By Dr. Mercola
Nearly 13,000 chemicals are used in cosmetics and personal care products, but only 10 percent have been tested for human safety. The average American woman uses 12 personal care products or cosmetics every day that contain approximately 168 different chemicals. While men use fewer products and are exposed to nearly half the number of chemicals than women, teens use more products and are exposed to even more chemicals.1
Your personal care products are applied on an active, living and complex organ system. Your skin is not just a covering for your body, but rather provides temperature regulation, protection and can produce vitamin D when exposed to the sun. The nerve cells that are packed over the expanse of your body act as messengers to your brain and are a crucial part of your ability to interact with the world.
Your skin may also be used to deliver medications as whatever you put on your skin can be absorbed. For instance, nicotine patches or pain medication patches deliver drugs directly into your bloodstream as they pass through your skin. The same may happen with the personal care products you use. If the molecules are small enough to be absorbed, they migrate through the skin and directly into your blood.
Analysis of Popular Moisturizers Finds an 83 Percent Failure Rate
Many cosmetics and personal care products on the market advertise they are fragrance-free and hypoallergenic to increase their consumer base and include customers who are concerned about chemicals. Like many dermatologists, Dr. Steven Xu, a dermatologist at Northwestern University Hospital, was asked almost daily about the moisturizers or sunscreen that would work best for sensitive skin.2
One year ago, Xu led an analysis of popular sunscreen products and discovered nearly half failed to meet basic sun safety guidelines set by the American Academy of Dermatology.3 The guideline failure fell under the category of being water or sweat resistant.4 During the study, the researchers found consumers made their decision about sunscreen predominantly based on the bottle's "cosmetic elegance," which was defined as any feature linked to skin sensation on application, color or scent.5
Once completed, Xu and his colleagues began questioning if other products commonly applied daily, such as moisturizers, were accurate in their advertising. Specifically, Xu was interested if claims for fragrance-free or hypoallergenic were true since many of his patients needed products that wouldn't exacerbate skin conditions. He said,6 "I found myself really struggling to provide evidence-based recommendations for my patients."
Xu and his colleagues gathered 174 different moisturizers that were popular brands sold on Amazon and at Target and Walmart to analyze these claims. They found a surprising 45 percent of products advertised as fragrance-free actually contained a fragrance and over 80 percent of those advertised as hypoallergenic contained a potentially allergenic chemical.7 The researchers found the majority of best-selling moisturizers that were labeled fragrance-free or hypoallergenic had some form of potential skin allergen.
Are Mislabeled Products Frustrating or Damaging?
A similar study, performed by a team led by dermatologist Dr. Matthew Zirwas, analyzed 276 moisturizers and found 68 percent contained fragrances, 62 percent contained parabens, 24 percent had benzyl alcohol, and 20 percent contained propylene glycol and formaldehyde releasers.8 The researchers concluded:9
"Many ingredients of moisturizers have the potential to cause irritant and allergic contact dermatitis; therefore, it is necessary for clinicians to be aware of such potential allergens in order to manage and advise their patients accordingly."
For some, a little irritation where moisturizer was applied is frustrating. However, for those who suffer from psoriasis, eczema or sensitive skin, the result can be damaging. One study found at least 33 percent of people who used cosmetics had at least one skin reaction.10 Those reactions may range from a simple, short-lived rash, to a full-blown systemic contact dermatitis affecting your face, neck and upper torso.
Irritant contact dermatitis affects the area where the product was applied and may result in a burning sensation, stinging or itching. The area may also turn red, and if you scratch the area, blisters may appear. The second type of reaction is an allergic contact dermatitis that involves a systemic immune reaction. Symptoms may include itching, swelling, redness or hives on any part of your body, but more frequently on your face, eyes, ears, lips and neck. In other words, in many of the areas you may have applied the moisturizer.
Those with skin conditions are faced with finding a moisturizer using trial and error. Unfortunately, the errors are costly since products that trigger reactions must be thrown out, and sometimes the reactions require medical treatment. Kathryn Walter, an eczema sufferer from Ann Arbor, Michigan, discussed her frustrations trying to find a moisturizer that would sooth her skin condition, without triggering a reaction. She says:
"I will start to itch and I have to get it off my body right away. My ankles and calves are all scratched up as we speak — and my hands. Because you can't just go to a drugstore and open up all their tubes of cream to make sure they don't aggravate your skin. Basically, it's a big expense."
Absorbing Chemicals Contributes to Poor Health
Since your skin absorbs chemicals from your personal care products directly into your bloodstream, it's particularly important to reduce exposure. Women with higher levels of chemicals detected in their blood or urine are at higher risk for experiencing menopause two to four years earlier than women who have lower levels of chemicals in their body.11
The long-term health problems associated with early menopause, regardless of the cause, include an increased risk for cardiovascular disease, neurologic disease, psychiatric disease, osteoporosis and death.12 A meta-analysis of 32 studies, including over 300,000 women, reached a similar conclusion.13 Overall the group of women who entered menopause at 45 or earlier suffered a 50 percent greater risk of heart disease.
