Toxins on your shelf!


There are a plethora of cosmetic products available in the Indian market today. But do you know what they actually contain? Many of these products have toxic chemicals, which are even carcinogenic, says Usha Hariprasad. A primer on what to look out for in our daily beauty and hygiene products.

Ihappened to glance at the label of my toothpaste and I was surprised to find that I did not recognise most of the components listed in it. Except for sodium chloride, the table salt, everything else sounded foreign to me. To name a few – sodium lauryl sulphate, parabens, sodium monoflurophosphate etc. So what were these? And were they really beneficial? A quick search on the net revealed that the presence of these chemicals were not only toxic to us, but they were also harmful to the environment. Here are a few of them.

Triethanolamine (TEA): This substance is a by-product of two toxic chemicals, ethylene oxide and ammonia. TEA is used in personal hygiene products like shave foams, lotions, makeups to increase the product’s shelf life. TEA also helps the lotion spread and assists oil and water soluble components in the product to gel well.

Though skin and eye irritations are side effects of TEA, when coupled with sodium lauryl sulfate it can turn carcinogenic. The FDA (Food and Drugs Administration) mentions that it cannot be coupled with N-nitrosating agents as it produces nitrates and nitrosamines. The concentration of TEA should never exceed more than 5% if the product is meant to be used for a prolonged period of time. Diethanolamine (DEA) and monoethanolamine (MEA) are other components to watch out for.

Methylparaben: This again is used in a number of cosmetics like sun screens. Methylparaben is added to increase shelf life of the product. An article titled ‘What are the dangers of Methylparaben’ in the Livestrong website mentions some of the effects –breast cancer, skin damage, a decrease in sperm count etc. So beware of parabens and try to choose paraben free products whenever possible.

Triclosan: Antibacterial soaps, pastes contain this component as Triclosan acts as an antibacterial agent. But this ingredient has been banned by the FDA as unsafe, but is still being used in many cosmetics. Triclosan disrupts the hormonal balance in the body. It also increases antibiotic resistance as it kills both good and bad bacteria. It can effect soil bacterial community and in turn plant growth. It does not get completely removed in water treatment and can reach freshwater streams and oceans disrupting the food chain.

Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS): This is found commonly in paste, soaps, hair products etc. Sodium lauryl sulfate is used to create lather. It strips away oil from the skin, removes moisture and can irritate the skin easily. It is also a main component in most hair products like shampoos. Continuous usage of it can lead to hair breakage, scalp irritations and eye problems as well. Another component to watch out for along with sodium lauryl sulfate is sodium laureth sulfate (SLES).

Propylene glycol: This is a synthetic alcohol used in a variety of products from food, beauty products to drugs. It is used in perfumes for fragrance and in moisturisers for supple skin. The side effects of propylene glycol is, it can lead to skin issues such as hives and dermatitis. People with eczema are advised to use this product with caution. Prolonged use can also bring in respiratory disorders.

Sodium saccharin: This is an artificial sweetener to enhance sweetness. So you can find this ingredient frequently in food products and in toothpaste. But the presence of this can increase the risk of diabetes and cancer. An article on sodium saccharin at Livestrong website also mentions that it can stimulate insulin, leading to insulin sensitivity and can promote weight gain.

Talc: Face powders can be toxic too. Talc that is hydrated magnesium silicate is no less problematic. It is added in powders, even baby powders, as it useful in keeping skin dry and free of rashes. Talc, however has been linked to cancers especially ovarian cancer when used in genital areas. In fact, Johnson and Johnson lost 55 million dollars in a talcum powder side effects law suit last year. So, that innocent looking baby powder is not so innocent after all.

Petroleum jelly: The lip balm that you use for your cracked lips may not be safe. The reason? They contain petroleum jelly. The jelly gives the feeling of skin becoming softer and hydrated, but in reality it blocks out air and moisture to your skin pores. Plus an article on Huffington Post on petroleum jelly mentions that it can lead to lipid pneumonia if it enters lungs. Frequent usage of such products can also lead to increase in acne and other breakouts on face. Remember, petroleum jelly is obtained during oil refining, and its safety is always questionable.

Fragrance: The fragrance term is most often found in cosmetics. Though added for smell, these could be any component. Often this category is never revealed and so you do not know what chemicals are added to the beauty product. The synthetic stuff can cause issues like skin allergies to respiratory problems. So, if you get a sudden headache or have itchy skin you know where to look.

There are plenty of unsafe ingredients not listed here. Some chief ones to look out for are alcohols, dyes, colourants, mineral oil, phthalates etc. It is always best to be aware of what side effects these chemicals can bring to your body in the long run. Where possible, substitute these products for home made alternatives. Coconut oil, shea butter, honey can be effective beauty treatments. There are plenty of do-it-yourself videos on the net to help you create beauty products like face packs, moisturisers to soaps and tooth pastes. If there is a lack of time, then you can opt for natural, chemical free products that are safe as well as eco-friendly.


Usha Hariprasad

Usha Hariprasad is a freelancer who is fond of travelling, discovering new places and writing about travel related destinations around Bangalore at Citizen Matters. Currently, she works in a trekking organisation.