Big corporations are run for profits and are not too scrupulous about how they seek them. We have seen tobacco companies ignore the health of smokers. Big chemical companies have pushed lead into petrol. Mining companies leave the public to foot the bill for clearing up the mess their operations create. The list goes on. Cosmetic companies are no different ethically from any other type of corporation. As it happens there are almost no serious health effects arising from the cosmetic business. But this is not because their standards are higher – it is simply a fact that cosmetics are pretty safe. If that gives those of us involved in selling them any kind of moral high ground, well we throw it away pretty quickly by the outrageous claims we make for them. It is very hard to do anybody any harm via the skin – but it is equally hard to do much good either.
So I take it as given that the cosmetic industry is no more ethical than anyone else. If there were unexpected long term adverse effects arising from the use of toiletries you would expect them to resist conceding that point for as long as possible.
Nordic Council Report Examines Endocrine Disruptors
And in fact the Guardian reports this is exactly what the Nordic Council are suggesting is the case. They claim that the endocrine mimics found in toiletries are causing serious harm to reproductive health in Europe. If it were so, it was a grievous fault, and grievously hath Caesar answered it.
Endocrine disruption is something that has been alleged about cosmetic ingredients in the past, and it is a favourite of the scaremongering brigade who seem ready to believe the worst under any circumstances and accept any evidence to support – or indeed will make do with none at all if there is simply none to be had. But it is not easy to dismiss the Nordic Council who have backed up their objection with a lengthy report citing about 90 references, a detailed argument and some heavyweight calculations. They have also done the thing that scaremongers never ever ever do. They have attempted to quantify the risk and estimate how much it is costing society.
This is worthy stuff – if you have identified a problem the first stage in solving it is to work out its extent. You need to have an idea of just how bad it is if you are going to sort it out. But I was interested in just how they reached the conclusion that there was a problem in the first place. The Guardian had framed it as a story about endocrine disrupters in toiletries. This is something that affects me because I have an ethical responsibility to ensure that products I produce are safe for other people. And there is also the fact that I have handled a lot of these things. I take seriously what I may have done to other people, but I am pretty concerned about what I may have done to myself as well.
Are Endocrine Disruptors Found In Toiletries?
So it was a bit disappointing to find that the link between endocrine disrupters and reproductive health is simply assumed in the Nordic Council’s report. It doesn’t even speculate about their source, and doesn’t single out toiletries. I don’t know what prompted the Guardian to make that link. I looked through the references quoted in the report to see if it was part of the background to the report. The World Health Organisation was quoted as supporting a link between reproductive health and endocrine disruptors. This is a sound enough source but it wasn’t specific to toiletries. There were also some lab studies. These were a bit closer to the mark but I have to say that they didn’t exactly add up to a strong case. In fact one paper directly contradicted the conclusion. They had looked at some potential endocrine disruptors as potential causes of some reproductive conditions and failed to show it.
Benzophenone – Is It A Problem?
Anyone who has done any research will sympathise with the author who had to write up basically negative results. He did his best to put some significance on what he had done, so it might have been read as supportive of the idea that the materials he was investigating were in fact a problem. When I looked at the details I finally found the link with toiletries. One of the endocrine disruptors tested was benzophenone. This is used as a sunscreen at fairly high levels, though not as widely as some other sun screen agents. It is also used at very low levels indeed in some toiletries to stop the colour fading in the light.
Benzophenone has several other uses, the one that probably causes most exposure to humans is its use as sunscreen in food and cosmetic packaging. So it was just as well that the study had not found a problem with it. However, another study quoted by the Guardian but not referred to in the actual Nordic Council report does suggest that benzophenone might have issues after all.
This is a new study that looked at couples who were trying to conceive, and measured the levels of benzophenone in their urine. The level of benzophenone in males was correlated with taking a longer time for their partners to become pregnant. It was a fair sized study, with around 500 participants. This is an interesting observation and one that definitely needs following up on. Possibly benzophenone does have some biological effect which interferes with male reproduction – in which case it is quite likely to have other adverse effects besides. But it is only one study and correlation does not always imply causation. The benzophenone levels could well be a sign of some other lifestyle factor. For example, eating more packaged food might well be an explanation.
Scientists rarely succeed in being free of prejudices, and I have to say that I have been suspicious of sunscreens for many years. They do sort of have the look of chemicals that might later prove to be a problem. I can’t explain exactly why but the very fact that they tend to break down on exposure to UV light bothers me. I have the feeling that it might produce free radicals that might do all sorts of nasty things. So I sympathise with the efforts to suss out just what they are up to. But having said that, the case against them as having any harmful effects is a slim one indeed.
Is Benzophenone A Risk To Reproductive Health?
So what should you do? Avoiding toiletries that contain benzophenone seems a very extreme reaction to a very tenuous possible connection to rather vague health concerns. In any case, its other uses mean that the stuff you put on your skin is likely to be only a tiny proportion of an already low level of exposure.
An argument that often comes up as this stage is ‘well why take the risk if there might be a problem?’. This sounds good sense, but doesn’t take into account that if you drop one chemical you are going to have to find an alternative. If we don’t have as much data on the new one then there is no way of knowing that it doesn’t have exactly the same problem, or a new problem altogether that we hadn’t thought of.
I think it is a shame that the Nordic Council’s report has been linked to the cosmetic industry by the Guardian. If endocrine disruptors are indeed the problem that they suggest then it is a lot wider than cosmetics. But we really need a lot more work unpicking the causes. There is no smoking gun yet.
Note for chemists – I know that there is more than one benzophenone, I have simplified the story a little for a general audience. It seems to me highly unlikely that more than one member of the family can be an efficient endocrine mimic, if indeed any of them are.
Nordic Council Report on Endocrine Disruptors