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Skin cream: killing you softly?

Date

Sarah Berry

Sensitive issue ... chemicals in beauty products linked to a variety of health problems.

Sensitive issue ... chemicals in beauty products linked to a variety of health problems.

In the book, Slow Death by Rubber Duck Rick Smith turns himself into a human science experiment. He lathers himself with shampoos and shaving creams, all in the sweetly-scented spirit of chemical exposure. To phthalates, that is. A type of chemical commonly found in cosmetics as well as plastic toys and PVC. After three days, the amount of phthalate byproducts in Smith's blood spikes. One of the by-products has notably been linked to male reproductive problems.

Reproductive problems are not the only issue phthalates have been linked to. They have also been variously associated with DNA damage, birth defects and altered pregnancy outcomes.

The issues associated with phthalates (pronounced tha-layts) are not new and have lead many countries to ban their use in toys. How hazardous the quantities are in cosmetics however, remains hotly debated.

But, new studies suggest that phthalates from 'personal-care' product-use relate to diabetes prevalence, as well as to insulin resistance.

One recent study looked at over 1000 elderly women. While phthalates were detected in nearly all the participants, high levels of the phthalate metabolites were associated with an increased prevalence of diabetes, even after lifestyle and other health factors were taken into consideration.

"There is a connection between phthalates found in cosmetics and plastics and the risk of developing diabetes among seniors," study author Monica Lind told WebMD. "Even at relatively low levels of phthalate metabolites in the blood, the risk of getting diabetes begins to rise."

Similarly, another study, just published, analysed the urine samples of 2350 women, aged between 20 and 80. After adjusting for sociodemographic, behavioral and dietary factors, the researchers found that women with more phthalates in their urine were more likely to have reported diabetes.

Those with the highest level of certain phthalates in their urine had double the risk of diabetes of those with the lowest levels. "This is an important first step in exploring the connection between phthalates and diabetes," said study leader Dr Tamarra James-Todd. "We know that in addition to being present in personal care products, phthalates also exist in certain types of medical devices and medication that is used to treat diabetes and this could also explain the higher level of phthalates in diabetic women. So overall, more research is needed."

As Dr James-Todd said, because we are exposed to phthalates in so many forms, it cannot conclusively be linked to cosmetic-use. But, we do pickle ourselves in the stuff. Considering that the average woman, and increasingly man, applies an estimated 200 chemicals to her skin each day, are the results of these studies really any big surprise?

No, says Dr Mariann Lloyd-Smith, Senior Advisor to the National Toxics Network. "I think it's just another nail in the coffin of phthalates. It is certainly confirmation of studies that are already out there," she says. "Consumers are being exposed [because] it's difficult for the average consumer to understand what's in [the products] ... We shouldn't still be waiting for action by regulation moderators."

The moderators she speaks of are NICNAS, the National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme.

While the European Union (EU) and the US have banned DEHP [diethylhexyl phthalate - a type phthalate] for use in cosmetics, Australia has not.

In regards to phthalates, NICNAS states that "Currently there are no restrictions in Australia on the use of DEHP in cosmetics and there is a potential for introduction and widespread use of cosmetic products containing DEHP." They do, however recommend that it be added to the list of substances considered dangerous to human health.

More recently, they have reviewed other forms of phthalates.

"The delegate has decided that body lotion preparations for human use containing more than 0.5 per cent diethylphthalate or dimethylphthalate be added to the existing prohibited uses in the respective Appendix C entries for diethylphthalate and dimethylphthalate. The delegate also decided an implementation date of within six months of the delegate's publication of final decisions (i.e. 1 September 2012)."

But, this is still higher than in the US and the EU, where the concentration of phthalates in many products cannot exceed 0.1 per cent, Lloyd-Smith says.

"Why is it different in Australia than US or EU?" she queries. "It has the footprint of an endocrine-disrupting chemical. We need to take action as soon as possible - and protect the future of generations to come."

In the meantime, she suggests women, and men, take matters into their own hands by minimising their exposure through cosmetics.

Her advice

-  "Reduce ... the number of products you put on your skin and in your hair on a daily basis. Lipsticks in particular, as we tend to eat a lot [of what we put on our lips]."

-  Really look at a product before buying it. "Products have to give full labelling, so avoid all phthalates and seek out toxin-free cosmetics and shampoos."

- "When you see long scientific-sounding, chemical-based names [it's a red-light]."

- "The fewer ingredients the better."

- Do google searches for phthalate-free products or take a look at the Environmental Working Group's database of phthalate-free personal-care products.

32 comments

  • "Avoid....scientific-sounding, chemical-based names". Like dihydrogen oxide, sodium chloride, cholecalciferol - that's water, salt and Vitamin D2 if you want the translation. I wish this sort of report would make it clear that not all chemicals are nasty and that, in fact, the whole world is made of chemical compounds!

    Commenter
    MegaKay
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    August 06, 2012, 2:23PM
    • How often is dihydrogen oxide listed as an ingredient? It's always water (or aqua if they want to sound fancy).

      Commenter
      pb
      Location
      sydney
      Date and time
      August 06, 2012, 10:01PM
    • pb - maybe you're right about that one, but I definitely see cholecalciferol on heaps of things.

      Commenter
      Emily
      Date and time
      August 07, 2012, 10:45AM
    • I thought that advice was a bit silly too.

      Just because something is listed with "scientific-sounding, chemical-based names"! doesn't mean it's "bad". And vice versa: just because something is naturally occurring doesn't mean it's safe eg. nicotine.

      Commenter
      Professor Bollocks
      Date and time
      August 07, 2012, 11:02AM
  • The report also doesn't mention that phthalates are found in many cheap jelly sex toys. So put a condom on your dildo, ladies, or buy silicone-based toys instead!

    Commenter
    Ms Naughty
    Date and time
    August 06, 2012, 2:33PM
    • Nurtogena makes phthalates fee moisturisers (their oil free range).

      Shampoos are harder to police...

      Commenter
      F
      Date and time
      August 06, 2012, 2:45PM
      • I pay very much attention to what I put in my body. One day I woke up and wondered why I didn’t pay the same attention to the stuff I put on my body. Then I started looking in to what these products were made up of. Then I discovered studies from other countries that link the over-use of moisturisers, tanning creams, depilatory creams, shampoos etc to a variety of serious health problems, for both wearer and any foetus being carried around by the wearer. Not good.

        Now I only use good quality olive oil to moisturise my face and body - which works eight times better anyway. You ask why does Australia come late to the party on such issues? It’s because Australia is full of unquestioning fools and idiots.

        Commenter
        tba
        Date and time
        August 06, 2012, 3:23PM
        • The keys to looking good are: eating well, sleeping well, exercising, relaxing, making love, laughing, smiling.

          No toxic chemical chemical will ever give more than a quick fix.

          Commenter
          Angus28
          Date and time
          August 06, 2012, 3:26PM
          • How about name and shame some cosmetic labels for men and women ?

            Commenter
            David
            Location
            Sydney
            Date and time
            August 06, 2012, 3:54PM
            • Check out this useful website: http://www.ewg.org/skindeep/

              You can search for your brand and it's rated according to safety.

              Commenter
              Ana George
              Location
              Kew
              Date and time
              August 06, 2012, 5:49PM

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