No Denmark, Methylisothiazolinone Should Not Be Banned

No Denmark, Methylisothiazolinone Should Not Be Banned
Denmark. Love the Lego, take issue with the regulatory approach.

Cosmetic Design Europe is reporting that the Danish Environment Minister Kirsten Brosbøl has called for methylisothiazolinone or MI to be banned across Europe.  I have to say I think this is a really bad idea, but I do see how she came to that conclusion.  Compared to other preservatives, MI does have a greater potential to cause allergic reactions when used at relatively high levels.  This was something that was noticed very quickly when it was brought out in the seventies.  But luckily there was a solution, because it is very effective and so it works at very low levels.

This is ancient history in personal care – but the reason it has come up again is actually rather a good example of how things don’t always work out the way people expect.  MI was originally used in combination with a closely related chemical called methylchloroisothiazolinone.  But it turns out that methylchloroisothiazolinone is more likely to provoke reactions than MI is.

For a long time this was of only academic interest because only the combination was available for formulators to buy.   But a few years back MI on its own became available.  This sounded like a great move, because you could now use the safer one of the pair on its own.  What’s not to like?

Well the trouble was that MI on its own didn’t work as well so you have to use higher levels than you use of the combination.  People started doing so, and the allergic reactions started to happen.  But it has taken a while.  We are talking here about a really tiny percentage of the population.  So although reaction rates are up according to dermatologists, we are still talking about very low numbers of actual people.  So for most of us this is a non-story.  This kind of reaction is so rare that there is a good chance that you will never meet somebody who suffers from it.

But although it is tempting to ignore it altogether as not relevant I’d say please do pay attention.  For a start, although the people affected are a very small percentage of the population they themselves are 100% affected.  Also, although some of us are more prone than others anyone can develop an allergy to anything at any time.  So it is worth taking this kind of thing seriously.

So why am I not supporting my friend in Denmark?

The answer is that I simply think that banning this material won’t reduce the total number of people suffering allergic reactions, and might well put it up.  If you get rid of MI you have to replace it with something else, and that may well be no better and could be a lot worse.  I think most people involved in skin care would agree that MI is worse for allergic reactions than methylparaben and propylparaben – but in combination with MCI it is probably better than most others.  The parabens can’t be used in everything – they simply don’t work in some formulations.  And even if they could, that would leave no products at all for the people who are allergic to them.

Reducing the number of options for preservation in any case is bound to cause an increase in the number of products using the ones that are left, so making life even harder for people who are allergic to them and increasing the number of people who are allergic to them.

I think the answer has got to be clearer labelling.  MI is always reported on cosmetic packs, but it is part of the main ingredient list which is a challenge for most people to read. I’d suggest ingredients with a high potential to cause allergic reactions should be listed separately maybe in larger type in a distinctive colour.   It would also be good if companies would stop packing their ingredient lists with extra and irrelevant information like whether or not particular ingredients are natural or organic.  The lists are confusing enough already and are intended to play a public health role, not to be part of the brand building strategy.

So thanks to Denmark for raising the issue, and I really do appreciate it when elected officials take action to protect the public.  I just think that this solution is not the one that we need.

Since writing this I have put some flesh on the bones of my suggestion for improved labelling.

33 thoughts on “No Denmark, Methylisothiazolinone Should Not Be Banned”

