Parabens, Chemical Fragrances, and Phthalates
This is the first blog post in a series on a list of ingredients we do NOT include in any of our handmade body care products and why.
I am not an expert in this field, but I have researched each of these ingredients extensively and have concluded that I don’t want them in or on my own body, so I’m not going to put them in my products.
Even if the evidence was inconclusive against a particular ingredient, there are studies and research that indicate possible issues – and that is a good enough reason for me. At least until more conclusive studies are done.
Before I dig into the first three ingredients on our list, I want to go over the role of the FDA. We hear about products getting FDA approval all the time. But what does that mean? The FDA is a regulatory entity. They make sure laws that are passed regarding food, drugs, cosmetics, and a host of other things, are followed and remain safe for public use. They do not pass laws; they only make sure current laws are followed.
The law does not require cosmetic products and most ingredients in them to have FDA approval before they go to market. So, no one is regulating how much of these ingredients are going into the products. As long as products are safe for consumers to use when used according to the directions on the label, cosmetics can have as many chemicals in them as they want.
Also, according to the FDA, they themselves, are not authorized to order recalls on any products. Any recalls are voluntary actions taken by the manufactures or distributors. And the FDA cannot take action against any cosmetic unless there is reliable scientific information showing the product is harmful when used as directed.
For there to be change in the way the FDA regulates laws, the laws themselves have to change and this can be a very slow process.
Here’s a great example of this. In 2009, the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Act was passed – which changed the laws about how tobacco products could be sold and distributed. It was 1964 when a definitive report was released that links smoking cigarettes with lung cancer. And the 2009 law doesn’t outlaw cigarettes, which do in fact cause harm. But now the FDA regulates how much nicotine can be in tobacco products. Since nicotine is what makes cigarettes so addictive, I guess the less nicotine, the less addictive, the less responsibility cigarette companies have when you die of smoking related diseases.
Anyway, I like to look at what the FDA says about these ingredients to see what the baseline acceptability is, but I also like to find other sources and reports as you’ll see because I like to look at different sides of the story.
First up, Parabens.
Here is what the FDA says about them.
Parabens are a family of related chemicals that are commonly used as preservatives in cosmetic products. Preservatives may be used in cosmetics to prevent the growth of harmful bacteria and mold, in order to protect both the products and consumers.
There are six main parabens commonly used in cosmetics. They are: methylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben, ethylparaben, isopropylparaben, and isobutylparaben. These are synthetic parabens. There is a small body of research that says there are naturally occurring parabens, but these are very rare. If you hear a report that naturally occurring parabens are common, check the author and where they got their information. Companies who specialize in getting chemical additives approved for use in food wrote a paper on these ‘natural’ parabens. However, at this time, there are no peer-reviewed scientific studies to confirm this theory.
The argument against parabens is this: Parabens can act like the hormone estrogen in the body and disrupt the normal function of hormone systems affecting male and female reproductive system functioning, development, fertility, and birth outcomes. It can also interfere with the production of hormones and cause early puberty in girls.
According to PubMed:
Scientific studies have reported the estrogenic activity of parabens. The estrogenic potency increases with the length of the paraben and branching side chains also increase estrogenic activity, as observed in in-vitro and in-vivo studies.
In the same PubMed study, they show evidence that parabens are not discarded by the body as some claim but have been found intact in the breast tissue of women. And some are theorizing that this could be one cause of breast cancer.
I think on this point there is a lot more research that needs to be done, but there is enough evidence here to convince me that not all is well when it comes to parabens and it’s better to leave these synthetic chemicals out of my products.
Chemical Fragrances & Phthalates (Tha-lates)
If you really want a head scratcher, look up ‘fragrances’ on the FDA website. Basically, fragrances are regulated differently based on the intended use. If the fragrance in a product is applied to a person’s body “to make the person more attractive”, the fragrance in that product is considered a cosmetic. Things like perfume, cologne, and aftershave.
ChemicalSafetyFacts.org claims fragrances are safe and includes a list of requirements a fragrance chemical must go through before it is approved for use in consumer products. There are four steps.
1. Determine if it could cause an adverse effect.
2. How much exposure causes an adverse effect?
3. Determine how the fragrance will be used and the amount.
4. Test the fragrance to determine an acceptable exposure level.
Their wording, not mine. I know naturally derived chemicals can cause adverse effects if used in the wrong amounts. There's a reason we're told to dilute essential oils after all. But I feel like something is missing in this equation when it comes to synthetic chemicals.
