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Synthetics – safer for you, safer for the environment.

December 22, 2014

Is it safe?

It is a simple question to ask about an ingredient but harder to quantify.

Do we mean safe for the people in the factory to make?

Safe for the packers to handle in bulk?

Safe to transport?

Safe to formulate with?

Safe to use on our skin?

Safe for our bathroom surfaces?

Safe for the soil?

For our septic tank?

Or the mainstream waterway that it will eventually end up swimming in?

Well I’ve been looking at all of these  and have found on more than one occasion that some synthetics outperform their natural counterparts.

Before I go on and show you the examples I want to make it quite clear that I sympathise with the natural way, not least because of the sustainability argument – fossil fuel usage isn’t good on any level and is used as a feedstock for most if not all ‘synthetic’ ingredients I looked at – but also emotionally.   Like many of you I enjoy the mental pictures that I conjure up when reading of a natural surfactant based on sugar or a preservative picked from a rose. It sounds much more romantic, free and liberating than ‘this was once coal or dirty, dirty oil’.   But romance isn’t helpful when it comes to planetary health and safety I guess…….

Anyway, I’ve looked at a couple of examples here and will spend the next few weeks building on this data.  My motivation for doing this is for professional development – when it comes to formulating for really sensitive skin I want to make ingredient choices based on the safest and least-likely to cause issue ingredients rather than what looks good on the label.  Secondly my motivation is  personal, I have pretty bad skin in terms of eczema and general itchiness and often come a cropper in terms of irritations, rashes and sores.  I have only just finished a course of antibiotics for an infection caused by dirt getting trapped under my Wedding ring and pushed into a cut that was there because I scratch too much.  I have often talked on the blog about eczema and about how many products claim to be good or suitable for people with this condition purely on the basis that they are all natural or organic.  Very few people have their claims actually tested and fewer still get their eczema product TGA approved.  When, like me your skin erupts and tries to kill you the minor details of ‘proof’ and ‘evidence’ start to look way more motivating in terms of directing my choice than the fact that the product contains pure organic coconut oil or whatever.

So here is what I found so far:

Ingredient Selection was based on what I COMMONLY use, I basically just went with the main ingredients in my toolbox.  Yes there probably are safer examples and alternatives out there in the natural camp and more dangerous synthetics but the ingredients below are widely used and typically found – just check the back of packs on the cosmetic counter to check!

Natural and synthetic ingredients

  • Decyl Glucoside is a commonly used natural alternative to Polysorbate 20 in terms of spritzer solubiliser. It is much more irritating to the eyes than the latter, synthetic alternative. However, more importantly it has much higher long-term toxicity to aquatic life than Polysorbate 20.  This is probably not what people choosing natural cosmetics want to hear – not as safe on EITHER count.   The other commonly used synthetic solubiliser is PEG-40 Hydrogenated Castor oil and that too trumped Decyl Glucoside as a safer alternative.
  • Emulsifier wise I was confused that the natural alternative to the Cetearyl alcohol, ceteareth-20 seemed to be much safer given the fact that both are predominantly cetearyl alcohol and that is the biggest contributor to irritation potential.   As long as the data I have for cetearyl alcohol is correct I’d bet that both of the above would be on a par in terms of eco and skin safety.  Interestingly there was little information available on the olive derived ingredient although I’m going to spend a bit more time looking for that and will go back and ask the manufacturer to see if they have any updates on the MSDS I have.
  • Surfactant wise while both of those are natural the caprylyl-capryl glucoside being a sugar based non-ionic is often touted as the safest choice.  This, along with Decyl Glucoside (a solubiliser and surfactant) are clearly not as safe as we expect them to be based on MSDS sheet analysis.
  • Natural preservatives seem to be equally troublesome in terms of their potential to irritate or damage eyes although environmentally all that I looked at were OK.  I guess this matters more when you are looking to preserve spray products or eye creams as eye irritation would be less of a concern otherwise.
  • Chelating agents are where we get a favouring towards natural as the sodium phytate has better skin compatibility than EDTA although environmentally there is little issue (EDTA biodegradation does require an alkaline soil though).  The big difference here is the price with EDTA being well under a third of the price per dose of Sodium Phytate.
  • Essential Oils are the last thing I will mention.  We can probably imagine that it won’t be nice to put these in our eyes it was interesting to see that things like Lemon Oil are pretty terrible for fish.  This matters more for bulk transport than in our cosmetics but I did think it was worth considering as transport these things we must!