  1. oh dear !! I feel you are greatly uninformed as to the life changing effect of kathon cg ! , this chemical is a known sensitiser , are you interested in researching ? or have you some knowledge that it is not ? .. My story is one of misery , my life has been turned upside down , public places indoors are my nightmare ! air conditioning helps to circulate this poison for me , I had rashes all over my body , my eyes became puffy and irritable , I was diagnosed with dry eyes , the oil part of my eye was granulated , my throat became sore , I had nodules on my larynx , I was told this was due to acid reflux , in my sleep apparently ! then my skin round my eyes became cracked and dry , I was given steroids and cortisone , to deal with this problem , do you know that steroids thin your skin ? then in june 2014 while on holiday , my body swelled , I woke on day 8 of my holiday looking like I had lost a boxing match , badly ! I had to see an emergency doctor, I had 5 shots over 2 days , antihistamine , steroids and antibiotics . these helped me . But that was not the end 🙁 .. on returning to work it never went away I had time off work , I had many tests so was able to rule out everything else , eventually I saw a dermatologist , who seeing the pictures I showed him , agreed to me having a UK patch test . I had my test the first week of february 2015 . the initial relief I felt when being told my allergy was replaced with disbelief , have you ever tried to avoid an irritant ? especially one that is in everything ? do you know something I dont ? can you help me ?

  2. Clearer labeling has not helped me avoid the dire, damaging consequences of MI/MCI since I was diagnosed as allergic to them over 10 years ago. It is exposure to MI/MCI that causes the problem – until that time I was allergy-free – but now have a whole raft of sensitivities to other chemicals. So I have checked labels and been aware of MI/MCI, but the reality is, I have had to ditch virtually all manufactured products. You deem the number of sufferers as small but growing – yes, and growing fast, including many young children because baby wipes include MI/MCI. What sort of future does that leave them with? While manufacturers continue using MI/MCI, they are actually causing themselves long-term reputational and financial problems because they are creating a base of customers who won’t be able to us anything they produce. MI is used because it is cheap: tally the cost, though, against every child damaged by the effects (and they can be extremely severe) of these chemicals. Labelling is not an effective solution – consider foods or tobacco. We have a lot of labelling and warning signs, even some education(!), so we can clearly see when we are hurting ourselves, but we are fallible, irrational humans so we still have obesity, heart disease and cancer. It is the job of legislators and regulators to intervene for the public good, ie where we need some help; and that is why they should be banning MI.

  3. There was a time I thought you were helpful and compassionate about our suffering with this allergy. How disappointing it was to read this and see how you pass us off as a very small percentage. Unfortunately, I think that percentage will be growing quite rapidly once they truly recognize and document the cases.

  4. Monica houghton

    10 percent of the population is far from rare. And i have encountered several people that are allergic to MI besided myself. The problem, i believe, was not necessarilly the concentrations but the fact that it is used in a multitude of products from cosmetics, lotions, and soaps to floor cleaner and detergents. How can a maximum concentration be determined when one is encountering it in 20 products throughout their daily life – some of which are leave in? I do think MI should be banned as a result of the severe reactions produced. At this point, for me, even if MI is not intentionally used in the manufacturing of a product, if it is used in the process in any way i will react. I do agree however that whatever replaced mi may be just as bad or worse. Clear labelling should be required. But also, those defining concentration limits should have the foresight to consider the fact that mo individual comes in contact with only one product a day. This ought to be factored into the limits so that we can prevent this from happening again.

    1. That 4 people have turned up making the same point at much the same time suggests to me that this is being discussed somewhere else on the internet. If so, I’d love to know where. In particular I am not sure where the 10% figure quoted by Monica comes from. I don’t think the incidence of MI allergy in the general population is known, but I find it hard to believe that figure.

      As it happens I was buying some shampoo for Mrs BeautyScientist last night in the supermarket and did a quick survey of how many brands were using MI, and it was a very big majority and is almost universal in the big sellers. I can see why it is so frustrating for people who are unfortunate enough to suffer an allergic reaction to it. But if it is banned companies will have to use something else, and with even fewer options available it will be even harder to find alternatives. I am sorry Michelle feels I lack compassion. I will look at rewording the post to make it clearer. Monica and Faye make good points, but unfortunately even the preservatives that elicit the lowest number of reactions, which would be the parabens, still cause some people problems. And if only parabens are permitted I suspect that increased exposure would mean that more people would start to react to them as well.

