The secret ingredients of your favorite foamy facewash
By Lyndsay Lyman
Remember high school chemistry class when you couldn’t pronounce anything in the curriculum? Ethyl-what? Most people get a flash from the past when they try to say the ingredients of many personal products like shampoo, conditioner and body wash out loud. As part of the increasingly popular movement to “go green,” many have started to realize that there is more to be concerned about with the ingredient list than simply the fact that it’s a tongue-twister.
Take, for instance, Ithaca College junior Megan Kelly. She doesn’t use any personal products that aren’t natural. Since hearing a speaker last year from the Sprecher Institute for Comparative Cancer Research at Cornell, she says she only looks for products manufactured without artificial colors, synthetic fragrances or parabens, which are chemicals used as preservatives. She’s concerned about the links between breast and other types of cancer and some of these unnatural ingredients.
“Parabens are probably the most important to me because they’re just really dangerous to your health,” said Megan “I don’t think people realize what we put on our skin seeps in and gets into our body and our bloodstream.”
According to an article by Suzanne M. Snedeker, Ph.D, of the Sprecher Institute, parabens are usually used in products as preservatives. She wrote that parabens can “support the growth of estrogen-dependent breast cancer cells grown in tissue culture.”
Megan’s not the only one who’s aware of these dangers. DiAnna Snyder, Wellness Department Manager at Ithaca’s Green Star Cooperative Market, said an increasing number of customers are worried about parabens, among other things.
“People are reading a lot on their own now, which is great,” Snyder said. “They’re taking their health into their own hands. People are really wanting to stay clear of certain things, parabens being a main one.”
The other dangerous ingredients Dr. Snedeker mentioned are placental extracts, which, despite infrequent use in personal care products, may be contaminated with estrogens, and benzophenones, which are used in sunscreens. Both are linked to breast cancer, said Dr. Snedeker.
Many Americans are becoming increasingly aware of dangerous ingredients such as these in personal care products. However, there are many who have yet to encounter this information.
Even though some people are becoming more conscious, IC sophomore Michelle Mackonochie is one person content to stick with mass-marketed materials. While Megan uses an Avalon Organics facial cleanser, Michelle is an avid fan of a more mainstream brand.
“I use Neutrogena. It works for me, I’ve always used it, so I just continue to use it,” said Michelle.
Michelle said she never felt the need to make the switch like Megan because she never heard anything bad about this or any other personal product she uses. If she had, she would have made the switch.
In general, however, she said she tends to like foods that are “bad” for her, so she’s never gone organic in that way. For Michelle, there is no reason to change her lifestlye, whereas Megan was already beginning to make the transition to organic products even before the speaker. For her, the speaker was just the final push.
“I’m just so stubborn about organics,” said Michelle. “I’d rather have a real hamburger with cheese than a veggie burger. I’m not into the whole ‘natural” thing.’ I like all the bad stuff, basically.”
Michelle did say, however, that her health is important to her; she works out often and generally considers this to be the time in her life when she should focus most on health.
She said, “For me, it’s important to stay healthy now, because as you get older, it gets harder to lose weight and stay in shape. So I feel like if you start now, you get a head start.”
So is there really a difference? Should Michelle join the “Go Natural” bandwagon? And how dangerous is the average facial cleanser?
Thankfully, there’s an online resource to provide these answers. The Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Cosmetic Database, available at www.cosmeticsdatabase.com, exposes the difference between personal care products.
According to the site, Neutrogena Deep Clean Facial Cleanser for Normal to Oily Skin rates a 6 out of 10–a moderate hazard–on the general danger scale. While the cleanser is not linked to cancer or developmental and reproductive toxicity, the site says it is linked to allergies and immunotoxicity, use restrictions and a host of other things including neurotoxicity; irritation of the skin, eyes or lungs; enhanced skin absorption and contamination concerns.
The site lists ingredients individually for each product as well, and it shows that the most concerning ingredients in the Neutrogena are the chemical that provides the fragrance, which scored a hazard of 8, and the salicylic acid, an acne medication, which scored a 7.
Megan’s Avalon Organics Vitamin C Skin Care: Refreshing Cleansing Gel scored an overall 4 out of 10, still a moderate hazard on the database’s scale. Some of the ingredients in her cleanser are linked to cancer and developmental/reproductive toxicity, in addition to all of the other dangers listed for the Neutrogena.
The most dangerous single ingredients in the Avalon were benzyl alcohol, a 6 on the scale, and melatonin and cocamidopropyl betaine, which each score a 5 on the scale.
Neither ingredient list includes parabens.
Megan did say that after making the switch to a natural cleanser, she noticed prompt improvements.
“Within a couple of days, my skin felt less dry and fresher. It didn’t feel weighted down by things and my pores were smaller. It also got brighter.”
Dr. Snedeker did make a point, however, that natural may not be as great as it seems in every case.
“Just because it’s natural and organic doesn’t mean it’s free from risk,” Dr. Snedeker said.
A simple example of this, she said, is poison ivy, which occurs naturally in the environment but obviously still causes harm to the human body. More surprisingly, natural lavender can cause problems, too. Still, just like any of the doctor’s concerns, ingredients like lavender won’t do a lot of harm in and of itself. The real concern lies in the combination.
“The problem isn’t [the use of] any one—the problem is they’re so ubiquitous and used in so many products, it’s the collective exposure over time that causes a problem,” Dr. Snedeker said.
When it comes to choosing products, Dr. Snedeker said, it’s never simple. She uses as few personal products as possible because she’s aware of the sad truth that nothing out there on the market is 100% safe.
“I think there’s a misconception that if something is labeled organic, it’s safe,” Snedeker said. “It may be, it may not be. But everything is made of chemicals, whether it says it’s organic or not.”
The problem there, Dr. Snedeker says, is that all of these products that we all use on a daily basis–ones we don’t even think twice about using–also cause harm to more than just our bodies.
“Everything you use goes down the sink and gets put into the environment,” Snedeker said.
Whether you’re Team Megan or Team Michelle, the potential benefits of trading in traditional cleansers for natural cleansers are something to consider.
Lyndsay Lyman is a sophomore Journalism major is going au naturél, just as soon as her Neutrogena runs out. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.