Basically they determine how much exposure you have to endure before you have a reaction and then set a limit on how much of that chemical can be used. It doesn’t actually test the reactions themselves or ask if these reactions are harmful, or whether or not lesser amounts of exposure could result in other effects that might appear after years of low-level exposure. Nor does it require anyone to publicly disclose what the adverse effects are. Does it just cause a rash? Or does it cause something worse, like cancer?
The International Fragrance Association released a list of chemicals in 2016 that it’s members use to make consumer products. This list contains 3,619 different ingredients. So any label you read that lists ‘fragrance’ as an ingredient could be any number or combination of those 3,619 ingredients. That is an overwhelming number for someone who has struggled with eczema and sensitive skin to consider when trying to decide what products will or will not induce an eczema flare-up. Especially when there is no way to determine which of those 3,619 ingredients were used.
Even though the eczema I've battled my whole life is mild compared to others, it's been torturous enough that when it comes to making my own products, I want to keep my ingredient list simple, honest, and natural. This is why we don't use Chemical Fragrances.
An organization called Environmental Working Group took a look at this list of ingredients back when there were only 3,163 items on the list. EWG made their own database to look at the ingredients that go into the products the FDA is supposed to regulate. EWG compares ingredients on labels to nearly 60 toxicity and regulatory databases, then gives each product and ingredient a two-part score. One for hazard and one for data availability.
Their database shows that 1 in every 20 ingredients on the IFRA fragrance list earned a high hazard score, and 1 in 6 rated a moderate hazard score. Several of the ingredients listed are particularly toxic. One of those is Phthalates.
So what are Phthalates?
Phthalates (pronounced thal-ates) are a group of chemical compounds used to make plastics more durable, and function as solvents and stabilizers. They come in three categories.
DBP (dibutylphthalate) commonly used in nail polish to reduce cracking.
DMP (dimethylphthalate) used in hairsprays to help avoid stiffness by forming a flexible film on the hair).
DEP (diethylphthalate) which is used as a solvent and fixative in fragrances.
DEP appears to be the most commonly used phthalate still used. The FDA website says,
The phthalate commonly used in fragrance products is diethyl phthalate, or DEP. DEP does not pose known risks for human health as it is currently used in cosmetics and fragrances.
However, WebMD says studies have linked high levels of phthalate exposure to early death in older people. The higher the level of phthalates found in urine, the higher the chance they would die of heart disease. The study did not prove a cause and effect, only that higher levels caused early death. But the study suggests longer exposure to phthalates over time is not good for us.
Research has also shown that phthalates affect unborn babies - especially males, kids going through puberty, and adult women.
Interestingly, even though the FDA says they are safe to use in cosmetics. In 2017 phthalates were banned from toys and products intended to help children under 3 sleep, eat, teethe, or suck. But why? I didn’t find an answer to that question, if you know I’d love to see the research on it. In the US, no other bans on phthalates in products have been made at the time of my own research.
The National Library of Medicine shows phthalates, like parabens, have been shown to be endocrine disruptors and can have long-term impacts on the success of pregnancy, child growth and development, and reproductive systems in both young children and adolescents.
Phthalates aren’t just used as a fixative for fragrances. They are found everywhere. Even things I didn’t know about before doing research for this blog. Phthalates can be found in:
Plastic kitchen containers that aren’t labeled phthalate-free
Personal care products
Medical devices like IV tubing, blood bags, and catheters
And Food packaging
For these reasons, we try to stay away from plastic packaging unless we are sure it’s phthalate free. Since doing this research I’ve been taking a closer look at the packaging and containers my ingredients come in and so far, have not found any of this packaging to be made of materials containing phthalates. However, this research is ongoing. If I do find any of my ingredients packaged in containers that could leech phthalates, I would discontinue use of that ingredient until an alternative solution could be found.
As I said at the beginning, some of these ingredients don’t have a lot of scientific proof, yet, to show they are 100% for sure bad for our bodies. But some of them do, and they are still considered safe to use. I hope you found this information educational and helpful – I know I’ve been fascinated (and sometimes horrified) by this research.
Coming up in the next blog: Artificial coloring, micas, and sulfates.
Did you learn something new from this blog? Or have you seen more/different research than what I’ve shown here? Let’s discuss!