The glossy images we're fed by the media hide a dangerous secret: most of our toiletries, even the "natural variety", are made up of the same harsh, toxic chemicals used for industry.
What could be more healthy than a refreshing body wash, a nourishing shampoo, a minty fresh toothpaste and a moisturising facial cream? Commercials, magazine advertisements and billboards bombard us with the message that soaping and scrubbing, exfoliating and moisturising are only beneficial to our health.
Yet the glossy images of well scrubbed individuals hide a dangerous secret: too many of the toiletries and cosmetics we use are carcinogenic cocktails of hazardous waste. Most of the chemicals which go into our toiletries are no different from the harsh, toxic chemicals used in industry. Far from enhancing health, they pose a daily threat to it.
For example, propylene glycol (PG) is a wetting agent and solvent used in make up, hair care products, deodorants and aftershave. It's also the main ingredient in antifreeze and brake fluid. Similarly, polyethylene glycol (PEG), a related agent found in most skin cleansers, is a caustic used to dissolve grease the same substance you find in oven cleaners. Isopropyl, an alcohol used in hair colour rinses, hand lotions and fragrances, is also a solvent found in shellac.
Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS), used in toothpastes, shampoos and just about every personal cleansing solution, is a harsh detergent commonly used as an engine degreaser. Each of these ingredients readily penetrates the skin with potentially adverse consequences (see box, p 1).
Some of the most dangerous chemicals we put on our bodies in the name of beauty belong to a family of hormone disrupting chemicals, which are water soluble ammonia derivatives. DEA (diethanolamine), TEA (triethanolamine) and MEA (monoethanolamine) are almost always in products that foam: bubble bath, body washes, shampoos, soaps and facial cleansers. They are used to thicken, wet, alkalise and clean. While they are irritating to the skin, eyes and respiratory tract (Rev Environ Contam Toxicol, 1997; 149: 1-86), DEA, MEA and TEA are not considered particularly toxic in themselves. However, once added to the product, these chemicals readily react with any nitrites present to form potentially carcinogenic nitrosamines, such as NDEA (N-nitrosodiethanolamine). Of the three, MEA and DEA pose the greatest risk to human health. Prolonged exposure to these can alter liver and kidney function (J Am Coll Toxicol, 1983; 2: 183-235) and even lead to cancer (Rev Environ Contam Toxicol, 1997; 149: 1-86).
Nitrites get into personal care products in several ways. They can be added as anti corrosive agents, they can be released as a result of the degradation of other chemicals, specifically 2-nitro-1,3-propanediol (BNDP), or they can be present as contaminants in raw materials. Ingredients such as formaldehyde or formaldehyde forming chemicals, or 2-bromo-2-nitropropane (also known as Bronopol) which can break down into formaldehyde, can also produce nitrosamines.
The long shelf life of most toiletries also increases the risk of creating a carcinogenic chemical reaction. Stored for a long time at elevated temperatures, nitrates will continue to form in a product, accelerated by the presence of certain other chemicals, such as formaldehyde, paraformaldehyde, thiocyanate, nitrophenols and certain metal salts (Science, 1973; 181: 1245-6; J Nat Cancer Inst, 1977; 58: 409; Nature, 1977; 266: 657-8; Fd Cosmet Toxicol, 1983; 21: 607-13).
Inadequate and confusing labelling means that consumers may never know which products are most likely to be contaminated. However, in a recent Food and Drug Administration (FDA) report, approximately 42 per cent of all cosmetics were contaminated with NDEA, with shampoos having the highest concentrations (National Toxicology Program, Seventh Annual Report on Carcinogens, Rockville, MD: US Department of Health and Human Services, 1994).
In Europe, where more safeguards are in place regarding nitrosating agents, the picture is somewhat better. For instance, in Germany, after the Federal Health Office issued a request to eliminate all secondary amines (such as DEA) from cosmetics in 1987, a report confirmed that only 15 per cent of products tested were contaminated with NDEA (Eisenbrand, G, et al in O'Neill, I K, et al [Eds]; N-Nitrosoalkanolamines in cosmetics, Lyon: IARC, 1991).