    1. @Christine – I have no idea why I started blogging, but if it was to compel people to agree with me it has been rather unsuccessful. Thanks for the link – I assume it was the article on MI you wanted me to read. Interesting as it is and grateful as I am to you for drawing it to my attention it doesn’t alter the opinion I express in the blog post. You are of course entitled to your own opinion and I am sure you have good grounds for it.

  5. Hi…. re the 10% figure. This was from 2013: “David Orton, President of the British Society of Cutaneous Allergy, said that across the large patch test centres in the UK, data suggest that rates of allergy to these two preservatives are now nearing 10 per cent – and in some cases higher.” I believe more recent – and higher – figures have been published though have not yet been able to identify a named source (it’ll be out there somewhere!). You seem to suggest that there is a case for substituting parabens with MI because the latter is less risky, but I haven’t seen any research findings that enable such a comparison. Also, are there comparable stats on parabens and/or MI causing additional allergies? Sorry – more questions than answers!

  6. Hi Colin,
    I run one of the online support communities on Facebook, for people who suffer from MI allergy. There are several FB communities, and the timing of the responses was because one of our diligent participants noticed your post and was rather shocked at your anti-banning stance. We’ve frequently referenced your pages for people to look up safe products, and assumed you were “in our court” so to speak.

    If I wasn’t suffering from this myself, I might be inclined to agree with you – labeling does seem to be a sufficient “ask” for government interference, and allows manufacturers to continue to use MI as long as they disclose it. After all, it works for peanut allergies, right? You can’t ban peanuts!

    However, if you’re not watching the research as closely as we are, and talking to others about it daily, you are likely unaware of what is unfolding. A few things to note:

    1. Because MI/MCI and its variants (including benzisothiazolinone and octylisothiazolinone) are considered “safe” (not classified as a toxic ingredient), it is not required to be disclosed on MSDS and also is overlooked as a workplace safety concern for those exposed frequently via direct or airborne contact (e.g. health care workers, aviation – it’s in diesel fuels, hair dressers). There is growing concern, primarily in EU at this time, that workers are being sensitized and not protected in the course of their jobs. One successful suit has been filed already and a fine levied.

    2. There is concern that the true population risk is not known, since the data is not well reported or combined into a cohort of variants (MI, MCI, BIT, OIT together to gauge real population effect). The allergy is frequently overlooked or misdiagnosed. One of our members mentioned that when she was being patch tested, the technician noted the rapid rise in allergies – stating that he used to see 1-2 MI positive cases a month, now 2 or more per day. Further, because of the (known and documented) sensitization properties of these chemicals, the likelihood of becoming allergic is monumentally higher then even just a few years ago, given the explosion of usage in manufacturing. In the US, there are only 5 “safe” laundry detergent products, for example, that don’t have a variant of MI or BIT.

    3. Labeling can’t protect us from airborne and other environmental exposure. In EU, a recent study showed 93% of house paints contained MI, and 95% of paints had BIT. It was shown to have reactive airborne risk for an average of 42 days (and some of our members report reactions even longer after paint was applied/dried: as it “off gasses” it continues to cause respiratory and nervous system reactions). It’s commonly used in commercial air conditioning systems and auto air-con treatments, and as a slimicide in paper production (more than a few of our members have reacted from toilet tissue and paper towels). It’s in leather treatments (new cars, furniture, clothing) and air fresheners. It’s in children’s craft paint and adult fine art materials. None of these industrial products disclose MI on the label, and most don’t have it in MSDS. [In a related note, biocides such as Microban are commonly baked into plastics for bacterial retardation, such as on shopping cart handles. Microban is a documented allergen as well.]

