It’s a pretty good policy not to believe everything you hear, and that holds especially true in the world of beauty—many claims, beliefs and semi-truths are totally bogus. Cosmetic chemist Kelly Dobos breaks down five she wishes we would stop believing.
Myth 1: Chemical-free claims are legit.
Dobos says there is no such thing as chemical-free product. “Anything that is a liquid, solid or gas is chemical.” The biggest “what-the-heck” that might have you questioning everything you know (or at least your high school chemistry knowledge) is: “Water is a Chemical.”
Myth 2: If you can’t pronounce the ingredient, it probably isn’t good for you.
Just because an ingredient has a name that is hard to pronounce, Dobos says it’s not fair to throw it in the “unsafe” category. “Chemicals are systematically named based on the composition and structure of atoms in the molecule, and often there are numerous interchangeable names for a chemical. For example, vitamin C can also be referred to as 2-oxo-L-threo-hexono-1,4-lactone-2,3-enediol.”
Myth 3: Natural products are better for you.
You probably could have guessed this one was coming: No, natural does not mean better. “The composition and quality of natural ingredients can vary from lot to lot. And natural ingredients, especially essential oils and extracts, contain compounds that can be irritants or break down over time to form irritant compounds,” Dobos explains and says one good example of the value of synthetic materials is color cosmetics. “The U.S. FDA regulates what colorants can be used in cosmetics. There is a very short list of natural colors that can be used in cosmetic and they tend to be muted shades that have stability issues that limit their application. Even iron oxides that are touted as natural mineral colorants are completely synthetic as mandated by the FDA in the Code of Federal Regulations or CFR. Synthetically prepared colors are more consistent and have less impurities.”
Myth 4: Parabens are not safe.
According to Dobos, in order to protect the consumer, cosmetics need good preservatives that have broad-spectrum activity against bacteria, yeasts and molds, and that’s where parabens come into play. “Parabens are a class of preservatives that have a long history of safe use, but have come under intense scrutiny after the publication of a controversial study in 2004.” (The study detected paraben metabolites in breast tumors.) “The study presented this information in the context of the weak estrogen-like properties of parabens and the influence of estrogen on breast cancer. But the study left many questions unanswered and did not show that parabens cause cancer, or that they are harmful in any way, and the study did not have a control [looking at possible paraben metabolite levels in normal tissue]. Additionally, the researcher who led the 2004 study (Philippa Darbre) eventually responded in the Journal of Applied Toxicology to the media-fueled panic over parabens and cancer stating that, ‘No claim was made that the presence of parabens had caused the breast cancers.’ Considerable scientific research has demonstrated that parabens are metabolized and excreted harmlessly by the body and that parabens are safe, effective preservatives in cosmetics.”
Myth 5: The FDA largely does not regulate cosmetics.
This is one that definitely has a lot of confusion surrounding it. “The FDA does not approve cosmetics like they do pharmaceuticals and medical devices, but cosmetics are regulated under the Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act. The FDA prohibits the marketing of cosmetics that are adulterated (violations in composition) or misbranded (improper labeling or misleading claims). It is the duty of the manufacturer to ensure the safety of products. To this point, cosmetic manufacturers must conduct extensive safety reviews and testing of ingredients and finished goods,” Dobos says.
The TGA only assesses cosmetic products that make therapeutic claims.
Ingredients in cosmetic products, even those described as ‘natural’, are regulated as industrial chemicals under the Industrial Chemicals (Notification and Assessment) Act 1989(link is external), which is administered by the National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme (NICNAS).
To make sure that these products are safe for consumers, workers and the environment, the Australian Government assesses the risks associated with cosmetic products and/or ingredients manufactured or imported into Australia.
A cosmetic is a substance that is designed to be used on any external part of the human body—or inside the mouth—to change its odours, change its appearance, cleanse it, keep it in good condition, perfume it or protect it.
