The Healthy Person's Guide to Personal Care Ingredients
S tudies have shown that we may actually acquire more toxins through skin absorption and inhalation than through the foods that we eat. Because the skin is the largest organ in the body, this is a substantial surface area through which toxic chemical migration may occur. When you rub chemicals on your skin, they can pass straight through and enter your bloodstream within minutes. Think about how nicotine and birth control patches work. Personal care products should be as pure as the foods we eat.
Have you ever noticed that a product may list many herbs and/or vegetables on the label and yet the product itself is bright white or crystal clear? When you make any type of herb tea or vegetable broth is it ever clear? No! The listing of many botanicals on the label of a product that may have only one or two drops of a highly processed herb extract is known in the cosmetic trade as “window dressing.” This tactic is used to distract you from all of the chemicals that are listed on the label. Cosmetic companies know you’re busy and they’re betting that you won’t take the time to read through the small print of the entire list of ingredients.
When evaluating unfamiliar chemical ingredients you should know that, according to the Environmental Defense group’s ongoing research, “78% of the chemicals in highest-volume commercial use have not had even ‘minimal’ toxicity testing.”
With no government regulation of the word “organic” in the personal care products industry, the use of the word “organic” has exploded in this market. Profits have skyrocketed for the companies who capitalize on the consumer trust in organics. With no one but the fox watching the henhouse, these corporations are filling their personal care products with all manner of synthetic petrochemical and oleochemical emollients, thickeners, detergents, fragrances and preservatives and, to the great confusion of the consumer, are labeling these chemical products as “natural” and “organic.” Consumer beware!
Without a doubt, the best way to read a personal care product ingredients listing is to read each product ingredient as if it were something that you might put in your mouth. Remember, some lip care products actually do go into your mouth and other personal care products are absorbed through the skin, all over your body. Following is a guide to both truly natural and synthetic ingredients—a quick reference to help you make an educated decision about what ingredients you want to rub on your skin, put in your body and put into our waterways.
Emollients are liquid substances which help prevent drying of the skin by providing a barrier to trans-epidermal water loss.
Some emollients are humectants: they attract water from their surroundings. In dry conditions, they can draw moisture away from the skin.
Certified organic fixed or base oils are always cold-pressed (crushed under low-heat conditions) from fresh fruit and seeds/nuts to preserve the beneficial phytonutrients that are vital to human health. Cold-pressed oils and natural waxes have been safely used by humans for thousands of years
In contrast, synthetic emollients are modern chemicals and most are created under very energy-intensive conditions (high usage of fossil fuels with resulting air and/or water pollution) that involve extremely high temperatures of 500 to 1000 degrees Fahrenheit for twelve to twenty four hours, along with very high pressure and/or vacuum. (Many synthetic emollients also require toxic or carcinogenic catalysts or reactive agents in their manufacture.) These conditions are required to transform or split the natural vegetable oil molecules into new molecules that are typically not found in nature. These temperature and pressure extremes are the same as those found in the core of a nuclear reactor. What delicate, vital nutrients could survive these destructive conditions? Indeed, new research shows that these industrial processes can cause the formation of trans-fatty acids or trans-isomers which have been linked to the creation of free radicals and prostaglandin inhibitors.
New fractionation and trans-esterification technologies incorporate bio-engineered GMO (genetically modified organism) enzymes or strong acids as the reactive agents in the industrial manufacturing of waxy emollients and emulsifiers.
Do synthetic emollients sound healthy to you?
- Preferably USDA certified organic:
- almond oil
- avocado oil
- coconut oil
- hazelnut oil
- jojoba oil
- olive oil
- palm oil
- pumpkin seed oil
- safflower oil
- sesame oil
- sunflower oil
- tamanu oil
- Natural oils to avoid:
- castor oil (castor beans yield the biotoxin ricin)
- cottonseed oil (likely to contain high pesticide residues)
- grapeseed oil
- (usually petrochemical solvent-extracted from
- conventionally-grown grapes. see extenders
- and solvents, below)
- peanut oil
- (peanuts can cause severe anaphylaxis
- allergic reactions in many people)
- pomace-grade olive oil
- (petrochemical solvent-extracted from olive pits.