The age-related findings in the study showed a clear association between the time of menopause and the risk of heart disease. Women who entered menopause early had an increased risk of heart disease and premature death, while women who entered menopause between the ages of 50 and 54 had a lower risk of fatal heart disease — even lower than women younger than 50.
The study identified 15 chemicals associated with early menopause and declining ovarian function.14 Many of those have already been linked to other health risks, such as cancer, early puberty and metabolic syndrome.
For instance, phthalates, a plastic chemical commonly found in personal care products including lotions, perfumes and hairspray, has been linked in studies to asthma, attention deficit disorder, breast cancer, obesity15 and a reduction in your child's cognitive ability,16,17 to name just a few damaging health conditions.
And phthalates are just one class of chemicals found in moisturizers and lotions that have allergic potential. Other chemicals frequently found include parabens, toluene, sodium lauryl sulfate and formaldehyde releasers, all of which have their own unique list of adverse health effects.
Who Regulates Product Ingredients?
Deceptive labeling on personal care products is likely the result of a lack of federal regulation by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Unless the product contains a currently banned chemical, all cosmetics and personal care products are allowed on the market without prior approval from any governmental agency.18 The FDA makes the differentiation that they regulate the industry but do not approve products before they show up on your grocery store shelves.19
"… By their intended use, as ‘articles intended to be rubbed, poured, sprinkled, or sprayed on, introduced into, or otherwise applied to the human body ... for cleansing, beautifying, promoting attractiveness, or altering the appearance’ (FD&C Act, sec. 201(i)).
Among the products included in this definition are skin moisturizers, perfumes, lipsticks, fingernail polishes, eye and facial makeup, cleansing shampoos, permanent waves, hair colors, and deodorants, as well as any substance intended for use as a component of a cosmetic product."
Product ingredients are protected from disclosure by the FDA as it falls under proprietary information. The argument is the industry is highly competitive, and if an adversarial company were to be able to recreate a popular product, it could significantly impact the profitability of the first company.
The intent of the law was to protect the viability of a manufacturer while depending on the company to protect the health of the nation. Dr. Robert Califf, vice chancellor for Health Data Science at Duke University School of Medicine and former FDA commissioner, puts it succinctly:22
"The cosmetics industry is highly competitive, and if someone can easily copy someone else's successful cosmetic, that would be a competitive disadvantage."
What Can You Do to Help
However, with advancing technology and testing ability, Xu tested for chemicals included in products that were not on the labels. Most large companies have access to chemists with the same abilities, negating much of the argument for protecting propriety blends of chemicals. In April 2015, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, (D-CA), introduced bill S.1014, the Personal Care Products Safety Act, with the intent to:23
"… Require cosmetics companies to register their facilities with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and to submit to the FDA cosmetic ingredient statements that include the amounts of a cosmetic's ingredients. Companies must pay a facility registration fee based on their annual gross sales of cosmetics. The collected fees can only be used for cosmetic safety activities."
As you may have anticipated, this bill has a long road before it may pass. After being read by the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, hearings were held in September 2016, after which no further action has been taken. You can write to your representative24 and your senator25 to let them know how important this issue is to your health and the health of your skin.
Skin Care From the Inside Out
Your healthiest choice is to protect your skin from the inside out. Your skin reacts to variables inside and outside your body. For instance, if you work outside during the winter months, or are in health care and wash your hands frequently throughout the day, your skin may become dry and cracked. Exposure to these factors reduces the natural oils on your skin that protect against drying and cracking. Internal factors that affect the ability to stay supple and soft is whether your diet supplies the necessary nutrients.
One nutrient is essential omega-3 fats, as your body cannot manufacture them independently. A deficiency may present as cracked heels, thick patches of skin or eczema. These fats also have an anti-inflammatory effect and help soothe your complexion. In the past, I've shared some of the best types of fish to consume high in omega-3 fats, but the general guideline is the smaller and closer to the bottom of the food chain, the less contaminated with pollution they will be. These fish include sardines, anchovies and herring.
Another healthy option is wild-caught Alaskan salmon. If you've incorporated these fish in your diet but are still suffering from dry skin, an omega-3 supplement, such as krill oil, may be highly beneficial. Pure, virgin coconut oil is another all-natural moisturizer you can use topically on your skin and added to your cooking. When absorbed, it helps to reduce the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles by keeping your connective tissue strong and supple.
When your outer skin layer lacks hydration, your skin can become cracked. While it's not entirely clear whether drinking more water can counteract dry skin, it stands to reason that a hydrated body is conducive to hydrated skin. You should drink enough water so that your urine is a very pale yellow.
Perhaps the most important step you can take to improve the health of your skin is to avoid sugars, fructose, processed foods and grains. If you eliminate sugars, grains and fructose for just a few weeks you'll likely notice a rapid improvement in your complexion and condition of your skin.
Your overall health and the quality of your skin is strongly associated with the health of your gut. Including fermented vegetables is an ideal way of promoting the growth of beneficial gut bacteria. Normalizing your gut microbiome may help fight against skin irritations and chronic skin conditions, such as psoriasis and eczema. If you don't regularly eat fermented foods, then a high-quality probiotic supplement is definitely recommended.