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ConditionsSkin Cleansers

Skin Cleansers

We test seven super-healthy leading brands

We test seven super-healthy leading brands

Does it matter what we put on our skin in terms of our health? Well, although it's not as crucial as what goes into our mouths and lungs, it does come a close third. After all, the skin is the largest organ of the body, and has its greatest interface with the outside world. Skin is clever stuff: it's a protective shield and temperature regulator, and is both an excretor and an absorber -at the same time. That absorbing function explains why nicotine and contraceptive patches work. The upshot is that anything we put on our skin could be picked up by the circulation and end up inside our body, possibly affecting our health. The most recent health scare has involved creams that are used to lighten the skin. Last August, the US FDA (Food and Drug Administration) discovered that an ingredient called 'hydroquinone' has "some evidence" of causing cancer. (Los Angeles Times, 30 August 2006).

Stories like these give the impression that the regulatory authorities are vigilant protectors of our health. But, as it turns out, they 're not. In the US, for example, a recent survey discovered that almost 90 per cent of the 10,500 ingredients used in personal-care products have not been evaluated for safety by the authorities (Environmental Working Group. Skin Deep. October 2005). That 's because they're not required to. "Manufacturers may use any ingredient or raw material, except for colour additives and a few prohibited substances, to market a product without a government review or approval, " says the FDA (Food and Drug Administration. Clearing Up Cosmetic Confusion. August 2000). In Europe, things are hardly better as here, too, there's a non-precautionary principle at work. This means that anything can be used until it 's shown to be harmful-and even then, the wheels grind slowly. Take phthalates, for example. For as long as 20 years, there were concerns that these compounds are toxic because they impair fertility, but it was only in November 2002 that the EU ordered just two types (DEHP and DBP) to be removed from cosmetics.

Cleansers up close

What could be more healthy-sounding than a cleanser? "Beautifully healthy skin," claims Procter & Gamble for its market-leading Oil of Olay cleansing range. But a cleanser can only give you healthy skin if it uses healthy ingredients. So what's in most cleansers? Let's take P&G's Oil of Olay Conditioning Cleansing Milk as an example. It's a typical standard cleanser, so let's take the lid of the bottle and unpack the small print of the ingredients (which are always listed in order of quantity, greatest first):

  • Aqua: a posh word for water.
  • Liquid paraffin: a byproduct of the oil industry, it helps the cleanser to coat the skin. But it also clogs the pores, and may prevent them from eliminating toxins. Worse, it might be contaminated with PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons), which have the potential to cause cancer.
  • Propylene glycol: a wetting agent used to dissolve oil and grease, this is another petrochemical (used in antifreeze, by the way) that is known to penetrate the skin rapidly. In animals, it has caused liver and kidney damage in high doses (Natl Toxicol Program Tech Rep Ser, 2004; 511: 6 -260) and "central nervous system toxicity" (J Pediatr, 1978; 93: 515-6).
  • PEG-6 stearate, PEG-30 glyceryl stearate: PEG (polyethylene glycol) is a grease-dissolver that is also found in oven cleaners. It is "routinely contaminated" with at least two cancer-causing ingredients: 1,4-dioxane and ethylene oxide, chemicals that have been linked to brain, uterine and breast cancers, and leukaemia (Int J Toxicol, 2001; 20 [Suppl 4]: 13 -26). The fact that PEG should not be used on damaged skin says it all.
  • Tocopheryl acetate: another name for vitamin E.
  • Parfum: synthetic perfumes or fragrances, mostly derived from petroleum. As such, they contain benzene derivatives, aldehydes and many other known toxins and sensitizers that can cause cancer, birth defects, central-nervous-system disorders and allergic reactions. In fact, fragrances are the leading cause of allergic reactions to cosmetics (Contact Dermatitis, 1997; 36: 57 -86), and a known risk factor for asthma (Hum Biol, 1996; 68: 405-14). Some experts say the chemicals in perfume could be as damaging to health as tobacco smoke.
  • Lanolin oil: a natural oil derived from wool-what could be healthier than this? But lanolin is often contaminated by the toxic pesticides used in sheep dip.
  • Prunus dulcis: almond essence.
  • Glyceryl stearate: an emulsifier-a combination of glycerin from animal or vegetable fat and stearic acid. Although it's not known to be hazardous, it has not been sufficiently safety-tested.
  • Citric acid: used as a cleansing agent, this is naturally found in fruits and vegetables.
  • Carbomer: a thickener, made of a polymer of acrylic acid, believed to be safe.
  • Imidazolidinyl urea: a skin soother derived from comfrey, it can cause hives or rashes, and may potentially be contaminated by carcinogens.
  • Tetrasodium EDTA: an antibacterial agent that is also used as a 'penetration enhancer', it is believed to be safe, but the evidence is limited.
  • Sodium hydroxide: an antacid. In the form of caustic soda, it's a powerful drain cleaner but, in cosmetic quantities, it's considered safe.
  • Methylparaben, propylparaben: two preservatives from the parabens family that have recently been discovered to be hormone-disrupting, estrogenic chemicals, and possibly implicated in breast cancer (J Steroid Biochem Mol Biol, 2002; 80: 49 -60). They can also affect fertility in male rats (which may not necessarily apply to humans) (Toxicol Ind Health, 2001; 17: 31 -9), and are a common cause of adverse skin reactions (Allerg Immunol [Paris], 2006; 38: 195 -7).
  • Myristyl alcohol, stearyl alcohol, cetyl alcohol: used as emollients and emulsifiers, these show no evidence of harm.
  • BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene): an antioxidant banned from foods in some countries, when used as a cosmetic, it can cause skin irritation and may be toxic to the immune system.

