I have just come across a website called the Goodguide, which announces itself as a guide for the green consumer. I hadn’t heard of it before, but I was instantly wary. I had found it by chance looking for safety information on a particular raw material and as it happened, the information provided by the Goodguide was obviously wrong. But I was interested enough take a look at the whole thing and see what it was like.
I got to the main page and whizzed over to the skin care section. The first thing you find is a list of products listed from the best down to the worst with a score out of 10. I couldn’t resist, what was the worst product?
It turned out to be shaving foam from S.C.Johnson called Edge Active Care Shave Gel. So what horrors had they turned up to mark this particular formulation as the lowest of the low in the whole skin care category?
It turned out to be a pretty simple and straightforward formulation. Lets have a look. It is an aerosol foam containing a couple of gases: isobutane and pentane. These are dissolved in the can. When the pressure is released they expand to form the bubbles of the foam. The foam itself is formed by soap. You get a huge number of tiny soap bubbles that make up the creamy foam that helps you shave. You won’t see soap on the ingredient list, because it is created in the formulation itself by a reaction between triethanolamine and a couple of fatty acids, stearic acid and palmitic acid. The reaction is one you might vaguely remember from school chemistry lessons. The triethanolamine is a a base and the fatty acids are, well, acids. Remember acid plus base equals salt plus water? Soap is simply a special case of a salt, where the acid used is also a fat.
The soap you use in the bathroom is usually a sodium salt, and the drying effect you get from all soaps is probably mainly the result of the sodium penetrating the skin with the help of the fatty acid. Triethanolamine soaps aren’t as drying as sodium soaps, but they are also much softer making them harder to use. But for a shaving foam like this they are ideal, giving a rich foam without being too drying.
Overcoming the drying effect of the shaving product seems to have been on the formulator’s mind. He or she has included some sorbitol, which is a handy humectant to hold moisture in the skin. The fatty acid esters are another nod in that direction, as is the dodecanol. Both of these oily materials will give the skin of the user some protection from drying out. And this is all good thinking – when you shave you are traumatising you skin pretty severely when you scrape a stainless steel blade across it. Any help you can give it to cope with that experience is a good move.
The other problems with recently shaved skin is that it is irritated and potentially open to infection giving you the shaving rash that every man has experienced at some time or other. The inclusion of the antibacterial triclosan is a smart choice. It isn’t a hugely powerful antibacterial agent – but then we are talking about the aftermath of a shave not an outbreak of MSRA in a cardiac operating theatre.
Triclosan brings a bit more to the party as well: its anti-inflammatory properties are also appreciated by users. It is a bit hard to disentangle the anti-inflammatory behaviour from the antibacterial action once you get it on the skin. Inflamed skin is a lot more susceptible to bacterial colonisation than normal skin. And likewise the presence of bacteria can trigger the skin’s inflammatory reaction.
The allantoin and the oat powder are both there to calm the skin down as well – they aren’t as well supported by evidence as triclosan but they are probably doing something.
So all in all, this is a neat well thought out and admirably simple formulation judging by the ingredient list. So what has it done to attract such a bad rating from the Goodguide? The two materials that they highlight are the triethanolamine and the triclosan. Triethanolamine neat is a pretty serious skin irritant, but that is hardly relevant to a formulation that probably only contains a couple of percent at most. The triethanolamine has reacted with the fatty acids anyway so there will only be traces of free triethanolamine left. But that isn’t the objection that the Goodguide raises to it.
They are concerned with a whole load of things such as immunotoxicity and other hard to spell but serious sounding issues. All the problems are described as ‘suspected’. They don’t link back to primary sources though, so you can’t find out who suspects what or why. I personally don’t have a problem with triethanolamine as it has been used in this particular formulation. What the anonymous suspicious people on whom the Goodguide relies would make of it I don’t know. I have a feeling that none of them have looked at this particular use and so may well not bothered by a bit of triethanolamine in a soap bubble either if it was actually put to them.
Triclosan I do have a problem with. But my issue with it is that it is being overused. I don’t think it does any harm to directly to the person using it. Once again tracing back on the Goodguide there is no actual evidence presented. They don’t even state the issues clearly. To quote:
And that is all the detail you get. They might as well have said they heard it down the pub. It’s not as if it is difficult to find references to scientific research on triclosan. The front page of the skin care section of their website claims that their scientists have assessed 10,598 skin care products. I wonder how long they spent on each one?
However long they took, their assessment of Edge Active Care Shave Gel is pathetic.
The main resources they quote are Wikipedia and www.scorecard.org, an obscure but highly partisan website devoted to exposing levels of pollution. Interestingly, they don’t make any reference to the Skin Deep database despite the obvious similarity in what they are doing. I think this is the giveaway. When you look at a rating on Goodguide you are steered to ‘better’ products to buy. This isn’t a genuine activist initiative at all, it is a commercial operation. The affiliate fees from the links are what it is all about. They are avoiding talking about Skin Deep because they are the competition.
With the steady decline in credibility of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and the Skin Deep database, it was inevitable that someone would come along to try and fill their shoes. Fortunately I don’t think that Goodguide has made much impact yet. Good. Let’s hope it doesn’t.
(I haven’t put a link in because I don’t want to improve their page ranking with Google)
If you like reading misleading information about cosmetic and personal care products you will probably enjoy the Skin Deep Database. You might be interested in a couple of posts I have written about it.
You might also like to read my views on triclosan.