The Insecticide in many common personal care products

insecticide in many personal care products

A great many cosmetics and personal care products on the market contain an insecticide, and sometimes even the people formulating them don’t realise.  To make things even scarier it is one of the very few things in cosmetic formulations that can penetrate the skin and get into the blood stream. I am talking about limonene.  It isn’t added as an actual ingredient, but it is a component of some fragrances, orange oil, lemon oil and quite a few other essential oils.

Luckily, there is a bit more to the story.  Limonene is a member of the terpene family, a charismatic bunch of molecules that seem to turn up all over the place in the natural world.   It is the biggest single component of orange oil, which in oranges are concentrated in the peel.  The way it works to kill insects, which I imagine is the reason the orange tree goes to trouble of making it in the first place, is simply to dissolve the waxy coating on their skin.  Insects have a very different body plan to mammals like us.  For a start they have very small bodies and so are at much more risk of dehydration than we are.  A good solvent like limonene will damage their skin barrier and kill them.

Farmers often use orange oil itself rather than go to the trouble of purifying it.  It is a neat idea isn’t it. A naturally occurring material that is harmless to humans but deadly to insects.

Limonene will also damage the skin barrier of a human in high enough levels, though not remotely fatally.  Pharmaceutical scientists have investigated it as a skin penetration enhancer.  I have done some work on this myself and can tell you that you need high levels to see any effect at all.  It certainly won’t have any effect at the levels you would get in a cosmetic product, which would be less than 1% and usually a lot less.

Being a commonly occurring part of the diet, the body has the enzymes it needs to deal with limonene.  Any that gets into your blood stream will be easily metabolised.  Some people do find limonene to be irritating and it can cause allergies, but this number is extremely small.

In 1999 the EU’s Scientific Committee on Cosmetic carried out an extensive study of the risks of allergies with common fragrance components.  Limonene didn’t make the list of the most likely causes of allergic reactions, but contact allergies were reported for it with the comment that it was mostly reported in the context of occupational exposure.

Knowing the way it works, it isn’t surprising that contact with large quantities of it would damage your skin.  But at low levels for most people most of the time it is not going to do any harm at all.  As the name suggests, limonene has a fresh lemony smell that is very hard to replicate.  If you are one of the unlucky few who might react to it you are missing out on a very appealing smell – though you can still smell it of course.   You will also find it easy to avoid as it is listed along with the ingredients on all packs.

The interesting thing for me is how easy it is to make something sound scary and dangerous when it is in fact, nothing of the sort.   All you have to do is take a few facts out of context and you have a scare story good to go.

If you want to look into the safety of essential oils and fragrances a good place to start is the EU report I referred to earlier.

Thanks to Public Domain Photos on Flickr for the photo of an orange, the biggest source of limonene.

6 thoughts on “The Insecticide in many common personal care products”

  1. Thanks Colin, for the information on limonene.
    Being a flavorist, I’ve been working with it for many years without seeing the other side of this wonderful product.
    I am glad that you put a light on it.

  2. Thank you for the very informative post. I think that consumers have been assaulted with so many scare tactics used in advertising that they have become very sensitive to a product with any negative reviews. Limonene is clearly an ingredient that can do a lot of good but that has received some bad press.

  3. I see Limonene everywhere! Especially in organic products. Always wondered what it was because its the one ingredient that stood out for me just because I’ve seen it on so many other products.

    Thanks for this post, always wanted to know and now I do!

  4. Thanks Rowena, I always appreciate unqualified praise. (I am basically rather shallow.)

    I do recommend people to click on Rowena’s name which gives a link to her blog, Beauty and the Bullshit. I have spent rather a lot of time lately countering the ridiculous stories put about by scaremongers suggesting personal care products will give you cancer and kill you. The reality is it would be extremely hard to do any harm to anyone by applying anything to their skin.

    But there is another side to this. A lot of the claims made for cosmetics and personal care products by the industry are very nearly as far fetched.

    I must get back to the topic of outrageous claims soon, but in the meantime Rowena has that angle pretty well covered.

    Just one word of warning – she does have a very forthright style.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

A newsletter for personal care business professionals

Subscribe to know what is going on.