Manufacturers insist that DEA and its relatives are safe in products designed for brief or discontinuous use or those which wash off. However, there is evidence from both human and animal studies that NDEA can be quickly absorbed through the skin (J Nat Cancer Inst, 1981; 66: 125-7; Toxicol Lett, 1979; 4: 217-22). This argument also doesn't explain why these chemicals crop up regularly in body lotions and facial moisturisers, which are of course meant to stay on the skin for long periods of time.
As far back as 1978, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) concluded that "although no epidemiological data were available, nitrosodiethanolamine should be regarded for practical purposes as if it were carcinogenic to humans" (IARC, 1978; 17: 77-82). This position was reaffirmed nearly 10 years later.
In America in 1994, the National Toxicology Program similarly concluded in its Seventh Annual Report on Carcinogens that: "There is sufficient evidence for the carcinogenicity of N-nitrodiethanolamine in experimental animals." The report noted that of more than 44 different species in which NDEA compounds have been tested, all have been susceptible (Lijinsky, W, Chemistry and Biology of N-Nitroso Compounds, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992). Humans were unlikely to be the single exception, said the paper.
The cosmetic industry's response to the problems of nitrosamine formation has been to put even more chemicals in their products in an attempt to slow or inhibit the formation of NDEA. These include ascorbic acid, sodium bisulfite, butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA), butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT), sodium ascorbate, ascorbyl palmitate and a-tocopherol. None has proved adequate to prevent nitrosamine formation (Cosmetics & Toiletries, 1994; 109: 53).
In 1996, the Cosmetics, Toiletries and Fragrance Association (Cosmetic Ingredient Review, Washington, DC: 1996 CIR Compendium) stated: "These chemicals [Cocamide DEA, Lauramide DEA, Linoleamide DEA, and Oleamide DEA] should not be used as ingredients in cosmetic products containing nitrosating agents." Nevertheless DEA, TEA and MEA continue to be widely used in a staggering variety of toiletries and cosmetics.
Today it is not enough to be clean, you must smell clean as well. Fragrance has become an important selling point for everything from fabric softeners to body washes. But, again, underneath the sweet smell of marketing success there is the rank odour of potential disease. Almost without exception, modern perfumes are manufactured almost entirely from petrochemicals. More disturbingly, many of these chemicals are considered to be hazardous waste.
The nose is a chemical receptor. When you inhale a fragrance, you are breathing in the chemicals that make up that particular smell, and it is the combination of chemicals which causes physiological, emotional and psychological reactions associated with fragrance.
In one study, researchers conducted a perfume challenge of people with asthma like symptoms. Those who took part in the test inhaled perfume through their mouths (wearing a nasal plug) in two ways, first with a carbon filter mask on and then directly. Both methods induced symptoms in allergic individuals and the carbon filter mask provided no protective effect (Allergy, 1996; 51: 434-9).
In other words, the chemicals had an effect, regardless of whether they were breathed through the nose.
The sense of smell has a more direct connection to the brain than any other sense. Fragrances, no matter what their source, are able to breach the blood brain barrier gaining direct access to the limbic system, which is, among other functions, the emotional switchboard of the brain.
Some observers feel that a violation of the limbic system by volatile chemicals plays an important role in multiple chemical sensitivity (Biol Psychiatry, 1992; 32: 218-42; Toxicol Ind Health, 1992; 8: 181-202).
You might think you are safe choosing those products which advertise "natural" fragrances. Unfortunately, the difference between synthetic and natural is very limited, and all claims about "natural" fragrances should be viewed with suspicion.
Consider the manufacturing process for rose water: coal tar heated to 230! F gives off toluene, which is treated with chlorine to produce benzyl chloride. Benzyl chloride is then treated with potassium cyanide to produce phenyl ethyl alcohol the main ingredient of rose water (Killheffer, T, Synthetic Perfumes, Popular Science Encyclopaedia, Vol 10: 229-34).
More than 5000 chemicals are used in fragrance manufacture (Ann Derm Vernereol, 1986; 113: 31-41), 95 per cent of which are made from petroleum (Report by the Committee on Science & Technology, Neurotoxins: At Home and the Workplace, US House of Representatives, No. 99-827). These include benzene derivatives, aldehydes and many other known toxins and sensitisers capable of causing cancer, birth defects, central nervous system disorders and allergic reactions. No agency regulates the fragrance industry, even though some observers believe that the chemicals in perfume are as damaging to health as tobacco smoke.