- see extenders and solvents, below)
- evening primrose seed oil (highly unstable, 60-day shelf-life,
- frequently petrochemical solvent-extracted)
- rice bran oil (petrochemical solvent-extracted)
- Extracted without solvents, preferably USDA certified organic:
- Cocoa butter
- Karite butter (Shea butter)
- Solvent-extracted (may contain solvent residues)
Oleochemical and petrochemical (synthetic) emollients:
||acetylated lanolin alcohol
ceteareth-2 glyceryl monostearate
coconut fatty acids
eucerin (petroleum jelly)
fat alcohol (cetearyl alcohol)
hydrated palm glycerides
jojoba butter/wax (hydrogenated jojoba oil)
methyl glucose dioleate
non-vegetable glycerine or glycerol
plant emulsifying wax
vegetable emulsifying wax
Surfactants are substances which clean by decreasing the surface tension of liquids, usually by having the property of being attracted to both water and oil. Many surfactants are created with a negative charge to dissipate the unnatural static electricity buildup that occurs in most people (resulting in static-filled, fly-away hair) who are living with too many unnatural petrochemical plastic static-generating materials.
Surfactants are often used in combination with synthetic foam boosters, foam stabilizers and thickeners to create the illusion of a rich product. It is important to note that there are thousands of commercially-available surfactants and most of them have not been studied long-term for human or environmental health effects.
To learn more about the mysterious surfactants (detergents)—what they really are, how they’re made, why we shouldn’t use them, why they’re not healthy for our environment, etc., go here.
|Natural soaps are made from the combination of oils, of either plant or animal origin, water and alkali under carefully controlled conditions. Real traditional soaps, unlike industrial detergents, can be found naturally-occurring within nature. Also, unlike industrial detergents, the crafting of true, natural soaps by real human hands and the safe use of real soap dates back to antiquity.
True and natural soaps are referred to as castile, marseille-style soap or even real soap.
In the US, it is unfortunate for consumers that synthetic detergents are permitted to be labeled, however incorrectly, as “soap.” Many so-called “organic soaps” and “organic shampoos” are actually made from non-organic synthetic oleochemical or petrochemical detergents.
- Commercial soaps (and some emollients and emulsifiers) are commonly made with slaughterhouse tallow (sodium tallowate) often from slaughterhouse waste products, including downer cattle, or even euthanized cats and dogs. Recently, there has been concern around the world about the mad cow prion that may be transmitted from cattle slaughterhouse by-products. Natural soaps are best if made from any combination of the following vegetable oils, preferably USDA certified organic:
- cocoa butter
- coconut oil
- hemp seed
- shea nut
|Some plants have parts that are high in substances (saponins) that are natural surfactants, such as soap bark, soap berry, soapwort, yucca and others. Some of these plants are available commercially, but are expensive and require careful handling and their natural cleansing properties, while effective, do not generate any substantial foam. Thus, most personal care products that claim to utilize these saponins typically contain quantities that are far too small to have any substantive cleaning effect and usually incorporate a conventional surfactant as the primary cleansing agent in their product.
Synthetic Oleochemical and Petrochemical Detergents & Boosters
||ammonium lauryl sulfate
DEA cetyl phosphate
disodium lauryl sulfosuccinate
methyl glucose dioleate
coconut and corn oil “soap”
(ammonium lauryl or laureth sulfate)
cocamide DEA or MEA
magnesium lauryl sulfate
||neutralized coconut extract
sodium cocoyl isethionate
sodium laureth sulfate
sodium myreth sulfate
sodium myristoyl sarcosinate
sodium lauryl or laureth
Liquids in which other substances are dissolved or diluted, or which serve as media for the extraction of botanical constituents.
The most natural solvent in the world is H2O: water. From the earliest of times, humans have used water to make soups and teas from the bounty of plants that grew around them. As civilization progressed, humans fermented various simple alcoholic beverages—beers, wines and other spirits. People quickly learned that they could make a greater diversity of medicines by infusing their plants in their fermented spirits and, as an added benefit, the herbal extracts would remain potent on their unrefrigerated shelves for a much longer period of time. Thousands of years later, the finest and most effective natural herbal extracts are still made as simple teas and infusions in organic spirits (organic grain/grape/sugar cane alcohol).
In looking to cut corners in the name of profits, many companies choose to use cheaper, toxic synthetic solvents to extract more of the herb’s phytochemicals, more quickly. Unfortunately, when using the chemical solvents there is always the risk of chemical residue in the final product.
Some of the more common chemical solvents such as hexane, acetone and methanol are not only toxic to handle and to ingest (neurotoxins and pulmonary irritants), they are also hazardous to the environment in their manufacture.
ethyl alcohol, synthetic
ethyl butyl acetate
ethylene glycol monophenyl-ether (phenoxyethanol)
Thickeners and Stabilizers
Over the years, clever marketers have persuaded the public to believe that thicker products mean richer, more luxurious products. The truth is that the thickness or thinness (viscosity) of a product has nothing to do with the quality of the product. On occasion, the use of a thickener may help to stabilize an emulsion. A salad dressing is an example of an emulsion—the oil and water may separate readily, but when synthetic xanthan gum (the processed excrement from bacteria grown on a fermenting substrate—often bioengineered) is added, the separation is held in check.
