients of personal care products are not entirely benign either: the relatively low concentrations of synthetic chemicals in products such as skin creams, makeup, soaps, and perfumes cause allergic reactions, skin irritation, and asthma in some individuals.

“Really, there’s no clear-cut black or white about whether a product is safe. If the ingredients are safe and if it’s being used as it’s intended, … we would think that the product would be safe,” Yao said. “But everyone is different; everyone has different allergies and could have a different reaction to the same product. So we encourage people to report [to the FDA] when that happens, so that we can properly keep track and move from there.”

For instance, Sarah Howells (11) said that she does not buy soaps with “strong fragrance” because they irritate her skin.

Karthik Dhore (12), on the other hand, does not share the same concerns.

“I don’t really think about chemicals – I even use dishwasher soap to wash my hands. Honestly, if it smells good it’s fine,” he said.

Many cosmetics companies say they take great care to keep their products safe for consumers.

According to an email from the L’Oréal press office, an internal safety team comprised of toxicologists, clinicians, pharmacists and physicians reviews and tests each ingredient in their products as well as the manufactured products themselves for safety.

“L’Oréal products are in full compliance with FDA as well as the European Union regulations and the requirements for safety in all the countries in which our products are sold,” the press office wrote.

However, Stacy Malkan, Communications Director of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, expressed concern not about any specific ingredients or any specific products but about the combined effect of the cocktail of products people use regularly, especially in the long term.

“The worst thing is not any one chemical but the fact that people are being exposed to dozens of potentially harmful chemicals every day through personal care products,” Malkan said.

Thus, she urges people to “simplify.”

“Use products with fewer chemicals; use fewer products overall,” she said. “The companies love to make us think we need a different lotion for every part of our body or extra products like bubble bath or fragrance or air freshener, all these extra chemical exposures that aren’t necessary.”

She advises people to identify which products are necessities and to use safer substitutes for those products.

“The good news is that there are alternatives available that work just as well as conventional brands for most every product, but you have to do some research to find them,” Malkan said.
Buyers can read the ingredient lists and warnings on containers to learn about possible dangerous chemicals in the products they intend to purchase. Moreover, Skin Deep, an online database made by the nonprofit Environmental Working Group, lists ingredients and their potential effects on health for over 25,000 cosmetics and personal care products from myriad brands.

To avoid shunning almost every product as a potion of deathly toxins, however, balanced sources are needed: a 2009 survey by George Mason University’s STATS suggested that the majority of experts in the Society of Toxicology believed that many organizations and the media overhype the risks of cosmetics.
“[The researchers] weren’t that surprised by the basic pattern of risk assessments, because we saw similar findings in a study of expert opinion and media coverage of environmental cancer risks about 15 years ago,” said President of STATS Dr. S. Robert Lichter in an email response. However, he “was struck by the degree to which toxicologists thought almost every news organization distorted chemical risk, and that they rated [W]ikipedia as more accurate than national news outlets,” he said.

According to the survey, at least “95 percent [of surveyed toxicologists] describe the media’s performance as ‘poor’ in distinguishing good from bad studies, distinguishing correlation from causation, explaining the trade-off between risks and benefits, distinguishing absolute from relative risk, explaining the odds ratios, and explaining that ‘the dose makes the poison’ – a fundamental tenet of toxicology.”

Also, blindly drinking in labels may prove useless. For instance, words such as “organic” and “natural” may not indicate any special health benefits: no federal regulations govern the use of the word “organic” on product labels.

Even the products with the US Department of Agriculture organic seal—meaning they truly contain at least 95% organically produced products—may not be far superior to “conventional” products. The term “organic,” as defined by the USDA, refers to the method of production of the ingredients; however, according to an FDA Frequently Asked Questions page, “an ingredient’s source does not determine its safety. For example, many plants, whether or not they are organically grown, contain substances that may be toxic or allergenic.”
Using the products for their intended purpose is crucial as well for safety.

“Read the label and follow the directions on the label. Don’t try to use it in a different way than it’s intended,” Yao said. “Some materials that are unsafe when you swallow or ingest them […] may be safe when applied to the skin or nails or hair.”

In the end, when used properly, most cosmetics contain permitted chemicals at concentrations low enough not to severely damage health, at least not in the short run. As for more minor reactions, each person may respond differently to the same ingredients.