How Green are your Cosmetics?



Have you ever thought about what goes into the making of your cosmetics? How many of you have ever read the list of ingredients that manufacturers so sincerely provide? Do you know that what you apply in the name of beauty is a nightmarish combination of cheap, easy-to-get, toxic substances?

If you took only a few cosmetics to be unsafe while the rest of your skin/body care products to be clean in themselves, it is time you put a second thought to it.

Choking as it may be, even your toothpaste is nothing but an amalgamation of synthetic chemicals. All that in the name of cleanliness comes quite close to cleaning, literally!

Given the aversion attached to the word ‘chemicals’, their use doesn’t necessarily mean noxious. It is certainly not bad to use chemicals. What is bad is when these chemicals used are not natural but synthetic and toxic in nature. Interestingly, natural products contain more chemicals than cosmetically manufactured products but they are only chemicals, not lethal compounds which is true for the latter.

The most commonly used synthetic substances, not only in your cosmetics but also in your everyday skin/body care products, are Sodium Laureth Sulphate (SLES) and Ammonium Laureth Sulphate (ALES). Upon being combined with other chemicals, these surfactants produce a potent class of carcinogens (cancer causing elements). As per the Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS), these chemicals cause skin and eye irritation and are classified as moderate to severe eye irritants.

Sodium Lauryl Sulphate (SLS) is used in toothpastes, shampoos and soaps for its foaming property. For the same reason, it is also used in car washes, garage floor cleaners, engine degreasers and in 90% of products that foam.

Despite the potential harm these chemicals carry, manufacturers continue their rampant use in cosmetics as they are effective cleansers which come cheap.  What’s worse, they are frequently disguised in semi-natural cosmetics with the explanation “comes from coconut”. Since the declaration of ingredients always follows a descending order of predominance, SLES/ALES/SLS are usually placed as first three in the arrangement, thereby suggesting that they dominate the ingredient list.

Other foaming agents used in cosmetics are PEG (as written on the label), which are Ethoxylated surfactants. 1,4-dioxane (carcinogenic) is generated during its manufacturing and is present in over 50% of cosmetics containing ethoxylated surfactants.

A very cheap petroleum by-product, Mineral oil, is used in one of every four personal care products. It clogs pores and keeps the skin from breathing, forming a plastic-like wrap around it which promotes acne and ageing. (Note that baby oil is nothing but mineral oil!) The EU has banned the use of petroleum jelly and other petrolatum products, due to their carcinogenic properties, since September 2004.

 Fragrance of a product attracts consumer purchase to quite an extent. But a seldom known fact is that ‘perfume’ on a label indicates up to four thousand separate ingredients, many toxic in nature. As per the database from Toxic Chemical Ingredients, symptoms reported to the USA FDA include headaches, dizziness, allergic rashes, skin discoloration, violent coughing and vomiting and skin irritation. Clinical observation proves fragrances can affect the central nervous system, causing depression, hyperactivity and irritability.

 Another oft used chemical in cosmetics is MEA/DEA/TEA, used to adjust the pH and to convert acid to salt (stearate), which then becomes the base for a cleanser. Likewise, they are used in shampoos, face and body cleansers. TEA causes allergic reactions including eye problems, dryness of hair and skin and could be toxic if absorbed into the body over a long period of time.

Formaldehyde is a known cancer causing substance (carcinogen) causing allergies, irritation, contact dermatitis, headaches and chronic fatigue.

Paraben preservatives (methyl, propyl, butyl, and ethyl) are unrestrainedly used as inhibitors of microbial growth and to extend shelf life of products. Despite their high toxicity, they are widely used, only to have caused allergic reactions and skin rashes.

Sodium hydroxide, also known as caustic soda is a powerful alkali used in industry for cleaning drains and pipe lines. Workers exposed to steam containing sodium hydroxide have suffered lung damage and an increased risk of throat cancer. It is used in toothpastes and shampoos and as a pH adjuster in skin creams. Its accumulation on skin causes contact dermatitis and sensitizes individuals to other chemicals.

       A good way to substitute these harmful goods is to switch to home-made remedies. Tanu Jindal, Head of Toxicology Department, AUUP, who takes to preparing home-made recipes in her spare time, has some valuable tips to share. “Nothing beats the use of milk-cream (malai) for moisturizing; a mix of lemon juice, rose-water and glycerin in same proportion as a toner and potato bleach as an under-eye cream. One can also try beetroot juice mixed with some ghee or butter for a lip balm. Walnut peel is also an effective teeth cleanser.”

 If home-made preparations seem too time consuming, organic products are the deal for you. There are various brands which provide organic everyday products for personal care, which are free of sulphates, silicones, paraben and other such compounds, to suit different budget needs. Among many options, Khadi Gramudyog is one such Government of India venture, dealing with organic cosmetic goods at reasonable prices.

 But consumers are often misled into buying commercially available products. Scores of advertisements and marketing strategies successfully cover up this flaw of cosmetic toxicity. And for those who understand the consequences of using such commercial cosmetics feel helpless, given the escalated price organic products have to offer. “I am taken aback by the veracity of the issue but there are times when I just can not quit using a lipstick or doing a touch-up before a wedding at least. One has to look presentable in times like these and I for one do not know of any organic substitutes for lip colour or a concealer”, says Devyani, a student of Counselling Psychology, AUUP.

There is more than one concern attached to this issue. Apart from the question of safety, the use of such products leads to environmental distress, adding to the clean-up cost which the society has to accrue.

 “What concerns me more than the entire issue of using synthetic chemical based personal care treatments is the issue of these chemicals depositing in the soil over the long-run, as most man-made chemicals are calcetrates (non-biodegradable)”, said Mr. J.C. Kapoor, Director, Amity Institute of Environmental Studies.

“Short-term goals are people’s focus today; long-term degradation often goes un-noticed. We don’t realize that what we are consuming has an outflow which eventually comes back to us in the form of nature- in this case, an unbalanced nature.”

Sadly, regulation on manufacture, registration and import of cosmetics has a loose structure in our country. The Drugs and Cosmetics Act, 1940, which deals with cosmetics among other regulations, must enforce stringent norms to check for safety of personal care products being released in the market for public use.

The consumers need to be equally aware about what they are using and if the products are worth shelling out fortunes. Awareness is the key. Simple actions like looking up your product’s ingredient list and searching for their safety could save you your precious well-being. Make it a point to read the list of ingredients on the back of the next shampoo bottle or a cream jar you buy. If you have a product which is free of synthetic chemicals, you are good to go.


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