What’s It All Mean?

Lots of beauty products are advertising “sulfate-free”, “paraben free” and “phthalate free”.  What are these things, and why should you consider avoiding them?  Here’s a quick breakdown…

Phthalates

What They Are:  Phthalates are “plasticizers” added to products to increase their flexibility and/or elasticity.  While there is a big push to get them out of products manufactured/sold in the U.S., there are still LOTS of products that contain them.  Luckily, you can easily tell if an ingredient is a phthalate, because “phthalate” is the last word in it.  (example:  diethyl phthalate, butylbenzyl phthalate)

Why They’re Bad:  Phthalates have been linked to endocrine disruption which leads to breast cancer.  In some studies, they’ve also been shown to increase instances of obesity/insulin resistance.  In children, they’re linked to allergies and asthma.   Prenatal exposure has been shown to cause low birth weight, one of the leading causes of death in newborns.  In men, some studies indicate phthalates can cause reduced sprem counts, testicular atrophy, and liver cancer.

Parabens:

What They Are:  Parabens are preservatives added to products to make them last longer.  They fight bacteria and fungus.  Like phthalates, it’s easy to tell if an ingredient contains parabens because “paraben” will be at the end of the ingredient name.

Why They’re Bad:  Parabens were found in 19 of 20 breast cancer tumors of women studied.  Because they mimic estrogen and disrupt hormone function, they’re also linked to reproductive toxicity.  They’re also a possible cause for organ system toxicity and birth or developmental defects.

Sulfates

What They Are:  Additives that help with lathering/foaming of products like shampoo, toothpaste, etc.  It’s a surfactant- a substance that breaks up surface tension, the bonds between molecules in the outer layer of a compound, allowing to remove dirt and oil.

Why They’re Bad:  In a report, the Journal of the American College of Toxicology (in 1983!!!) said that sodium lauryl sulfate has a “degenerative effect on the cell membrances because of its protein denaturing properties” and “high levels of skin penetration may occur at even low use concentration”.  So, it can cause skin irriration and permanent eye damage.  If you have particularly sensitive skin, you might want to avoid products with sulfates.  Unless your hair is really dirty every day or you just can’t live without super-foamy shampoo, you probably don’t need them.

In Summary:  Personally, I think it’s impossible for us to avoid EVERYthing that’s potentially bad for us or may cause cancer.  And it seems that we have to “pick and choose” with our carcinogenic risk.  One thing increases the chance of developing one medical problem while decreasing the chances of developing another.  It seems like you can’t win.  However, if you have a family history of cancer and are trying to reduce your risk in every way you can, you might want to think about avoiding some of these chemicals.

For more information about other ingredients (you may never have heard of) that might be bad for you, read this article: http://www.treehugger.com/style/beyond-parabens-7-common-cosmetics-ingredients-you-need-to-avoid.html

Sources:

http://www.healthy-communications.com/journal_of_the_american_college_.html

http://www.ewg.org/chemindex/term/480

http://science.howstuffworks.com/environmental/green-science/sodium-lauryl-sulfate.htm

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