So, of the 21 ingredients in this typical cleanser, only a handful are definitely safe, a few are potentially toxic, and the rest are somewhere in between.

Fortunately, some manufacturers have woken up to the potential hazards in everyday cosmetics, and are now offering a rapidly growing choice of cleansers for the safety-conscious consumer. People who suffer from chemical sensitivity are the obvious targeted market, but all of us could benefit from detoxifying our environment -particularly when it concerns something as close to us as our own skin.

For this road test, we assessed seven of the leading non-toxic skin cleansers in the UK, and asked the following four questions:

  • What are they like to use?
  • Do they actually work?
  • How safe are their ingredients?
  • Are they good value for money?

A hand-picked panel of average consumers helped us to answer the first two questions, and we've scoured the latest toxicological information to answer the third. As for the fourth question, the prices quoted below are what we paid for them on the high street (but you could buy them for less online).


Weleda Iris Cleansing Lotion
Price: lb5.40 for 100 mL
Rating: *****
Ingredients: water, jojoba oil, sesame, alcohol, glycerin, witch hazel distillate, fragrance, glyceryl linoleate, magnesium aluminium silicate, sodium beeswax, orris root extract, xantham gum.

This cleanser scored very high marks indeed from our testers-roughly, 85 per cent for smell, 95 per cent for ease of application, 95 per cent for effectiveness, and 95 per cent for value for money.
So what's in it to make it so good? The major ingredient is jojoba-a natural, high-powered moisturizer known for centuries to the Apache Indians-which is quickly absorbed by the skin. Another moisturizing ingredient is oil of iris, which is both easily absorbed and super-penetrating. There 's root of iris, too, an ingredient that, however, might cause problems, as it can very occasionally produce an allergic reaction in some people (Bown D. Encyclopaedia of Herbs and Their Uses. London: Dorling Kindersley, 1995). It also uses glyceryl linoleate, a vegetable emulsifier thought to be possibly carcinogenic, but recently given the all-clear (Int J Toxicol, 2004; 23 [Suppl 2]: 55 -94).
The pleasant smell (albeit described by one tester as "old ladyish") comes from a cocktail of the essential oils of bergamot, geranium, grapefruit, lavender, lemon, rose, rosemary and sweet orange.
Our verdict: Almost perfect.