    4. The original safety studies on animals were insufficient to represent the human outcomes we are seeing. And BIT remains untested but rising in usage in industrial and cleaning products. Cross-reactivity is documented, and reactions are not limited to rashes (we have members reporting vision loss, neural/muscular reactions, secondary skin infections etc.). There has been significant new research on human populations in the past 3 years, primarily in Europe, that should give anyone pause. I have amassed a reading list here:

    In the US, 44% of adults studied declared themselves to have “sensitive” skin (Int J Dermatol. 2011 Aug) and JAMA estimates up to 15% of industrialized countries can suffer contact dermatitis – which means we are far from finished with this epidemic. While I agree we need shelf-stable products, using a neurotoxic biocide is not the answer. It’s shocking how poorly the US legislation and medical community has responded to the situation – I can only hope that they’ll pay attention to the EU and Denmark leadership in this regard and act accordingly.

    Thanks for participating in the dialogue, and for helping us raise awareness about all kinds of dangerous ingredients in cosmetics and wash-off products.

    1. Thanks Dana, a lot to work through there. I must confess that I was really surprised when I first came across the paint giving rise to airborne exposure that you mention. I think it was only two years ago. So yes, you can never be sure of anything when it comes to safety assessment. There always seems to be some new problem popping up somewhere and it never seems to be predictable.

  7. Yes, you are correct labeling must be improved. Also, regulation is needed to prevent manufacturers from changing the name of the chemicals. But labeling doesn’t solve the problem of exposure. It would help if hospitals and schools banned products containing MCI/MI – a trip to the hospital can be horrible for with that allergy. I have to ask hotels what products they use to wash the sheets and clean the fixtures and they tell me they are being asked this question more and more often. I just bought a trailer so that I won’t have to use hotels and thus risk exposure when I travel in the Americas.

  8. Thomas Lubbock

    As a suffererer I pray for the day it’s banned in the UK. The effects are far from minor, difficult to treat and really can make your life awful.

  9. @Monica, thanks for that Portuguese paper. I am afraid I have taken down your comment because I am not sure what the legal position is regarding posting downloadable links to other people’s paid for content. I promise I am not trying to censor you! Thanks for drawing it to my attention.

  10. Jane Schofield

    Hi Colin, I do hope that you are beginning to see that your judgement might be a little off here. There is a good reason that The British Association of Dermatologists named MI as ‘Allergen of the Year’ in 2013 – it is far and away the most common trigger for allergic reactions in the UK & elsewhere – and in the 2 years since, its influence has spread exponentially.
    People who have never had any allergy before, or even ‘sensitive skin’ are being floored by this chemical and, far from being able to ‘avoid contact’, which is generally suggested as a solution, they are finding normal life pretty impossible to contend with.
    Imagine having scrupulously to avoid the following: all cosmetics, all cleaners, anywhere that has been painted in the last few months, any building with air-con, swimming pools, shops selling fabrics or textiles in any form, restaurants (or friends who use conventional washing-up liquid), leather, plastics, hand-wash, wet-wipes, hand sanitiser, loo-paper, new stationery, new shoes, sanitary products…. the list is actually endless.
    Anything that has been produced with, or contains, water is likely to trigger an allergic reaction. In my case, the moisturiser I had used for 40 years quietly changed the ingredients to include MI – resulting in full blown allergic reaction: swelling, itching, cracking flaking skin, hives (which scarily constricted my breathing as they made my neck swell so much) etc etc.
    Only yesterday The Times reported research published in the British Journal of Dermatology calling for a total ban as there is NO safe level for this toxic substance. In fact, I myself am convinced that the enormous increase in unspecified ‘eczema’ ‘dermatitis’ and ‘allergy’ cases diagnosed across Europe are a direct result of the widespread use of this stuff.
    You are getting a good response at the moment because your article has been posted on the Facebook Group I started when I first found out what had wrecked my health and my skin – it’s called ‘Methylisothiazolinone Victims’, and there are now well over 600 members – all of whom are sufferers. I am shocked that there are evidently so many people in the same state.
    You are more than welcome to join the group – you will find that we are a complete cross-section of people, but cumulatively we hold an extensive knowledge about this wretched chemical. Although I hold no medical qualifications, I have diagnosed – and helped – scores of sufferers since the group was set up 2 years ago. Please join and see for yourself.