(One commonly used thickener, carrageenan or “Irish moss,” has been linked to two different forms of cancer in recent studies.)
Because better qualities of ingredients are more expensive, the vast majority of large corporations seeking to maximize profits, incorporate the cheapest synthetic thickeners in their formulations.
|Natural or organic thickeners may be botanical or mineral in origin. A few natural thickeners are approved by the USDA for use in organic foods.
- locust bean gum
- guar gum
- acacia gum
- clay minerals
cocamide DEA, MEA
coconut fatty acids
hydrolyzed wheat protein
methacryloyl ethyl betaine
The majority of the FDA-approved coloring agents for foods and personal care products are synthetic. These synthetic colors are primarily derived from coal tar, with some coming from mineral sources and a few from plants or animals. The coal tar and mineral-based colors are created in energy-intensive, environmentally UN-friendly industrial manufacturing processes. Over the years, many synthetic colorings were shown to be toxic to humans and, as problems (carcinogenicity, for example) were discovered, they were banned from the market. Colorings found in cosmetic products known as iron oxides originated as minerals, but are often reacted with chemicals at high temperature to isolate and refine the material. While some commonly used iron oxide colorings, although synthetic, may be inert, one natural coloring, the mineral titanium dioxide (also used as a sunscreen), has been found in recent studies to be photo-reactive—unstable in the presence of sunlight—and in its degradation it can create free radicals.
Many “natural” colorings that are permitted in non-organic foods are extracted from fruits and vegetables using toxic chemical solvents such as hexane or acetone. Recently, a class-action lawsuit involved two so-called “natural” colorings, canthaxanthin and astaxanthin, which were being added to farm-raised fish to give the flesh an orange color, but were not being identified on the labels. These synthetic colorings are highly controversial because they have been associated with retinal damage in the human eye. The European Union has restricted the use of these chemicals because of the lack of safety data for them. Fortunately, only fruit and vegetable colors such as annatto, beet powder, caramel, saffron or turmeric that are not chemically-treated may be used in organic foods. The FDA has not approved any botanically-based colorings to be used in cosmetics except annatto, henna (hair coloring only, not body paint) and caramel (from sugar).
Carmine, a red coloring permitted for use in foods and cosmetics, is extracted from the bodies of female scale insects using chemical solvents.
Oddly, bar soaps only, not liquid soaps, are not considered to be cosmetics and therefore are not required to adhere to the FDA cosmetic coloring guidelines. Although many companies do use the FD&C or DC colorings for bar soaps, they are also free to use other botanical colorings.
- carrot powder
- chamomile oil, german
- grape juice
- red cabbage
- spinach powder
- tomato powder
- aluminum lakes
- sodium copper chlorophyllin (chlorophyll)
- D&C colors (all)
- FD&C colors (all)
- iron oxides
- titanium dioxide
- zinc oxide
Fragrances can be synthetically-derived (from primarily petroleum sources) or they can be totally natural. The highest quality of natural essential oils are certified organic. Generally, the safest essential oils are those that are used in foods. Why would anyone use a synthetic fragrance? The main reason to use chemical fragrance is to make as much money as possible. Synthetic “fragrance” oils are cheap—which means big profits for corporations. Here are actual prices for synthetic lemon “fragrance” and certified organic lemon oil: lemon “fragrance” sells for one dollar per pound and organic lemon oil can sell for fifty-four dollars per pound! Organic is fifty times the price of synthetic!
Some chemists argue that if they make a petrochemical “replica” of an essential oil that exists in nature, then they have the right to call it “natural.” There is a process that exists that is called “head space technology” that is used to create “nature identical” chemical fragrances. This is like creating a wax version of a piece of fruit. It looks just like the fruit, but is it real? Should we eat it? The synthetic fragrance molecules, when analyzed by a machine and charted on paper may look like the fingerprint of the real oil, but it doesn’t fool our bodies. Just ask any asthmatic individual who experienced respiratory arrest after breathing the volatile vapors of the chemical scents.
Because our DNA has evolved over millions of years, every cell in our bodies is programmed to respond to the truly natural phytochemicals found in the real plants that we evolved alongside. When we breathe or ingest plant materials, our bodies recognize the molecules and know how to process them, safely. Many of the epidemic health problems such as asthma, migraines, hyperactivity disorder, rashes, depression, even seizures, have been linked to synthetic chemical fragrances.