If you are interested in finding out more regarding regulation requirements in Australia follow the link: https://www.tga.gov.au/cosmetics
Now for those that know me, I can’t let it stop there…..so to add my 20 cents worth….. myth numbers 1, 2 & 3 I will deal with shortly. So firstly lets look at number 4 – The hype around Parabens! This annoys the life out of me because parabens are in all your fruit and vegetables. It’s God’s Gift to the World, for our food to have “natural” preservatives. As a clincal nutritionist of 30 years – having hindsight, shows how studies get twisted. This is no more obvious than the debarcle of the last 30 years in the nutrition industry, over one flawed study that ultimately led to the mess our health is in today. This one study on parabens which; was taken up by the popular press at the time and twisted to give the impression that parabens cause breast cancer, is just another of those radical notions, totally ficticious, but with enough people repeating it – it was believed to be fact.
To get back to Myth 1, 2 & 3 because they are all generally related. Chemicals, ingredients and whether or not a product is natural, are basically all the same thing. I want to take you back to school with a simple chemistry lesson. The “chemical” mentioned above was – water.
What is water?
Water is a very important substance, as it makes up the larger part of an organism’s body. But what exactly is it? Inside the body of a human being there is a skeleton, which makes your body solid and makes sure you can stand up without falling apart. Water is also a kind of skeleton. It consists of tiny particles, the atoms, just like every other substance on earth. One of these atoms is called hydrogen and the other is called oxygen. As you probably know the air that we breathe also contains oxygen. One particle of water is called a molecule. When lots of water molecules melt together we can see the water and drink it or use it, for instance to flush a toilet.
A water molecule consists of three atoms; an oxygen atom and two hydrogen atoms, which are bonded together like little magnets. The atoms consist of matter that has a nucleus in the centre.
The difference between atoms is expressed by atomic numbers. The atomic number of an atom depends on the number of protons in the nucleus of the atom. Protons are small positively charged particles. Hydrogen has one proton in the nucleus and oxygen has eight (hence where they sit on the periodic table). There are also uncharged particles in the nucleus, called neutrons.
Next to protons and neutrons, atoms also consist of negatively charged electrons, which can be found in the electron cloud around the nucleus (think of the rings running around Saturn). The number of electrons in an atom equals the number of protons in the nucleus. The attraction between the protons and electrons is what keeps an atom together.
Still with me? Sounds good so far, so lets break it down further: water consists of atoms of Hydrogen & Oxygen.
HYDROGEN – This is the first element in the periodic table. In normal conditions it’s a colourless, odourless and insipid gas. At normal temperatures, hydrogen is not a very reactive substance,
However, it is extremely flammable. Many reactions may cause fire or explosion. Gas/air mixtures are explosive. The substance can be absorbed into the body by inhalation. And in high concentrations can cause an oxygen-deficient environment. Individuals breathing such an atmosphere may experience symptoms which include headaches, ringing in ears, dizziness, drowsiness, unconsciousness, nausea, vomiting and depression of all the senses. The skin of a victim may have a blue color, and under some circumstances, death may occur.
On the other hand we have OXYGEN. It is the 8th element on the periodic table, and in normal conditions…. oxygen is a colourless, odourless and insipid gas. Oxygen is reactive and will form oxides with most elements.
It is essential for all life forms since it is a constituent of DNA and almost all other biologically important compounds. Is it even more drammatically essential, in that animals must have minute by minute supply of the gas in order to survive. Oxygen in the lungs is picked up by the iron atom at the center of hemoglobin in the blood and thereby transported to where it is needed.
Every human being needs oxygen to breathe, but as in so many cases too much is not good. If one is exposed to large amounts of oxygen for a long time, lung damage can occur. Breathing say 50-100% oxygen at normal pressure over a prolonged period, this in itself can lead to lung damage.
