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In the newest “Ask The Formulator”, we have a question from several fans who wish to remain anonymous. Sit down in your comfy chair with a nice mug of something delish. This one may surprise you.
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Question (paraphrased):  There are so many harmful, toxic chemicals being used in personal care products. How can I know a product is safe? What ingredients and harmful chemicals do I need to look for and what should I avoid when buying bath and body or skin and hair care products?

 

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Answer:   What if I told you none of the ingredients used in cosmetics are actually toxic or even harmful as a general rule? It’s true.  Let’s look at the word “toxic” for a minute. By definition, “toxic” is an adjective which means “poisonous”. Merriam-Webster gives this definition: 1. containing or being poisonous material especially when capable of causing death or serious debilitation. Radiation exposure in very high doses is poisonous and capable of causing death or serious debilitation. So that’s toxic. Rattlesnake venom is poisonous and capable of causing death or serious debilitation. So this substance is toxic. To a severely allergic person, a single bee sting is poisonous and capable of causing death or serious debilitation. So for this person, their allergy makes bee venom toxic to them. But when was the last time you encountered someone who died or became seriously debilitated from using lotion, shampoo or moisturizer? I’d venture to say probably never.  Why? Because cosmetics, by all intents and purposes, are not poisonous, aka. toxic, or made with ingredients at toxic levels. Wait…What does “toxic levels” mean?  In chemistry, there is a standard of measurement for toxicity. Quite simply, “The dose makes the poison.”  More on that further into the article.

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Laws around the world, including the US, do not allow for known and established “toxic” chemicals to be used in cosmetics. The much touted “EU list of banned chemicals and substances”. . . .well, those are not, never were and never will be used in cosmetics and personal care items to begin with. The “dirty dozen” and other countless caution lists. . . .well, they lack the scientific facts and verifiable information they proclaim to be based on. The many who say personal care products are not regulated and restricted enough or that “big corp” has bought off people in high places so they can get away with murder. . . .well, the just don’t know what they’re talking about.

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“But what about all those chemicals in products? You know, the ones I can’t pronounce and they look and sound awful?”  OK, what about them exactly? Forgive me for what I am about to say. I mean it with the upmost respect and kindness but I must speak here in the reality of facts. Using the term “chemicals” like it’s a dirty word equating to “toxic” is just plain ignorance. Everything….absolutely everything on this earth is a “chemical”. A chemical is any pure substance or mixture consisting of matter. That coffee you made and drank this morning? Oh yeah, that’s some great chemicals right there. The air you just inhaled? Yes, it’s a chemical. That cheeseburger all the way you had for lunch? Chemicals – all the way. That spouse and those children you kissed earlier today before they went to work and school? Oh my! What chemical factories they are. Just in human blood alone, there are approximately 4,000 confirmed chemical compounds. You get the idea, right? If it exists, it’s either a chemical element or a composition of chemicals.

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As far as those “chemicals” you can’t pronounce or that look so awful and scary? If you saw the following listed as an ingredient in a product:  (2R,3R,4S,5S,6R)-2-[(2S,3S,4S,5R)-3,4-dihydroxy-2,5-bis(hydroxymethyl)oxolan-2-yl]oxy-6-(hydroxymethyl)oxane-3,4,5-triol, what would you think?  Looks horrible, scary and is hard to pronounce, yes? But do you know what it is? Are you sitting down? Good. This is the organic chemistry name for common table sugar. Yes, the main ingredient in that sugar scrub you love so much. Now, it won’t be listed on a product label like this, but this is the chemical name. Face it. We are living in a chemistry soup. In fact, we are part of that soup. It’s only scary because you don’t know what it is, what it does and why it’s there. You aren’t scared of the “chemicals”, sweetie. You’re scared of what you don’t know.  And that is easily remedied with time, attention and research….research outside of the “quick fix- quick answer, we’ve done the research for you, tell you what to think and believe” blogs and “informed & empowered consumer” sites who honestly do not give two hoots about you. All they want is your money and partnered advocacy which brings them more money.