The highest quality essential oils are certified organic. There are hundreds of essential oils available from around the world; however, because most companies would rather use synthetic chemical fragrances, there has been little incentive for the major processors to make the investment in organic essential oil inventories. At this time, there is a limited palette of certified organic oils to work with. Here are some of most commonly used, safe and true essential oils:
- atlas cedar
- bay laurel
- cinnamon leaf
- juniper berry
- tea tree
- ylang ylang
Synthetic Chemical [Fragrance]
It is very important to note that there is currently no regulation of the phrases “essential oils” or “natural fragrance” unless the oil is USDA certified organic. Manufacturers are free to identify synthetic fragrance as an essential oil or natural fragrance, even “pure.” Perhaps what may be worse news is that the FDA does not require companies to list synthetic fragrance chemicals on their labels or to disclose them when you inquire. The final insult is that the “fragrance” that is listed on the label is actually a multi-component soup of many different aroma chemicals blended together to make that product’s signature scent.
How do you know what to trust? At this time the only way to attempt to ascertain that you are not exposed to synthetic fragrance chemicals is to seek out products that use pure certified organic essential oils and, particularly, those personal care products that bear the USDA organic seal on the front label of each bottle.
Here are a few common synthetic chemical fragrances found in “natural” personal care product’s “fragrance” formulas:
- amyl acetate (banana fragrance)
- apple fragrance
- banana fragrance
- benzophenones 1 to 12 (rose fragrance)
- berry fragrance
- bitter almond oil (benzaldehyde)
- cinnamic acid
- coconut fragrance
- cucumber fragrance
- honeysuckle fragrance
- lilac fragrance (anisyl acetate)
- mango fragrance
- melon fragrance
- methyl acetate (apple fragrance)
- methyl salicylate (wintergreen or birch fragrance)
- plum fragrance
- peach fragrance
- phenethyl alcohol (rose ether-rose fragrance)
- 2-Phenoxyethanol (rose-ether-rose fragrance)
- Phenoxyethanol (rose-ether-rose fragrance)
- Prabanol (a.k.a. Ebanol, sandalwood fragrance)
- strawberry fragrance
- verataldehyde (vanilla fragrance)
Preservatives are substances which help to maintain the stability of a product by creating an inhospitable environment for bacterial growth. There are many natural and organic substances that have this useful quality. Ancient Egyptians, for example, were very familiar with the preservative qualities of botanical ingredients such as cedar, clove, frankincense, myrrh and many others. They discovered the natural preservatives and then, to prove their viability, left us some amazing proof: human bodies preserved for several thousand years!
Unfortunately, chemical preservatives (hundreds of them) are used frequently because they are easy to obtain and very cheap and, until recently, no one questioned their prolific use. Real organic essential oils and herbal extracts can be used as part of a truly natural preservative system; however, they are much more costly than petrochemicals. The benefits of real botanicals is that our bodies recognize and can process them safely as they are substances that we (and animals!) evolved with over millions of years. Chemical preservatives, on the other hand, are not without harm to humans and wildlife in their manufacture, when they are rubbed into the body and when they are washed down the drain. Synthetic preservatives are considered by leading dermatological associations to be the number one cause of contact dermatitis. Dermatitis and eczema seem almost trivial now that we know that some preservatives have been found to be persistent environmental pollutants and endocrine-disruptors. The US Environmental Protection Agency has stated that the parabens (methyl, butyl and propyl), commonly used preservatives, have estrogenic activity.
Are synthetic chemical preservatives necessary? No! Herbal extracts made in the traditional manner using nothing but the herb material and organic grain alcohol can contain some naturally acidic components that, while edible, are effective preservatives when used in a product formula. Acidic and/or alkaline environments are not bacteria-friendly and could be considered self-preserving. Most people have many products in their pantry that are considered to be what the FDA calls “self-preserving” even without refrigeration. Some examples of self-preserved products are: extra-virgin olive oil, peanut butter, vinegar, honey, sugar, vinegar, salt and wine. Just as there are hundreds of organic food products that are made, sold and consumed every day that don’t contain any synthetic chemical preservatives, one can also enjoy a wide range of personal care products without chemical preservatives. Some products can be made without water, such as body balms and oils and may be stable for twelve to fifteen months—just like organic olive oil. True soaps are naturally alkaline and some may be shelf-stable for decades.
There are thousands of plants that have various phytochemical constituents that are natural preservatives. Some of these botanical components are easily extracted with simple processes that meet the National Organic Program’s standards for organic food processing, such as distillation and infusion. Following are safe and effective natural preservatives that have been used for centuries:
- botanical resins
- essential oils
- herbal extracts
- grain, grape or sugar cane alcohol