Why Clean Beauty Matters
Updated: Nov 9, 2018
Most of our blog posts up until this point have been directed towards optimizing health through nutrition, supplements, fitness, and lifestyle practices. While all of those are incredibly important, good health also has to encompass the products that we put on our skin and use on our body. “Green beauty” and “clean beauty” are terms that have increased in popularity over in the last few years and I think it would be amiss to not discuss them on a blog that is directed at empowering you to become the best, healthiest version of yourself.
You may find yourself asking the following questions- Why is it so important to try and make the switch to more natural and safe cosmetic products? Aren’t the personal care products being sold to consumers already vigorously tested for safety? And why be so concerned about something that is applied to our skin in the first place?
First of all, our skin is the largest organ in our body and has an amazing ability to quickly and efficiently absorb whatever is applied to it. This characteristic is widely employed in medicine with the use of transdermal patches. The amount of a product that is absorbed depends on its chemical composition, the area of skin it is applied to (with thinner skin being more susceptible to penetration), and the condition of the skin. Cosmetic products often contain “penetration enhancers” which allow the active ingredients to penetrate the outer layers of the skin. While this is obviously an admirable quality, it becomes a concern when potentially toxic substances are absorbed along with the active ingredients in a product.
You can’t make the assumption that cosmetic companies diligently avoid producing their products with ingredients that do not have a favorable safety profile. In fact, less than 5% of the synthetic chemicals used in products today have been tested for their long-term impact on health. Most skin care products contain a multitude of synthetic ingredients whose safety is based entirely on short-term animal studies. Although high doses of these ingredients are used in these studies, we are exposed to smaller amounts of the same toxic chemicals for many years. You have to question the effects that these chemicals have when we are exposed to them consistently over long periods of time.
Chronic disease is something that develops over decades of toxic living, so it makes sense to limit the amount of toxic chemicals we are exposed to through cosmetic and household products. Much of our toxic burden comes from pollution and things we can’t control. What we can control is the quality of the food we eat, what we put on our bodies, and the household products that we use in our own home.
Something that a lot of people are not aware of is that neither cosmetic products nor ingredients (other than colour additives) are reviewed or approved of by governmental health agencies before they are sold to the public. Health complaints related to certain cosmetic ingredients are investigated only if and when they are filed. Even when complaints are made, they can take years to spur a safety investigation. Cosmetic regulations in Canada are much stricter than in the U.S.- as a comparison, Health Canada has banned or restricted the use of over 500 chemical ingredients for use in personal care products (see the Health Canada Cosmetic Ingredient Hotlist), while the U.S. has banned only 10 (see the FDA Prohibited and Restricted Ingredients). The European Union on the other hand has banned or restricted over 1000 chemicals!
Although there is not enough evidence to prove that many of the questionable ingredients in cosmetic products are actually hazardous to our health, we can’t ignore the fact that scientists are finding such things as pthlates and parabens in human tissue samples. Obviously these chemicals are accumulating in our tissues. Personally I find this concerning. Even if we can never prove that an ingredient causes cancer or some other disease (because lets face it, no human would willingly participate in a study where they would be exposed to a potentially carcinogenic substance), why take the chance when there are plenty of safe alternatives?
One of the most overwhelming things about switching to “all-natural” or “organic” skincare is figuring out which product ingredients to avoid. There is little regulation over which cosmetic companies can use the label “natural.” Unfortunately many companies will throw a picture of a plant on the product label, or make a statement like “made with natural ingredients” to make us think that we are buying something that is completely safe. Many so-called “natural” cosmetic lines today actually contain an astonishing number of synthetic and potentially toxic ingredients! This is why you need to take matters into your own hands and become savvy at reading ingredient lists. Thankfully there are a number of resources out there that can help.
The “Think Dirty” phone app and the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Database are both excellent at helping one to decipher whether or not a product has questionable, potentially toxic ingredients. They also give the product an overall “safety” score, which is helpful if you would rather not take the time to pick apart the ingredient list. Additionally, this article offers a good explanation of the different terms used on products in the cosmetic industry.