    1. @Jane – you might want to put up a link to your Facebook group. I dare say youngsters can find it easily enough but us oldies need to have our hands held.

  11. Angela Drozdowski

    Colin, I think I would agree with your blog if I didn’t have a family member sensitized to MI and MCI. My 19 year old daughter must be ever alert or she will have eyes painfully swollen shut, burning hands, hives in her mouth, shortness of breath,etc. This is scary stuff. Labeling would be a great first step, but it is simply not enough. Cosmetics are relatively easy to avoid, but wall paint in a public place? Air conditioning? Band aids? Toilet paper in a public place? You know what’s really fun? Realizing too late that tampons contain MI. Once you are sensitized, even trace amounts (so small even those who do label do not list them) are enough to force a course of steroid treatment or two. It’s awful.

  12. Louise Cranfield

    Hello Colin,

    I understand your concerns that replacing this preservative with a new one may lead to reactions to a preservative. However, I agree with the people above, using a neurotoxic biocide in products that are used EVERYWHERE and is impossible to avoid in day to day life is not the answer. Various industries such as the cosmetic and paint industry are too heavily reliant on these extremely dangerous chemicals, which research shows there is NO SAFE LEVEL for. I began reacting to these chemicals last year – I suffered unexplained blurry vision, rashes all up my arms and all over my face, swelling and breathing difficulties. The number of people with this allergy is constantly increasing, and with research showing that there is no safe level, it baffles a lot of dermatologists, sufferers and the general public why it is still being used. A life with an allergy to the isothiazolinones is extremely difficult physically and mentally.

    Imagine being constantly scared in public of having a reaction from various things such as: the air conditioning; what tables have been cleaned with; people standing too close to you incase its on their clothes, skin or hair; what the cups, plates, knives and forks have been washed with in resturants, pubs and cafes; being worried about the toilet roll in the bathroom; the handwash; the door handles; the tap; shaking someones hand; handwashes and being near freshly painted areas. Although labelling would be helpful, it is physically not possible to avoid reactions from these chemicals because they are everywhere.

    I hope this comment and the ones above open your eyes a bit more to the devastating impacts of the isothiazolinones.


  13. Suzanne Faugno

    Why not ban this preservative? Why can’t products have a shelf life? Everything shouldn’t last forever. Why does a product have to preserved so that it causes pain and debilitates thousands of people? I never had sensitive skin. I could use anything, until I got a dose of too much MI /MCI. The blisters, burns, cracks and bleeding was painful and I don’t want it to come back. Public places terrify me. It’s in tape, glue, labels, ink, paint, dry erase markers, feminine pads, bandages, detergent, dish soap, gel, shampoo, conditioner, AC fluid, cleaners, body wash, hand soap, sun screen, makeup… Etc. where does it end? I think this is only the beginning. More victims of this chemical poisoning will surface and I fear it will be more children. Why not protect the children of the world if this allergy can be prevented.

  14. After 18 months of treatment for (what was thought to be) eczema, my hands began to swell twice their normal size, my arms were covered with blisters, my legs had open sores and the doctor thought I had been exposed to radiation or a Hazmat material. I am allergic to isothiazolinones. I was on steroids and antibiotics for a month and 2 years later I still have scarring on my legs, big round deep scars that look like gunshot wounds. When traveling I take TWO suitcases – one is only packed with toilet paper, bedding and linens. However, I can’t pack knives and forks. If there are any traces of dish soap on silverware or dishes, my lips blow up as if they had collagen injections. I only use coconut oil on my skin as the additives in cosmetic products continually change, what may be MI free one week might not be the next. The list of “unsafe” products goes on and on and most organic products are a joke. I won’t reiterate all of the other products that have already been discussed.

    When burn-like marks appear all over ones body and skin starts falling off you better believe this chemical should be banned!

