The Truth About Oleochemicals

Most health-conscious people are aware that eating hydrogenated fats is unhealthy because of the harmful effects of trans fatty acids and their triggering of free radicals in the body. New evidence shows that oleochemical trans fats used in virtually all “natural” and “organic” body care products, when topically applied to the skin, can inhibit prostaglandins. Prostaglandins are hormone-like messengers produced in most tissues of the human body that have many important physiological actions.

Skin care products are absorbed by the skin, and enter the bloodstream directly. They’re not processed, filtered or detoxified by the digestive tract as foods are. It’s not permissable to make certified organic shortening from hydrogenated or trans fat ingredients, since the organic regulations (in general) prohibit not only petrochemicals but also oleochemicals, which are synthetic chemicals just as petrochemicals are.

Cold-pressing is the only National Organic Program-approved process for the extraction of organic oils for several very good reasons. Organic, cold-pressed oils are the most environmentally-friendly and nontoxic oils. They are made using hydraulic presses that use minimal electricity (fossil fuels) in their operation and generate very little heat in the pressing. Low heat (less than 110 degrees) is crucial in the cold-pressing because it is well-known that higher temperatures destroy vital phytonutrients and can cause trans fats to form.

Oleochemical manufacturing of detergents and emollients (diagram here), in comparison, is very energy-intensive and involves the use of toxic metal catalysts such as nickel or copper chromate (a carcinogen) and toxic petrochemical reagents. In the processing of oleochemical fatty bases for example, oils are heated in the presence of a catalyst to 500 to 1000 degrees Fahrenheit or higher and the temperature may be held for twenty four hours or longer. They are then reacted with methanol (a very toxic petrochemical alcohol) and sulfuric acid (a toxic environmental pollutant).

The production of oleochemicals is light years away from true organic principles. The creation of isolated fatty acids and fatty alcohols, for example, (key ingredients of the cosmetic industry) involves temperatures of 500 degrees F. and pressures of 1200 pounds per square inch—the same intense heat and pressure found inside a nuclear reactor! The combination of extreme heat and pressure, often in conjunction with a toxic catalyst, makes the molecules literally crack apart to form new substances.

Many intelligent people have been hoodwinked by slick detergent and emollient manufacturers’ greenwashing campaigns over the years into believing that oleochemical detergents, fatty acids and stearates (to name a few) are “natural” and environmentally-friendly because they are “vegetable-based.” The EPA has stated that personal care detergents (they make no distinction between oleo- or petrochemical-based products) are now considered persistent pollutants because they are released into our waterways every day in very large quantities, and their persistence is alarming because many personal care product ingredients have endocrine-disrupting effects.

The solution? Choose body care products made without oleochemicals or other synthetics. No detergents. No foam boosters. No isolated fatty acids. No methyl paraben or other chemical preservatives. Instead, look for organic cocoa butter, cold-pressed organic sunflower oil, select organic botanical extracts. What could be more natural?



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