For many, putting on skin care and beauty products is a daily routine or ritual. Oftentimes, this can be several different products (it’s been estimated up to a dozen) each day, which all contain a number of chemical ingredients. Most of us want to believe that these products are safe for us, but the truth is that what we choose to put in, on and around our bodies is not always benign. So, is it time to jump on the “green beauty” bandwagon?
Why should we care?
Firstly, let’s consider why we should concern ourselves with what goes into cosmetics and skin care products. There are three important reasons why I believe we should care deeply about this:
1. Skin as an organ of elimination and absorption:
Cosmetics are more than skin deep. Your skin is your body’s largest organ, and plays essential roles in both eliminating waste and dermal absorption. This is evidenced by the number of transdermal medications that exist (that is, medicine that is absorbed through the skin). There are several factors that influence the skin’s absorption potential but the bottom line is that what you put on your skin can have effects that go well beyond skin-deep.
2. Cosmetic regulation:
In Canada, cosmetics are regulated by the Food and Drug Act under Canadian Cosmetic Regulations. This is a far cry from our neighbour to the south – in the U.S., cosmetic regulations have not been updated in decades and provide little protection to the consumer. In Canada, the Cosmetic Ingredient Hotlist lists the many ingredients that are banned or restricted in cosmetics. The Canadian government is also very transparent about their stance on the safety of cosmetic ingredients. This is excellent news for the consumer! That being said, there is still room for improvement in Canada. There are several ingredients which have been shown to pose health risks and are not regulated in cosmetics (more on that below).
3. Potential harms:
Some of the chemical ingredients in cosmetics are structurally similar to hormones in the human body and can interact with those hormone’s receptor sites. These are referred to as endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs). Some of these, such as phthalates and parabens, are termed xenoestrogens – that is, exogenous (environmental) chemical compounds that mimic estrogen. Like throwing a stone in calm water, a small change can cause a ripple or cascade effect in the human body. The human hormonal system is incredibly complex and introducing even miniscule amounts of EDCs or xenoestrogens can have far-reaching and profound impacts on human health. Unlike endogenous estrogens, xenoestrogens have also been shown to remain in the body longer, accumulating in fat tissue due to their lipophilic (fat-loving) nature. Because women have more fatty tissue than men and often use more cosmetic products, women tend to be disproportionately affected by EDCs.
Cosmetics are a known source of EDCs and xenoestrogens, and these have been shown to impact female and male fertility, may increase the risk of Type 2 diabetes, may play a role in estrogen-dependent cancers, and have been linked to increased obesity rates in children. Importantly, some EDCs have also been shown to have epigenetic effects through action on the ovaries, resulting in transgenerational impacts.
Among the most concerning and ubiquitous EDCs are phthalates, parabens, and triclosan.
Phtalates have been shown to affect human fertility, in particular high levels have been positively associated with lower sperm motility. Another study showed phthalates to be associated with increased waist circumference and insulin resistance in males. Phthalate exposure in pregnancy has also been associated with an increased risk of pre-term birth. Dibutyl phthalate (the main phthalate in cosmetics) use in cosmetics is not currently restricted in Canada.
Parabens are known xenoestrogens, and are of particular concern in regards to estrogen-dependent cancers. One study measured paraben levels in breast tissue from mastectomies and found parabens present in 99% of samples, while another study looking at certain breast cancer cell lines showed parabens could induce estrogenic activity. There is also concern over perinatal paraben exposure and the potential effects on brain and immune system development. Parabens are not currently restricted in cosmetics in Canada.
Triclosan is another known xenoestrogen, which also has androgenic activity. It has been shown to induce estrogenic activity in certain cancer cell lines. Additionally, it poses a great environmental risk, as recognized by Health Canada. Interestingly, studies looking at triclosan concentrations in the urine of women with and without PCOS showed women with PCOS to have substantially higher triclosan concentrations. You can read more about this here, and you can read my previous article about PCOS here. Triclosan is restricted to 0.3% concentration in cosmetics (however this does not account for exposure to multiple products containing triclosan).
