Chemicals in Cosmetics

Before you leave the house in the morning, it’s likely you will wash yourself with soap or shower gel, shampoo your hair, use some deodorant or aftershave or maybe apply some make-up.

These are things you do without thinking; they are a mundane part of an everyday routine. But this routine might be more damaging than you ever imagined. A survey carried out by the US National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health found that 884 chemicals used in personal care products and cosmetics were toxic and estimate that women absorb up to 2 kilograms of chemicals through toiletries and cosmetics over the course of a year.

These products are often classified as ’safe’ as they won’t kill you if you eat them. However, it is important to remember that the stomach is highly acidic and digests many of these chemicals. Make-up is applied externally and consequently is absorbed through the skin directly into your blood stream.

If you have children, you will more than likely have to treat them for head lice at some point. They pick it up easily, and often children must be treated before they are allowed back in the classroom to prevent the lice spreading further. But the lice shampoo you use might well involve a dose of toxic pesticides such as organophosphates, or even lindane that will, when inhaled, ingested or absorbed through the skin, cause vomiting and diarrhoea.

Other known effects include liver damage, stillbirths, birth defects and cancer. The risk of childhood brain cancer has also been associated with the use of domestic pesticides to control termites, flea collars on pets, insecticides in the garden and herbicides to control weeds – all common, everyday items you probably use without thinking twice.

After severe government warnings over the dangers of sunbathing, most people religiously slather themselves with suntan lotion before venturing out into the sun to protect themselves from the risk of skin cancer. Yet in 2000, a team of Norwegian scientists found that a chemical used in 90% of suntan lotions might be toxic and could actually cause skin cell damage. Perhaps the most frightening of all the items in the beauty industry is perfume. Most women use it regularly, but what many people don’t know is that the perfume industry is unregulated. This is because it is protected by laws that allow the manufacturers to keep the ingredients of their fragrances secret.

Many of the chemicals contained in perfume are easily absorbed through the skin where they accumulate in major organs. While no serious medical research has been done on the effects of perfume, some doctors and scientists believe that perfumes could be as damaging to the health as tobacco smoke, partly because 95% of chemicals used in fragrances are synthetic compounds derived from petroleum.

They include benezene derivatives, aldehydes and many other toxics and sensitisers, capable of causing cancer, birth defects, central nervous system disorders and allergic reactions 1. These scent chemicals can also be found in chemical air fresheners, tissues, washing powders, detergents and cat litter.

Chemicals in food over the past 50 years and how our food is produced, sold, bought and reprocessed has changed dramatically. The British alone consume around a quarter of a million tons of food chemicals a year and pesticides and herbicides are the primary areas for concern. These are sprayed liberally over the foods we eat and may contain ingredients that affect not only the nervous system of insects, but also that of the humans who eat them 2.

Many of the chemicals contained in pesticides cannot be evacuated from the body with food waste but accumulate in fatty tissue, where they can be responsible for degenerative diseases. For example, organochlorines are commonly found in pesticides, which are very stable and not water-soluble, which means they can remain in the human body and the environment for long periods of time.

Pesticides are not the only area of concern where food is concerned. All processed foods contain additives that are toxic in varying degrees, and over 200,000 tons of these additives are added each year to food in Britain. Processed foods also have large quantities of hidden sugars or salts that can interfere with insulin functions and essential fatty acids functions. Polyunsaturated fats have been suspected of causing a range of illnesses, including certain types of cancer 3.

Chemicals found in fish are also a growing problem, particularly in farmed salmon. A BBC programme screened in 2001 documented Canadian researchers showing a comparison with wild Pacific salmon that found farmed fish contained significantly higher levels of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). Dioxins and PCVs have been implicated in causing cancers, hormone disruption, developmental and neurological problems and accumulate in the fatty tissues of animals and humans.

According to research in 2000 from the UK’s Government scientists, consumers eating two or three portions of oily fish a week are likely to exceed the dioxin and PCB intakes considered safe by the World Health Organisation (WHO). Farmed salmon are fed with cheap fish caught in open sea, which have come into contact with chemicals from industrial waste deposited there. In addition, fish lice are prevalent in fish farms and to help combat this problem, farmed fish are often fed with food pellets containing organochlorine and other pesticides.

1. ‘Neurotoxins: At home and in the workplace’, Report by the Committee on Science and Technology, US 1986
2. US Environmental Working Group Research, 2000, ‘Diazinon was safe, now it isn’t.’
3. Newsholme E A. Mechanism for starvation suppression and refeeding activity of infection. Lancet 1977; i: 654 &. Miller JD, et al. Br Med J 1973; i: 765.

Reproduced with kind permission from Natural Collection and dotguides:

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