In recent years, the use of parabens, phthalates and sulfates in self care products has become increasingly taboo. It seems that these chemicals have been permanently put on the skin care ingredient blacklist of many companies. But why? While you may have seen some negative press about these ingredients, very few truly understand why it is so important to rid our daily routines of these chemicals. In this post, I will be discussing the ‘what’, ‘why’ and ‘how’ behind two of these so called 'chemical nasties': phthalates and sulfate and examine their potential health risks if indeed they exist. I have already written at length about parabens.
What are they?
Phthalates, other than being difficult to pronounce, are a large group of chemicals often added to plastics to increase their flexibility and durability. They are used to make plastic soft and flexible, and they may be found in cosmetics and personal care products (perfume, shampoo, soap, moisturisers, nail polish, etc.), food, wood finishes, detergents, plastic plumbing pipes, vinyl flooring, and many more products we use every day. What are phthalates?
Unfortunately, some chemicals in this group have been found to have harmful effects on human health, particularly on the reproductive and hormone systems. Certain phthalates have been restricted to various degrees but the results of a test this week by the Danish Consumer Council show that even banned phthalates are still in products consumers can buy off the shelves.
Investigating 30 different types of products made from soft plastic, the Danish Consumer Council found that nearly 1 in 4 contained phthalates that the EU restricted last year. The known endocrine disruptors, DEHP, DBP, DIBP are on the EU’s official list of unwanted chemicals due in particular to their effects on male fertility. However, these chemicals were some of the ones that the researchers found in a huge range of products they tested, from footballs to door mats and bathmats and even children’s toys, which are meant to have more stringent phthalate restrictions.
Products made before the restriction on these chemicals came into force are still allowed to be sold. Other phthalates suspected of being endocrine disruptors remain unrestricted and were also detected in the products tested by the council. Although the research was carried out in Denmark, it is not unreasonable to suspect a similarly broad range of products on the market in other European countries also contain restricted phthalates
Reducing your risk
Avoiding buying soft plastic products or looking for products that say they are ‘phthalate free’ is a good step towards reducing your exposure.
Sulfates derived from petroleum are often controversial due to their origin. The biggest concern is the long-term side effects of sulfate production. Petroleum products are associated with climate change, pollution, and greenhouse gases. Sulfates can also be found in some plant products.
- Health: SLS and SLES can irritate eyes, skin, and lungs, especially with long-term use. SLES may also be contaminated with a substance called 1,4-dioxane, which is known to cause cancer in laboratory animals. This contamination occurs during the manufacturing process.
- Environment: Palm oil is controversial due to the destruction of tropical rainforests for palm tree plantations. Products with sulfates that get washed down the drain may also be toxic to aquatic animals. Many people and manufacturers opt for more environmentally friendly alternatives.
- Testing on animals: Many products with sulfates are tested on animals to measure the level of irritation to people’s skin, lungs, and eyes. For this reason, many oppose using consumer products that contain SLS and SLES.
Are sulfates safe?
There is no direct evidence linking SLS and SLES to cancer, infertility, or development issues. These chemicals may slowly build up in your body over long-term use, but the amounts are small.
The highest risk of using products with SLS and SLES is irritation to your eyes, skin, mouth, and lungs. For people with sensitive skin, sulfates may also clog pores and cause acne.
Many products have a lower concentration of SLS or SLES in their formulation. But the longer the products stay in contact with your skin or eyes, the higher the risk of irritation. Rinsing off the product immediately after use reduces risk of irritation.
To help you visualise, sulfates are responsible for the sudsy lather you get out of most shampoos. If you’ve ever used a sulfate free shampoo, you’ll immediately notice that the wash is less foamy and bubbly. Sulfates are a large group of chemicals that are used as cleansing agents in a variety of beauty and personal care products.
Why are they considered harmful?
Similar to parabens, phthalates can also be potentially harmful to our endocrine systems as they may cause reproductive and developmental concerns. The European Union has banned cosmetic companies from incorporating phthalates into their products, but their use is still widespread in the U.S.
The concern around sulfates is that they are skin irritants that can strip skin of its natural oils - leading to dryness and irritation. For some, continued use of sulfates such as sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) can set off a reaction as it can penetrate the skin’s barrier, making it more vulnerable to the absorption of other irritants. In skin care, natural alternatives to sulfates include gentle foaming agents such as sugar or coconut.
How to avoid them?
Read product labels! The best way to determine whether or not a product contains these harmful agents is to carefully observe ingredient lists. Phthalates, if identified on a label, are usually listed with an acronym like DHEP or DiBP. In personal care and beauty products, the sulfates that are commonly used are sodium lauryl sulfate, ammonium lauryl sulfate and sodium laureth sulfate. With the wave of natural beauty companies pledging to never use these chemicals, avoiding phthalates and sulfates has become easier.
In their current form phthalates and sulfates are still considered safe as cosmetic companies only use a very small concentration of these ingredients. Despite being able to legally include these ingredients in products, the concern around them is reason enough to seek alternative skin care products that will not pose a threat to our health and bodily function.
Reference: Adapted from https://evehansen.com/blogs/resources/natural-skin-care-routine-without-parabens-phthalates-and-sulfates