When we look at these factors together, it’s pretty clear that what you put on your skin is important. This is also a good time to mention that the products we use have not only a personal impact, but also an ecological one. When these products end up in our water supply, the endocrine-disrupting and xenoestrogenic effects expand to wildlife. Some of these chemicals are persistent, meaning they do not easily degrade and can bioaccumulate.
How Can I Reduce My Cosmetic-related EDC exposure?
Step 1 – Get Educated and Label-Savvy
Even with the current regulation in Canada, there is a certain burden of knowledge about what you are putting on your skin that falls to the consumer. The first step in making informed decisions around skin care and cosmetic products is to get educated, but this task can be daunting! If you’ve ever found yourself in a store, reading a label and feeling totally perplexed, you’re not alone. Fortunately, there are several resources which can be very helpful in taking the guesswork out of deciphering labels.
The David Suzuki Foundation:
The David Suzuki Foundation has created a list of the top twelve cosmetic chemicals to avoid called their Dirty Dozen list. I particularly like the Dirty Dozen Backgrounder, a well-sourced document which breaks down the use of these ingredients in cosmetics, the safety concerns around them, and their current regulatory status (as of 2010 – note that Canadian regulation was last updated in 2009). There is even a pocket guide to keep with you as you shop!
TedX is an organization which continually compiles research on EDCs. As of September 2018, there were just under 1500 chemicals on their list of potential hormone disruptors. This searchable database allows you to input ingredients from labels and see multiple research articles for each item on the list.
EWG Skin Deep:
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has created an online Skin Deep database which allows you to search brands, products or ingredients and explore their safety profile and regulatory status (from several regulatory bodies worldwide). They have also created a ranking system for quick assessment (note: the ranking system is not perfect, but they are very transparent about how they create their rankings, based on both hazard concern and available data).
Lastly, I want to mention being wary of the “green-washing” or “clean-washing” that frequently happens with skin care. Products touted as “natural” are not necessarily better or safer. Ultimately, reading a product’s label and understanding its possible effects (whether “chemical” or “natural”) will serve you well.
Step 2 – Slowly Make Change
Creating a safer beauty kit doesn’t have to happen overnight! By getting educated about what goes into skin care and cosmetic products, and making a conscious effort to read labels, beauty products can be slowly replaced with ones you feel confident about using.
My hope is that this gives you a starting place to explore the products you are using daily, and the information to make informed decisions for your health and environmental health! If you have any questions or would like to talk further about skin care and endocrine-disrupting chemicals, I'd invite you to make an appointment at Juniper Family Health.
I would like to conclude this article by sharing a few of my favorite companies and products. These include what I use personally, but this list is by no means exhaustive (nor is it sponsored in any way). Part of the fun of building your beauty kit is exploring the different options available!
Elate Cosmetics: there is so much to love about Elate! Their dedication to creating quality, conscious products with a commitment to environmentally-sustainable, minimal packaging is a big win. Bonus – they’re local to Victoria!
Favorite products: Essential Mascara, Refresh Foundation
Clove and Hallow: well-researched ingredients, vegan and cruelty-free, C+H offers high quality cosmetics free of many of the EDCs outlined above.
Favorite product: Conceal + Correct concealer
Pink House Organics: born out of a personal health struggle and desire to learn more about what goes into cosmetics, this local Vancouver company is devoted to providing products free of EDCs.
Favorite product: Glow sticks
100 Percent Pure: a company dedicated to creating harm-free products, their extensive “no-list” of ingredients not included in their products is impressive.
Favorite product: Creamy Long Last Liner
Nezza Naturals: another local Victoria company, Nezza Naturals sets the standard for me in terms of skin care. Their products are made from simple, high quality ingredients and their passion for environmental sustainability is also evident. Locals can refill containers or participate in a swap program.
Favorite products: Ultimate Facial Serum, Vitamin C Facial Cream