  15. I have to agree with most of the people who have already commented. I have had “sensitive skin” and “contact dermatitis” my whole life. I had bronchitis at least 5 times per year. I was taking medication for “seasonal allergies” during every season! 5 years ago, after I got a chemical burn all over my face using Aveeno Sensitive Skin lotion (the MI is only in their Sensitive Skin products, not the regular ones), I was finally assessed by an allergist using the patch test – instead of being sensitive to everything, I am allergic to mercury (which I knew) and to MI. Once I got rid of everything I could with MI in it, I no longer take any allergy medication, I haven’t had bronchitis more than twice, and I am so much healthier. However, I still have issues with simple things like toiket paper, paper towels, air conditioning, paint, dishwashing liquid, the adhesive in feminine products and band aids…and it’s difficult to find powdered laundry detergent.

    It can be a nightmare. I don’t know what a good solution would be, but labeling is huge. Also making sure that there are products out there that we can use – no more pods of liquid laundry detergent! 🙂

  16. Jane’s Facebook group is
    It has been really useful for helping me learn how to live with this allergy.
    I think clearer labeling is really key.
    For me personally, a ban on MI/MCI would be amazing too! But I realize that chemical preservatives have a place: many of us with MI/MCI allergy actually look for products with parabens as they are usually MI/MCI free.
    One of the worst things about MI/MCI allergy is that is sensetizes you to other chemicals. I had no history of chemical allergies until 2 years ago when my MI/MCI allergy developed and was confirmed via patch test. At first I was fine using MI/MCI free products but now almost anything gives me a reaction: I wash with pure olive oil soap and condition my hair with vinegar and moisturise with coconut oil.
    So far this summer, I haven’t yet found suncream that doesn’t give me a reaction. I now break out when I use the suncream I used last year and I have tried various hypoallergenic brands (including some purchased in the EU) with no success. As someone who lives in sunny North Carolina and loves hiking, gardening and swimming, this is driving me crazy.

  17. Tanya Vanzella

    Colin, 15% of the Australian population are now allergic to this insidious chemical, this is MORE THAN TRIPLE WHAT IT WAS 10 YEARS AGO!!!! You are not born allergic to MI/MCI, you become sensitised to it. Believe me if you had family members suffering your opinions would be completely different. Start looking at the horrific photos on facebook pages and online petitions of those suffering. Do we need an “acceptable” number of deaths before this issue is taken seriously?

  18. Tanya Vanzella

    Ok Colin think about this: if this chemical was a food preservative & the equivalent number of people worldwide were afflicted with food poisoning, food products would immediately be stripped from supermarket shelves & destroyed. So why is external poisoning acceptable & internal is not?

    Believe me the rate at which this allergy is increasing worldwide is of epidemic proportions, so you can choose to sit back & allow it to destroy innocent people’s lives or you can use your background & qualifications to make a difference! Your choice……

    1. Tanya, I think have a few things wrong there. This chemical is not a poison. The problem is that it causes allergic reactions. This is quite different. You wouldn’t call peanuts poisonous because people react to them. You wouldn’t ban them either. I find it very hard to believe the figure you quote for the number of allergic reactions in Australia. I don’t think anyone knows the incidence of allergic reactions amongst the general population to this chemical in any country in the world. I do appreciate that it is a miserable thing to suffer from and I do what as I can to help.

      1. I’m a victim of this preservative. It’s a nightmare for me. It’s even in some toilet paper, which leaves horrible painful itchy blisters. Before diagnosis, I had bad infected areas, very painful. An infection is poisonous to the body, so in fact indirectly it is a poison.

      2. You can choose whether or not to eat peanuts. I can’t choose whether or not to inhale air. This has ruined my life.

  19. Even tiny remants of methylisothiazolinone cause hellish burning/itching. Afraid to touch taps, doorhandles, phones, keyboards, desks or handshakes…. More than a decade I thought I battled ‘eczema’, until an academic hospital found the culprit: methylisothiazolinone!

    Matters are made worse by the fact that products do not carry a warning on the front. They should! Better stil, ban the darn product all together!

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