After looking at the little bit of work I’ve already done in this regard I feel that it really is time we stopped with this over-simplistic mindset of ‘natural looking ingredient name’ is better.   It is possible that over time scientists could replace the petroleum feedstock for something else to produce things like Polysorbate 20, Cetereth-20 or Phenoxyethanol making these things completely natural and more sustainable too.  However, what incentive is there to do that with all the ingredient prejudice there is and the fact that the general public is clearly easily influenced by a cute story and an innocent looking label name.   I have to face facts too, even though I’ve known that things like Decyl Glucoside aren’t actually as ‘safe’ as polysorbate 20 for many years I’ve only just put pen to paper and sat down to fully research this.  Was I sucked in too or was I just too tired to get up and fight the rolling waves of shallow thinking……

I want to make products that are non irritating and both myself and my client base prefer them to be all-natural. However, I simply MUST  look to the future and encourage the use of the SAFEST technology and ingredients possible.  When it comes to the crunch I care much more about the future of the planet than the fashion for shallow decision-making processes.

Let’s get innovative!

Amanda x

8 Comments leave one →
  1. December 22, 2014 4:28 pm

    This dilemma was just on my mind last night! I think you were reading my mind, halfway across the world. Thanks for the information, and I look forward to your next research updates!

    • RealizeBeautyEd permalink*
      December 22, 2014 8:37 pm

      Thanks for reading! The info I’m getting is all from material safety data sheets so it is widely available. Obviously the hazards of the bulk ingredients are not so relevant by the time it is formulated into a base product as many of these things are used in minute levels but it does still dispute the ‘toxins in, toxins out’ simplistic mentality that is so widely touted.

  2. March 21, 2016 8:04 am

    I love your site. It is helping me understand the “chemistry” of common ingredients so clearly. I have blepharitis (from allergies) – basically swollen eyelids that started spontaneously about six months ago. My eye doctor told me to wash my eyelids twice day. My eyes started to get worse and I developed bad rashes that spread to my whole body. I thought it was just my body going crazy (I have asthma, hay fever, and atopic dermatitis so random things will set them off). After going to a dermatologist in desperation, patch testing revealed an allergy to cocamidopropyl betaine. It was in the baby shampoo I was using to wash my eyelids and almost all of my products (mostly what I buy is ironically labeled mild/sensitive/natural/organic). I have since switched to Avene Gentle Milk Cleanser, but I can see that even that might irritate eyes since it contains propylene glycol. It’s so good to know what products can be irritating and what can’t. You should write a book! I would buy it immediately. In the mean time, do you have a link to the safety data sheets?

    • RealizeBeautyEd permalink*
      March 21, 2016 8:34 am

      Hi Alison,
      Thanks for the feedback, I can sympathise with your situation as I too had blepharitis for about a year when I first moved here to Australia. I had just had my second baby and when the pollen broke that first spring (after us being here for about 7 months) by eyes got so itchy, swollen and sore I was desperate. I ended up using hydrocortisone cream on my eyelids and taking strong anti-histamines to calm it down. I put my situation down to being very run down and to my body having to cope with an environment dramatically different to what I was used to rather than to any product I was or wasn’t using but that’s me, not you. Having always been the ‘eczema girl’ myself I’ve also found hypnotherapy and relaxation help to stop me ripping myself up at night but it is a long, hard road. I do know that chemicals can irritate already damaged skin and I’ve also found that when my skin is damaged even water triggers intense itching (but I’m not allergic to water). It is tempting to turn to investigating chemicals deeply and thinking that the answer lies within avoiding this or that and yes, that can help in the short term as there are definitely ingredients that make things worse but I’d also encourage a holistic approach to finding the cause thinking about life as a whole and not just what goes onto the skin. I have written a book before but book writing is a hard game, people have got used to getting stuff for free. I’d have to change my business a fair bit to write again but it is something I might consider later down the track. For now I’m content with consulting. Thanks again 🙂

      • March 21, 2016 9:13 am

        Thanks for writing back! Blepharitis is awful! Sorry you’ve had to go through it, too. I’ve been using tacrolimus (Protopic) on my eyes when they are bad, because my dermatologist says it is safe for the eye area.

        I’m sure I’ve been exposed to cocamidopropyl betaine loads to times with no reactions. So I do wonder “why now,” and it is hard to know what has caused the sensitization or if this is just a read herring. Having my eczema, there are so many things that claim to cure it on the internet – everything from a gluten free diet, to apple cider vinegar, to this lotion or that. Or even total abstinence of prescription meds (topical steroid withdrawal).

        I think for me there is a genetic component since I’ve had it from birth along with the so-called “atopic march” (asthma/hay fever). There is a new drug in development called Dupilimab. Not sure if you’ve heard about it, but they are doing drug trials all over the world and are currently in Phase III. I haven’t been able to get into one, but I’ve been reading a lot about it. It is a monoclonal antibody and from what I’ve read, people in the trials have had their skin heal completely, with no need to even moisturize. I don’t know enough about the chemistry of it, but you might find it interesting.