Barefoot Botanicals Rosa Fina Cleansing Milk
Price: lb18.95 for 100 mL
Rating: ****
Ingredients: water, witch hazel, rose hip seed oil, sorbitan stearate, aloe vera, behenyl alcohol, jojoba seed oil, glycerin, alcohol, dandelion, xantan gum, sucrose cocoate, rose otto, grapefruit seed extract, mandarin orange, ascorbyl palmitate, juniper, oryzanol, fragrance.

"Gorgeous, uplifting smell", "Lovely smell (with capital L)", "I loved how I could still smell it even after I washed it off" were typical comments by our panel. It was also rated highly for its cleansing function, and was described as "very moisturizing". Many of Barefoot's contents are traditional skin-care herbs and plants. Witch hazel, the medieval astringent, is its main ingredient, closely followed by rosehip seed oil, a classic skin-repairer. There 's also aloe vera (good for dry skin), jojoba (high in unsaponifiables, natural chemicals that elasticize the skin) and dandelion (good for skin conditions such as eczema). The only ingredient which might be a problem is its parfum. Although Barefoot assures us that it is plant-based, some highly chemically sensitive people may find it a drawback.

Barefoot Botanicals is a signatory to the Compact for America, cosmetics manufacturers that have undertaken not to use ingredients that might cause cancer or birth defects.

Our verdict: Top-notch, but with a pricetag to match.

Green People Gentle Cleanse
Price: lb10.99 for 200 mL, lb6.99 for 50 mL
Rating: ***
Ingredients: aloe vera, palm oil, olive oil, cetearyl alcohol, cetearyl glucoside, cetyl alcohol, glyceryl stearate, rose geranium, chamomile, marshmallow, yucca, passion flower, grape seed), pineapple, phenoxyethanol, benzoic acid, dehydroacetic acid, geraniol, citronnellol, linalool.

Containing "93% certified organic ingredients", this product was well liked by our panel of testers. They appreciated its "subtle scent of rose" and even its "non-smell"-a plus for sensitive people. As a cleanser, it was generally effective, requiring little effort to remove dirt and makeup, although some users reported that it didn 't really leave the skin feeling any softer.

Its major ingredient is aloe vera, a classic skin protector, followed by palm and olive oils. In addition to rose geranium oil, it also uses a handful of herbal oils such as chamomile and marshmallow.

However, a couple of ingredients seem to be out of place in such a clearly 'green' product. Benzoic acid (a preservative), although officially passed as safe by the FDA, has been suspected of neurotoxicity at moderate doses, and so has a limited permit in cosmetics. Another preservative, 2-phenoxyethanol, has also been under the spotlight as a possible neurotoxin (Arch Toxicol, 2000; 74: 281-3), but is happily now cleared.

Our verdict: Pretty good, but it lets itself down in the small print.

Neal's Yard Remedies Lavender Cleanser
Price: lb7.50 for 30 mL
Rating: **
Ingredients: water, almond oil, beeswax, olive oil, rose extract, alcohol denat, calendula extract, cleavers extract, elderflower extract, cetearyl alcohol, propolis extract, cetearyl glucoside, xantham gum, levulinic acid, glycerin, wich hazel extract, lavender oil, cypress oil, yarrow oil, geraniol, limonene, linalool.

This product elicited a slightly mixed bag of responses. Most liked its lavender smell despite the 'old ladies' connotation, but not all agreed as to its effectiveness. One tester complained forcefully that it seemed to "peel" rather than cleanse her skin, although the majority felt it was a good moisturizing cleanser that left the skin feeling soft.

All did agree on one thing, however-it's too expensive, with the 30-mL tube delivering far less than any of the other products tested. Why it 's so pricey is a bit of a mystery, as the contents, although mostly organic, are not particularly exotic: the three main ingredients are almond oil, beeswax and olive oil.

Our verdict: Wholesome, probably effective, but not good value for your money.