Fragrances can also be absorbed through the skin. The greater the emollient quality of the product you are using (such as skin creams), the greater the absorbency (J App Toxicol, 1997; 17: 153-8). When fragrance chemicals penetrate the skin, they can affect other organs. Some have been shown to cause discolouration of internal organs, others are toxic to the liver and kidneys. Still others accumulate in fatty tissue and are passed on to children through breast milk.
Fragrances can be quick to saturate the blood, but slow to clear from the body. For instance, the chemical compound 1,8-cineole, also known as eucalyptol (a main ingredient of eucalyptus oil), was shown to reach saturation point in the blood after only 18 minutes of inhalation. It takes nearly an hour and three quarters, however, to clear the system once inhalation stops (Chem Senses, 1996; 21: 477-80). 1,8-cineole, which is also present in tea tree oil, has been shown to cause severe central nervous symptoms in pets and small children and can affect the liver and bone marrow. Limonene (d-limonene), a constituent of 1,8 cineole, is also a skin irritant that can cause contact dermatitis (Contact Derm, 1997; 36: 201-6) but only after it undergoes oxidation. This is why products that contain it should be kept in air tight containers and stored in the dark.
Although the UK government announced its intention to investigate the presence of nitro musks in commercial products in 1994, these chemicals still remain on sale. They were commonly used in laundry powders up until a few years ago, and although this use has been pretty much phased out, nitro musks continue to be used in soaps and other household and personal hygiene products throughout Europe and the rest of the world. They are also present in our drinking water.
Nitro musk compounds musk tibetene, musk ambrette, musk moskene, musk ketone and musk xylene as well as some non nitro musks are stored in fat tissue where they are very slow to clear from the body (Chemosphere, 1996; 33: 17-28). In the meantime, they are carcinogenic.
In a recent survey in Germany, out of 72 human blood samples, 66 (or 91 per cent) contained significant amounts of nitro musks (J Chromatogr B Biomed Sci Appl, 1997; 693: 71-8).
In a 1991 report by America's Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), toluene, one of the most common chemicals used in the preparation of perfumes, was found in every single fragrance sample collected by the agency. According to the report, the chemical was "most abundant in the auto parts store as well as the fragrance section of the department store". Toulene has been shown to cause cancer and nervous system damage and is designated as a hazardous waste by the EPA.
An earlier report by the FDA of compounds used in cosmetics which most frequently involved adverse reactions identified five chemicals (alpha-terpineol, benzyl acetate, benzyl alcohol, limonene and linalool) that are among the 20 most commonly used in the products tested in the 1991 EPA report.
Most of the research into the adverse effects of fragrances centres around asthma. Perfume has long been know to be an environmental risk factor for asthma (Hum Biol, 1996; 68: 405-14). There is copious evidence that toluene can not only trigger asthma attacks, but can cause asthma in previously healthy people.
It is probably no coincidence that the incidence of asthma has increased in the past decade by 31 per cent. In the same period, deaths from asthma have also increased by 31 per cent. Some 72 per cent of asthma patients in one study had adverse reactions to perfume; their lung function dropped between 18 and 58 per cent below baseline measurements (Am J Med, 1986; 80: 18-22). One Russian study concluded that childhood asthma was higher in areas where homes were situated near, among other places, perfume factories and busy roads again pointing to the link between petroleum byproducts of all varieties and damaged health (Med Tr Prom Ekol, 1995; 5: 15-19).
We have learned from research into glue sniffing that constantly inhaling volatile substances can cause permanent neurological and psychiatric damage. Children who inhale glue and solvents can become listless or violent, have poor concentration and experience convulsions and even coma (Bull Narc, 1994; 46: 49-78). One of the main ingredients of these solvents is toluene. This begs the question: what is the difference between wearing perfume and sniffing glue?
Our exposure to fragrance does not begin and end with perfume. Consider the daily exposure to other indoor pollutants, such as soaps, household cleaners, hair care products, laundry soaps and fabric softeners, and even foods, and the total toxic load quickly begins to mount up.
Research into toxic toiletries tells us what we do not want to know, which may be why governments, manufacturers of personal care products and consumers have stubbornly ignored the facts. For years, shelves full of makeup and toiletries have been our salvation our ticket to eternal youth and glamour. But not only do most of the products we use damage hair, skin and nails, making them look older and less healthy, they may actually be putting us on the fast track to chronic illness and even death.