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Contrary to popular belief and in spite of what special interest groups with heavy political lobbying agendas like EWG or CFSC and so-called “doctors”, celebrities and “health gurus” or the many bloggers who shout doom and gloom want you to believe and repeatedly say, cosmetics are very heavily regulated. . . .on everything from how they are marketed and to whom, what goes on the label and where (even the font size and form), ingredients used in them and in some cases, at what amounts and even where they are manufactured and the conditions in which they are manufactured and beyond. Companies in the business of formulating, manufacturing and selling personal care/cosmetic products are not out to harm their customers.  Why would they? That’s their entire business and profit margin. They don’t want to lose their customer base. Doing so would put them out of business. Before you quip an objection to tell me there are new crops of customers when the old crop is gone, think about that for a minute. Do you think that if people were dying from intentional or even accidental poisonous products, someone wouldn’t notice and those companies wouldn’t find themselves all over the news, with lawsuits and criminal charges? Think on that a bit while you read on. Businesses, regardless of the industry, look at the big picture. They consider long-term goals and financial stability for years to come as well as who their target customer is, what that customer wants and needs, the products that will fill those wants and needs, how to appeal to those customers, how to keep those customers coming back and other financial stability factors. Cosmetic companies are no different. Because of the increased awareness of consumers, the heavy push against chemicals, easy access to “information” thanks to the internet in every hand and home, and much of that information being extremely biased or based on what we call “junk science”, there is an ever-growing idea and belief that our personal products are dangerous and loaded with toxic chemicals (ACK! There’s that horrible word again!). The notion is products in general, especially those with anything synthetic in them, are killing us slowly and cosmetic companies are just out to make a buck off of us even if it means our eventual demise. But how many who believe this and repeat it are actually doing their homework through real and credible science resources with verifiable scientific peer-reviewed studies that have no bias attached to them? Not many. Most are taking others’ word for it, beating the chemical illiteracy drum and merely following the loudest voice in the wilderness. Don’t do that, please. Even what I tell you, don’t just take my word for it. Go research it with good resources.  I did.  See, I was one of those followers at one time. But then I began digging and what I found was not deeply buried plans of evil, conspiracy and corruption. Nope, what I found was buried treasures of truth and hope.

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Truthfully, good, ethical cosmetic companies, overall and for the most part, are among the most conscientious when it comes to safety because it’s good business. Not only do they not want to lose customers, the laws require products must be safe and have that safety established and provable if they are sold to consumers. The research, formulation and evaluation that goes into each product to meet legal and company set standards is staggering with many years and uber amounts of money going into the development of products for consumer market and use. They look at the scientific research, the chemistry, the synergy of ingredients, the stability, the efficacy, the benefits, the black, white, and every shade of gray. So while some ingredients may not be suitable for some individuals due to personal skin and hair care needs or one’s own skin and hair dislikes and adversities, if they are in products for consumer use, they are generally regarded and proven as safe and are not going to be an issue. Yes, some people may have sensitivities, allergies and physiological or psychological issues with various ingredients/chemicals in some products. But that does not make those ingredients/chemicals “toxic” and harmful overall or to everyone. It makes them problematic and ones to avoid for the people who are adversely effected by them. One example – I get mild skin irritation, a slight rash, a twinge of throat irritation and a little bit of watery eyes when I come in contact with a pile of the needles and larger amounts of the essential oils of certain species of junipers. Not the wood itself, mind you. The needles and the oils those contain. Does this make these species of juniper, it’s needles and oils or any product from them toxic and harmful to you. . . . and her over there. . . . and him over here. . . . and that group of people over there? Nope. It doesn’t even mean it’s toxic to me. Remember what toxic actually means. I simply means my skin and body does not like them or respond completely benignly to them. It means I need to be aware and avoid them or use them only in very small amounts. It’s really kinda cool how we’re all individual like that. And one reason why all this is so complex and not just black and white across the board.

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Remember I said when we first began,  “The dose makes the poison.” This is true of every chemical, natural or synthetic. What makes something toxic, aka. poisonous, is not the fact it is a chemical or that it’s synthetic but the context of use, the amount used and exposure or administration route. Chemicals/Ingredients that may be harmful, problematic or known to be toxic at large amounts may be completely safe at below certain amounts or when in conjunction with other chemicals and ingredients. Sodium hydroxide is a good example. NaOH or lye as it’s more commonly known, is very caustic. It will irritate and burn the skin in a heartbeat. When mixed with water, it creates a caustic solution which heats up and will also irritate and burn the skin. That solution also puts off gaseous fumes and if left in a glass container can crack the glass or if left covered, can cause the glass container to burst. And if you drink this solution….well, have the paramedics and ER on emergency standby. But when you combine that solution with warm fixed oils like coconut oil, olive oil, sweet almond oil, etc. do you know what will happen? You’ll get soap….lovely bars of soap. Combine the oils and lye solution in a carefully calculated formula of numbers, you will not have ANY lye left in that soap and it will clean well, moisturize skin and be a divine bath and body delight. Even if you eat that soap, it will not poison you per say, although you may think you’re poisoned and dying when the effects in the digestive tract kick in. Another, more simplified example is water. If you drink a large glass or even a quart of water within 30 minutes, it’s perfectly fine and good for hydration. If you drink two or three gallons of water in 30 minutes, it just became toxic and you now have water intoxication, also known as water poisoning.  See the differences?