Here is a list of some of the potentially un-safe ingredients that you should keep an eye out for and try to avoid-
1,4-Dioxane: Petrochemical and probable carcinogen according to the US Environmental Protection Agency. It is generally not listed on ingredient lists as it is a contaminant created during the manufacturing process. Look for ingredients with “eth” in their name (for example polyethylene glycol (PEG), polyoxyethlene, sodium and ammonium laureth sulphate) or the clauses “xynol,” “ceteareth,” and “oleth.” It is usually found in products that create suds like shampoos and body washes.
Triethanolamine: Surfactant and emulsifying agent that can act as a skin allergen and respiratory toxicant. It has also been linked to organ toxicity in animal studies and can be contaminated with carcinogens such as nitrosamines and 1,4-dioxane.
Diethanolamine: PH adjuster that has been shown to cause organ toxicity in animals and skin/lung irritation in humans. It also may be contaminated with 1,4-dioxane.
Cocamide DEA: Chemically modified form of coconut oil that acts as a foaming agent. It is a suspected carcinogen as well as a skin and lung allergen. There are also contamination concerns with nitrosamines.
Phthalates: Chemicals that are used to make plastics more flexible. They are found in a variety of products including shower curtains, medical plastics, children’s toys, and of course, cosmetics (nail polishes and synthetic fragrances). Phthalates have been linked to reproductive defects and other illness in animal studies and many types are suspected to be carcinogens. They may be safe at low levels, however it makes sense to try and limit our exposure through personal care products since we are exposed to phthalates from so many other sources.
Propylene Glycol: Humectant and penetration enhancer that is generally considered to be safe, however there are some concerns regarding contamination (ie. with 1,4-dioxane). There have been no studies to suggest that it is potentially cancer causing, however, it can cause skin irritation and aggravate such conditions as eczema and acne. It is important to note that propylene glycol is different from ethylene glycol (used in anti-freeze) and polyethylene glycol, both of which are considered less safe.
Parabens: Preservatives that have been shown to accumulate in the body and have weak estrogenic activity. Because of this hormonal effect, the concern is that parabens could potentially cause the proliferation of estrogen-dependent breast cancer cells. There is no direct evidence that they actually do this and they have much weaker effects than the naturally occurring hormones in our bodies. Despite this, the European Union restricts their use in cosmetics, allowing them in only very weak concentrations. You will likely encounter a lot of conflicting data if you start reading about parabens and at the end of the day it comes down to a personal decision as to whether or not they are something you think you should avoid in your personal care products.
Fragrances: There are over 5000 materials that are available for use in fragrances, however, only a small portion of of those materials have actually been tested for safety. The problem with fragrances is that their ingredients are considered “trade secrets,” so the manufacturers are not required to disclose what exactly is in their formulas. A typical synthetic perfume may contain up to 100 fragrance chemicals produced from coal tar, petroleum distillates, plants, and herbs- many of which have questionable safety. Keeping this in mind, it is probably best to avoid products with “fragrance” or “perfume” listed on their ingredient list, unless the manufacturer explicitly lists what is in them.
This is by no means an exhaustive list and I would suggest you make use of the resources that I mentioned above to read more about the individual ingredients in your products. Here is another helpful list that I came across that you can print out and use as an easy reference while you shop.
At the end of the day, swapping your conventional products for safer, more natural options is a personal decision. I encourage you to do your own research and decide what you are and aren’t okay with. It is impossible in this day in age to completely avoid toxins and, even if you are incredibly vigilant about what you expose yourself to, there are no guarantees that you will have a long and healthy life. Just try and do the best that you can without forgetting to enjoy life along the way! And if you are looking for some recommendations as to what clean beauty brands we love, be sure and check out Beauty Counter and Crunchi Cosmetics on our “Beauty Favorites” page!
Continue to follow your gut,
Resources- Health Canada, FDA, Environmental Working Group Skin Deep Cosmetic Database, Prevent Cancer Now, The Green Beauty Guide by Julie Gabriel
Disclaimer: This is not meant to be a scientific article. It is simply a collection of information that I have put together from my own reading and the resources listed above.