      • RealizeBeautyEd permalink*
        March 21, 2016 9:45 am

        I haven’t heard of Dupilimab but I’ll look it up, thanks! Like you I am pondering a genetic link to eczema but I’m not yet convinced whether eczema is the disease or the symptom. As I mentioned before once the skin barrier is disturbed anything can trigger itching and I’m sure that many foreign bodies that get into the blood stream through the skin could trigger an allergic response as most stuff isn’t supposed to get into the blood stream through the skin. This is significant as there is a big difference between ‘known allergens’ and ‘foreign materials that trigger an allergic response when introduced in the wrong place’. I am inclined towards thinking that some people have a genetic pre-disposition to a dis-ordered skin barrier but I’m not sure if that dis-order starts in the skin cells or somewhere else in the body such as the gut (how we process toxins) for example. Also, from personal experience I’m inclined to tend towards thinking that how we, as individuals react to our skin (itching, getting hot, prickling, pain etc) is at least as much if not more psychological than physical. I’ve noted how many times I itch myself while watching a movie compared to a my friends who haven’t ever had eczema or a skin condition. I can literally itch continually without there even being an obvious cause for the itching. I am wondering if my itch response has become too delicate and easily triggered, that I’m intolerant of or hypersensitive to sensations that others would block out and ignore – rather like those with autism who can’t bare to wear certain socks because of the seams or whatever.
        I am not wanting to dismiss what the dermatologist says as dermotologists do know a lot about the skin but what I’m saying is I am not at all convinced that eczema is just about the skin and that taking a dermatological approach may well be too limiting.
        I also have hayfever / allergic rhinitis and have been on a gluten free (and now low gluten) diet for the last three years. I’ve also found that I can’t easily digest some of the FODMAP type foods – garlic, onion, mango, alcohol, banana etc. I have also dramatically reduced my sugar intact in an attempt to ‘heal’ my gut. None of this has stopped me being itchy although I do feel less bloated (and like a complete pain when I go out for dinner).
        To be brutally honest the best thing I’ve found for me is to wash less and with less product. It has been a very long and hot summer here in Australia and we have a pool but I’ve not been using it very often at all as last year I found myself covered in weeping eczema after a prolonged bout of showering-pool-shower-pool-shower throughout summmer. Now I stick to one shower a day and a swim no more than once a week. When I go camping and don’t shower for a day or two my skin looks better than ever but I feel gross.
        So what is the bottom line? I don’t know, I am a big advocate for self-reflection, observation and experimentation. Keeping a diary (with pictures is good) of how you look, feel and your itch score plus what happened in the day, the weather etc is not a bad idea, I did that a bit too. I guess at the end of the day I see eczema and its skin-related issues as the body saying ‘enough already, I can’t cope’ and until we listen to it carefully and open-mindedly we can only just throw ideas at it, some of which will stick while others will end up being an expensive and frustrating waste of time.
        Good luck!

  3. March 21, 2016 11:03 am

    The itch is the worst part. It keeps me up at night and I feel self conscious about scratching in public or around people, because I know it damages my skin and people perceive it as “bad.” Nights are the worst because I scratch without having any consciousness about what I’m doing so I can’t self-regulate. I’ve read a lot about how chronic itching is similar to a chronic pain condition. I’ve also read that some studies show the two are related (or similar pathways). I agree with you that I don’t think fixing the skin fixes the issue of eczema – at least in me. I’ve had skin prick testing, blood tests, and now patch testing done in hopes that a doctor can pinpoint the allergen. But I feel like once they find one new ones emerge, or I never get the relief expected from eliminating that allergen. It’s like my body is hypersensitive to everything (as you’ve described) – not just my skin. I’ve tried a low histamine diet (eliminating foods naturally high in histamine), but haven’t gotten much relief from that. I’ve also tried gluten-free and dairy-free. Probably not for long enough to do any long term healing, though…I’m bad at restricting things. The steroids and creams are palliative, in my opinion, they don’t address the underlying reason why the skin isn’t functioning properly.

    I agree with you on the whole body saying “enough already.” There are obviously really complex things going on that happen to people with the atopic march that are happening in multiple organs. That’s one of the interesting things about dupilumab and why I’ve been so fascinated by it and have tried to read everything I can on it. They developed it for moderate to severe eczema, but it has also shown to relieve asthma, so now they are testing it in trials for asthma. They also found it helps something else (nasal polyps?) and are in trials for that, as well. They think the fact that the drug works proves that eczema is an autoimmune disease. Here’s one article about the autoimmune theory: http://www.healthline.com/health-news/study-proves-eczema-is-an-autoimmune-disease-010515

    Having a pool sounds nice. I read somewhere that chlorine is good for eczema because it helps reduce staph. I’m on antibiotics now for staph. Good luck to you, too!

    • RealizeBeautyEd permalink*
      March 21, 2016 11:15 am

      Thanks for sharing your story and ideas Alison and thanks for the conversation. I absolutely will look into that and wish you all the best on your itch-less journey. It is fascinating stuff, fascinating indeed 🙂

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