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BTW, just an aside here. Did you know there are few substances able to penetrate the skin barrier to reach the internal body through skin absorption?  The acid mantle prevents a large amount of “stuff” from entering the body.  Molecular size of most substances just doesn’t allow it to happen. Instead, they either sit on top of the skin where they wear off or are washed off. Or they absorb into the skin layers, usually within the top two and mostly the first layer, the epidermis – also known as the stratum corneum, where they will get sloughed off regularly with spent skin cells. Some reach the second layer, the dermis layer, where some molecules in very small amounts may be picked up by very small blood vessels but most will sit and get moved up to the outer layer as old skin cells slough off and new ones emerge on top in the regenerative cycle. Some substances may have molecules that can reach the deeper subcutaneous tissue in the hypodermis where larger blood vessels and connective tissue may pick them up and where fat might grab some of them and hold them for a while. Some substances’ molecules may be small enough to travel via the hair follicle to reach deeper tissue and blood vessels although this is again, very few. Notice how often I said “some” there? That’s because the number is very small. So the high percentages being flaunted around that say 100%, 95%, 80% of what we put on our skin gets absorbed into the body is just wrong information. And the “may” and “might” there is relevant because again. . . .very small numbers of when and if this can or will happen. Overall, you can expect approximately 10% or less of what you put on your skin to ever be absorbed into the internal body. And then most of that is going to get metabolized and filtered by the liver and expelled out of the body. The skin and the acid mantle is a safe-guard against internal invasion from external. We have an internal filtration system to weed at the things that do enter the internal body and are not conducive or useful to it. Good and well thought out creative design there, huh?  In case you’re interested, I wrote an article about the acid mantle you may find interesting.

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Back on track here. Albeit there may be standards, parameters and limitations for how much of an ingredient/chemical can be used in a cosmetic (or other consumer product) and in what combinations and for what purpose, unless you are buying black market knock-offs of successful brand name products or in-high-demand or spendy products and product types at heavily reduced prices, products made in questionable countries like China (which are extremely iffy because of lack of regulations and conscientious business ethics), handmade items from someone who doesn’t know what they are doing (no education and experience in formulating products properly. . . .Etsy, the worldwide web and local craft shows, flea markets and farmer’s markets are full of these), or products that are very poorly formulated, designed to play into the chemical illiteracy and fear-mongering, are buzz word happy, do not contain the appropriate preservative systems or are using inappropriate amounts of essential oils or ones with known contraindications and hazards that shouldn’t be in a skin care product, you can relax and be at ease that your favorite lipstick or lotion isn’t going to disfigure or kill you.

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So in answer to the initial question. . . . It’s not really a matter of what ingredients or chemicals to look for so you can avoid it as much as it is a matter of what to look for so you can benefit from them and develop a skin care plan and methodology that works for you. Instead of concentrating so heavily on what ingredients might be harmful and which to avoid in personal care products, begin thinking more about what ingredients you need and want to help you achieve your goals and the desired effects for beauty and benefit. Within reason of course. Research and learn what different ingredients and “chemicals” do, the attributes and benefits they offer, their profiles and all the things that make them tick. Learn what works well with what and why. Look at things like what problems you want to solve, what long term benefits you would like to facilitate, what you love, what you hate, what you can take or leave. Learn what your skin likes, how skin in general works and what it’s job is and what you want to minimize or accentuate. Answer all the questions. Who. What. When. Where. Why. How. Then you can decide which ingredients and products offer you what YOU want and need, which ones you want to explore, work with and utilize for your personal skin care and hair care. Avoid those that don’t work for you or fit your needs. Don’t bother with them if they don’t solve your problem or make you happy and your skin and hair happy.

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Bottom line. Skin and hair care and your overall external beauty and health are not things that should be determined on a foundation of fear and misinformation nor should you have to work so hard to obtain it. It’s something that should work for you and bring you joy, comfort and positive physical and emotion benefits. Having the right tools in your beauty belt, which is truthful information and an individualized personal care plan designed from that information, will go far. Making the best use of those tools is how you make it all work for you and where it’s all, y’all. This is head to toe skin love at its best. So stop obsessing over all the hoopla of harmful stuff that screams at you from every direction and start researching what various ingredients are, what they do and why they are or are not right for you based on real science. Because like it or not, cosmetics are combinations of chemicals and are examples of tangible chemistry in real time. In the right hands, those of a skilled formulator who knows how to create beneficial chemical combinations with low risk and high benefit, cosmetics are not scary or harmful. They’re just assets in our life. And that brings peace, joy and comfort to us. Doesn’t that sound a whole heap of a lot better than fretting all the time which is not healthy internally or externally? I think so and hopefully you do too.  Yes, that’s an Ahhh moment all by itself. A pretty darn good one.

 

Alright, I’ll sign off for this episode of Ask The Formulator. Y’all keep asking questions. I’ll try to answer as many as I can on our “Ask The Formulator” series. Until next time….enjoy the Ahhh moments, y’all!

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