Dr Hauschka Cleansing Cream
Price: lb12 for 50 mL
Rating: **
Ingredients: water, sweet almond meal, kidney vetch extract, calendula extract, alcohol, peanut oil, wheat germ oil, matricaria extract, St John 's wort extract, witch hazel extract, sweet almond oil, fragrance, citronellol, geraniol, acerola extract, xanthan gum, algin.

Our panel's first impressions were rather negative and went south thereafter. Few liked the smell -described as "utilitarian", "a bit weird" and "alcoholic". Most commented (negatively) that the granular texture made this more of a scrub than a cleanser, although one user generously commented that she felt she was getting a bargain two-in-one cleanser and exfoliant. Many complained that Dr Hauschka's detailed instructions made the whole process too long-winded, and very few thought the end result was worth it.

Nevertheless, the ingredients look good. Top of the list is almond meal (presumably the granular element), followed by kidney vetch (a medieval skin-regenerator), and Calendula (a classic wound-healer and antiseptic).

Our verdict: Despite quality ingredients, this is not user-friendly.

Aubrey Organics Seaware Facial Cleansing Cream
Price: lb6.99 for 118 mL
Rating: **
Ingredients (English): coconut fatty acid cream base, natural grain alcohol, hydrolyzed soy protein, deionized water, bladderwrack, laminaria, citrus seed extract, vitamins A, C and E, castile soap, organic rose hip seed oil, horse chestnut extract, vitamin A, inositol, linoleic acid, calcium pantothenate, biotin.

Rather confusingly, this product has two lists of ingredients-one in Latin, the other in English-neither of which quite tallies with the other. According to the English version, it 's the only product in our sample not to have water as its major ingredient. However, the Latin list does declare water as the primary ingredient, followed by alcohol, and then, coconut oil. The rest of the contents are impressive. Among the highlights are two mineral-rich marine plants -bladderwrack seaweed (an antifungal) and Laminaria kelp (a skin toner)-as well as horse-chestnut extract (for toning tiny veins) and Rosa mosqueta rosehip seed oil (rich in gamma-linolenic acid, an omega-6 fatty acid, and trans retinoic acid, for skin repair and collagen regeneration). Our panel gave this product mixed reviews. Its smell wasn't an immediate plus, and a few found that it failed to cleanse properly-and even left the skin feeling dry afterwards. All appreciated its value for money, but some said they wouldn 't buy it at any price.

Our verdict: Good ingredients, but a disappointing performance.

Taer Icelandic Cleanse
Price: lb24.50 for 100 mL
Rating: *
Ingredients: water, Eucerinium anhydricum, olive oil, propylenglycolum, cetylanum, cetomacrogolum 1000, alcohol cetylicus, yarrow extract, lemon balm, carbomer, Biopein (R) (all natural preservative), lemon oil, tea tree oil, eucalyptus oil, Natrii hydroxidum.

Our panel were generally positive, giving this near-top marks for removing makeup and leaving the skin feeling "clean and soft". Most of the panel liked the smell, but all thought its high pricetag could only be justified if it had top-notch ingredients.

And that's the rub, for the quality of Taer's ingredients turns out to be the worst in our sample-and that's if you manage to work out what's actually in the product. The pack lists a number of obscure, if not completely unheard of, ingredients such as cetylanum and cetomacrogolum 1000.

The major ingredient, Eucerinium anhydricum, turns out to be Vaseline lanolin (and, as we 've already said, lanolin may be contaminated by pesticides), and propylenglycolum is none other than our old friend propylene glycol (again, as we 've already said, a potential toxin). Carbomer and Natrii hydroxidum (sodium hydroxide) are two more synthetic ingredients that, though believed to be harmless, make this product anything but natural.

Of course, it does contain natural ingredients, but even then, not all are innocuous. For example, yarrow extract (an astringent) in rare cases can cause severe skin rash, and tea tree oil (an antiseptic and antifungal) has recently been suspected of causing hormonal imbalances (Washington Post, 4 July 2006).

Our verdict: Expensive, and not really a 'natural' cleanser.

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