I have spent a lot of time over the last week looking at the coverage of the Story of Cosmetics video in the blogosphere, and sometimes challenging stuff written there. I have to say it wasn’t a particularly productive thing to do. For a start, not many of the things I posted ever appeared. It seems that a lot of them are happy to criticise without having any kind of debate about it. I also noticed that the same things get said time and again, almost as if there is only a small group of people actually writing this stuff.
However not all my posts vanished without a trace. One blog I found that did seem to be having a discussion was Organic Mania. This seems to be run by a woman called Lynne who seems to be both passionate and well informed. And although she was broadly sympathetic to the EWG, she had obviously got some doubts about their methods.
She also was very interested in the question of the effect of long term accumulation of cosmetic chemicals in the body. And she seems to have pursued the question with some tenacity. I cannot improve on her own account of her attempts to get industry figures to answer questions on the subject so I suggest you simply follow the link to it at the bottom of this post. But her basic point was that nobody in the industry knows what is the long term effect of accumulation of cosmetic ingredients in the body.
I did reply at some length. My reply never appeared, but in this case the explanation was probably not censorship. I simply had more to say than her blogging software could cope with.
But it is a good point. Even if the materials in personal care products are used at safe levels according to the data which we have available – which they are, with Google and a bit of patience you can check this for yourself – isn’t there a risk that over time the levels in your body will grow until they reach an unsafe level?
Posing this question shows a much better understanding of the way risk actually works than most of the critics of cosmetic safety you find online.
But who would know the answer to this one? There isn’t any particular reason why the people who manage cosmetic companies, or sell cosmetics and personal care products should know any more about the safety of the formulations themselves than the average person in the street. They hire scientists like me to handle that side of things. So when you hear a spokesman on the media responding to a scare story, they are basically trusting what the guys in their labs have told them. Lynne did not get a satisfactory answer from industry insiders. I think that is because us guys in the labs are insiders inside the industry.
So to answer her question.
Do we know what the cumulative effect of the chemicals used in cosmetics in the body is? Well compared to what you eat, it is pretty obvious that cosmetics can only make a tiny contribution to what is in your body. The most dedicated of beauty junkies is not going to apply more than a few grammes of product a day. Even if was all absorbed it would not even equal a mouthful of food.
However most of what you apply is simply not absorbed. Rest assured the skin is an extremely good barrier. That is why diabetics have to inject insulin rather than letting it soak through the skin and why snakes have to bite you in order to poison you. This is actually a great shame for the pharmaceutical industry because transdermal patches would be a great way of delivering drugs if the skin didn’t do such a great job of keeping stuff out.
Even if they did get through the skin the bulk of chemicals used in cosmetics are not very different to those you eat in any case. A chemical like say glyceryl monostearate might sound scary if you don’t know what it is. But it is simply a fraction of a vegetable oil with a very slight chemical modification – and modification that your body carries out too. The next time you eat some fried food you will probably be eating more glyceryl monostearate than would get into your body from a lifetime of applying skin creams.
Most cosmetic ingredients are derived from natural sources. This has always been the case. If they do get into your body, you have enzymes that can deal with them. Your liver’s main reason for existing is to deal with toxins and it has plenty of tools to do the job. This is just as well because even a very organic diet has plenty of toxins in it (or maybe especially an organic diet). Fortunately we have evolved to deal with them.
I have said that the skin is a good barrier, but there are some chemicals that have the right properties to go through it. But there aren’t many. Nicotene is one, which is why you can buy nicotine patches. Caffeine is another. But very few drugs are available as patches because very can be made to penetrate the skin. Very very few of the materials used in cosmetics will get through the skin. But even then, just getting through the skin is not enough for a chemical to accumulate. If it is metabolised then the body will get rid of it quickly. We are all familiar with how quickly the body deals with caffeine. I am writing this late at night and I am well aware that my last dose is in need of replacement.
So it is far from obvious that any cosmetic raw material accumulates in the body. I can only think of a handful of materials that even have a chance to do so. Of those only the parabens are not metabolised extremely quickly. (I don’t want to talk about parabens again, after 8 recent blog posts my regular readers must be fed up of them by now.)
I have done some work trying to deliberately improve penetration through the skin. It is an extremely hard thing to accomplish. So in a nutshell, the answer to Lynne’s question about studies of the long term effects of accumulation of cosmetic raw materials in the body is that we don’t know because it doesn’t happen.
None of this means that cosmetic formulators are complacent. There are a few materials that are absorbed into the skin and we need to be vigilant. Previously unknown risks might come to light at any time. We also have to have in mind that it is in the nature of cosmetics that most of them end up in water courses. (This is the downside of the fact that they don’t actually get absorbed much.) We need to keep an eye on what is going on and keep an open mind for risks that nobody has predicted.
For instance, I recently picked up on people criticising triclosan. My first reaction was that it was yet another groundless scare story, but when I looked into it it turned out that there is a recently identified problem with triclosan interfering with water treatment plants. I was really grateful to the environmental activist on Twitter who drew my attention to it. But that also illustrates the way the world really is. You need to look at data and use your brain to spot the problems. And problems usually turn out to be something nobody is expecting. The black and white world portrayed in the Story of Cosmetics seems to be emotionally satisfying to a lot of people. But the real world is a lot more complicated and interesting. And I am more than happy to listen to anyone with a passion for making it a better place, especially if they have thought of something that I haven’t.