WATER exists in three states: solid, liquid and gaseous. At a normal temperature of about 25oC it is liquid, but below 0oC it will freeze and turn to ice. Water can be found in the gaseous state above 100oC, this is called the boiling point of water, at which water starts to evaporate. The water turns to gas and is then odourless and colourless.
How fast water evaporates depends on the temperature; if the temperature is high, water will evaporate sooner.
So just move that to the back of your mind for a minute – hang in there, it will all make sense in the end!
What happens in Product Testing
Nearly every ingredient in skin care history, has undergone some sort of animal testing. A lot less companies these days compared to when I first studied in the early 80’s. But you would still be surprised at the number, and the names of the companies who still animal test (particulaly in the make-up field). Most of the early research in regards to sensitivities, allergies, and toxicity were done with rabbits. Rabbits eyes to be exact. The reason most companies no longer use animal testing is because the research is already available without the need to further test.
In order to find out which were the least reactive ingredients, large doses were applied to the rabbit’s eyes. If a product reacted it was labelled as such, if it didn’t, it was deemed safe. Now lets think about this for a minute! Large doses of a single ingredient!!!! No product ever is made up of a single ingredient. Even something like coconut oil is made up of a whole range of fatty acids like like lauric acid, myristic acid, caprylic acid, capric acid, caproic acid, palmitic acid, oleic acid…and the list goes on with 6% other chemicals.
We can see from the water example above, the two “ingredients” of water are Hydrogen and Oxygen. On their own, and in the right circumstances, there are no problems. But both are dangerous in either; large amounts in the case of oxygen, or a change of circumstances as when gas/air combinations lead to an explosion. Combining the two to form water, again is beneficial at small doses to maintain the pH balance of the body, metabolic processes, delivering useful products and clearing waste products, while functioning essentially in nearly all major organ systems of the body. But too much water (over-hydration), can lead to water intoxication. This occurs when the amount of salt and other electrolytes in your body become too diluted. Hyponatremia is a condition in which sodium (salt) levels become dangerously low. This is the main concern of overhydration, because if your electrolytes drop too low too quickly, it can be fatal. This was part of the findings regarding the increase of deaths on the Kokoda trail and drinking too much water.
It is simple chemistry – when you combine two ingredients together, they lose their original identity to become a new identity that has different uses and benefits. In the case of skin care formulations – it can’t always be said that cheaper brands are less beneficial to more expensive brands – but as a rule of thumb……..an “over-the-counter” brand will have less ACTIVE ingredients and more FILLERS than a professional only brand, where you need a consultation before you can use the product. The reason for this is simple. Those behind the counter are not as qualified with the knowledge and skill set, as professional skin care therapists. If you had high active ingredients in their hands, and they reccommended the product to the wrong person……..the skin reactions would be horrific and the amount of returns (let alone possible litigation) could break the company. All cosmetic companies are in for a profit. They know that to sell “volume” will give them the profit they need, so the formulations are developed, with a small percentage of active ingredients, for the MASS population.
On the other hand, professional only brands maybe a little more to buy, but you can expect real results for the issues and concerns you are facing with your skin. Professional skin care therapists are trained to deal with skin care problems, NOT to sell products. If they recommend a product, it is because they know the product will give you the best result for what you are looking for. Sometimes you may have to wait to use a certain product, until your skin is in a better state of health, before you can use it. And that is OK, the ideal is to reduce reactions and sensitivities, while building a strong resilient skin. No “over-the-counter” sales person would ever consider your needs over their sales targets.
But a word of warning……..not all professional brands are equal either! And not all professional skin care therapists are trained adequately. Do your research! Questions you may want to ask:-
Where did they train? Did they train in a University? In the case of northern Tasmania – were they mainland trained? How long ago did they train? What training have they done since they graduated? The answers to these questions will flush out how passionate and up-to-date they are with a fast changing industry, where the knowledge in para-medical therapies is expanding. By staying informed, a professional skin care therapist will be able to give you the best possible outcome for your particular concerns, even if it means referring you further.