Behind the label

By Krisztina Veres
Have you ever thought about the amount of cream we put on our body, hair, or face every day? Do we know what are the ingredients contained by the dearly bought creams and what their real impacts are on our health and more widely on our world? As the crop production and animal husbandry recognize the harmful effects of chemicals and are being encouraged into organic farming, we must consider whether we really need those chemicals to be beautiful and stay healthy. And no less importantly conserve our planet’s own health and beauty.

It is well known how agricultural pesticides can destroy the ecosystem of rivers, lakes, oceans, ground, and how human health has been affected by these indirectly. But we hear less about our cosmetics and their multiple toxic effects on us. First when you spread it on your skin; and secondly, when the residue that you shower off pollutes our river water and its fauna and flora. And later after being treated by different disinfection procedures, most of these synthetic components go back into our drinking water in various chemical forms; which then gets used for cooking, cleaning and drinking. Unfortunately because of their strong chemical stability, their effects tend to last for longer and can be more damaging than naturally occurring ones.

Let’s do some calculations: the population of our planet has just passed the 7 billion landmark. The gender distribution is about 55-45% in favour of women, so female population is around 3.84 billion. An average woman begins to use cosmetics on daily basis quite early as 13-14 years, about 12 different products, which contain on average 161 chemical ingredients. Interestingly, men use 6 products which contain 85 different chemical compounds (based on Environmental Working Group survey). But for now let’s consider only female users for the sake of simplicity. After removing girls under the age of 14, and those who do not live in a western societies, we still find ourselves facing over 1 billion female buyers who want to accomplish the expectations of today’s image of beauty and youth.

Let’s focus on one chemical component from the 161, in this case Sodium Lauryl Sulfate (SLS). Almost every shower gel, shampoo and toothpaste contains it. It is also used as a strong cleaning and wetting agent in commercial floor cleaning and car washes as well. I personally do not want to use anything on my skin which I would use for my car as well. SLS as available in pharmacies with the following warning on the package: “Inhalation and ingestion are harmful to health. Can irritate the respiratory system and skin. Can have dangerous and serious damage to the eyes. In case of eye contact rinse thoroughly and consult a doctor! After skin contact wash immediately with plenty of water!” So we have more than 1 billion people who use SLS daily, can you imagine the quantity going down to the drain?

But why are cosmetics companies using SLS if it can be so dangerous? Remember, we are talking about not just a daily dose but regular use, as virtually all shower gels, shampoos, toothpastes contain SLS. Even if we change the brand, we are not able to avoid this ingredient (again, it’s just 1 of the 161); so we have probably been using it for many years on our skin. It’s clear that every company works in order to generate profits. The purpose of the company’s activities is to make a financial profit and increase capital assets. The industrial revolution in all its glory displaced the old natural manual production system and its products resulting in cheaper produce, most of lesser quality and effect. ( Big companies seek to find the cheapest method of production, this involves sourcing cheaper ingredients. Furthermore products have to be aesthetically pleasing, easy to use, so that they meet the customers’ needs. We expect our shower gel to be bubbling and rich scented, preferably in a well-designed package and no longer care about how our needs will be fulfilled and what the consequences maybe.

So what is the solution if you would like to use natural ingredients to protect not only your health but the environment as well? This question doesn’t have an easy answer; often organic, natural products do not contain 100% natural ingredients. Despite the strict regulations it is really difficult to avoid all the suspicious compounds; but you might not have to go far to find something really good. English goat’s milk soap manufacturers are re-creating the products that existed centuries ago before the chemical industry existed. The main advantage of their products is that only natural fats and oils are used and also contain many vitamins. Another advantage is that their animals are kept in excellent conditions. Written records give us evidence that goat milk is really good for the skin; in the 19th century this natural beauty and medicinal agent was so popular that Bad Aibling and Bad Reichenhall, well-known areas because of them thermal water, offered a wide range of treatments based on goat milk serum. Goat’s milk is a natural source of coenzyme Q10 and alpha-hydroxy / AHA / acid. Some cosmetic products also contain Q10, like Nivea Visage Anti Wrinkle Q10 Plus Night Cream. But check out the label as you will find a large number of chemical ingredients too:
C12-15 Alkyl Benzoate, Stearyl Alcohol, Cetyl Alcohol, Glyceryl Stearate, Methyl propanediol, Hydrogenated Coco-Glycerides, Creatine, cyclodextrin, a-Methylhydantoine -2-imide, Retinyl Palmitate, Cera Micro Crystalline, paraffinum Liquidum, Dimethicone, Butylene Glycol, Sodium carbomer, Tetrasodium Iminodisuccinate, BHT, Phenoxyethanol, Iodopropynyl Butylcarbamate,  Hydroxyisohexyl 3-Cyclohexene Carboxaldehyde, Alpha-lsomethyl lonone, Benzyl salicylate.

Sounds like Chinese? The websites below can help, if you need a “A to Z” Cosmetic Chemical Watch-List.: or or or
Personally I think there is a lot to be done to change how we consider our values and in consequence how we can change our buying habits. But the increasing number of visitors to the websites above means that there are plenty of people who are concerned with environmental problems and are actually trying to change their daily habits in order to make the planet cleaner. It seems to me that we are heading in the right direction.

Sources for this article:
Judi Vance: Beauty to Die For -The Cosmetic Consequence

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