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Published February 23, 2013, 11:40 PM

Cosmetics and chemicals: Do you know what’s in your makeup?

WEST FARGO - Angie Langlie hasn’t always paid attention to what she swipes on her eyelashes or rubs into her skin every morning. Her interest in the ingredients in cosmetics and other products stemmed from studies she read that correlated food additives with ADHD symptoms. Langlie’s son was diagnosed with ADHD five years ago.

By: Anna G. Larson, INFORUM

WEST FARGO - Angie Langlie hasn’t always paid attention to what she swipes on her eyelashes or rubs into her skin every morning.

Her interest in the ingredients in cosmetics and other products stemmed from studies she read that correlated food additives with ADHD symptoms.

Langlie’s son was diagnosed with ADHD five years ago.

“This really paved the way for me to investigate what other additives were in my food and everyday products and how they affected me and my family,” she says.

What do additives or chemicals have to do with cosmetics? More than you think, says North Dakota State University chemist Ganesh Bala.

Formaldehyde, a known human carcinogen, is an ingredient in some nail polishes. Petroleum distillates, a petrochemical, are used as a thickening wax in some mascaras.

“We use preventive measures so we aren’t exposed to these chemicals, but many people apply them daily,” Bala says, who puts on gloves and often a mask when handling such substances. “You can imagine how much they get exposed to over time.”

Other products like shampoo, lotion and deodorant are made with chemicals that can become toxic over time, says Bala, who manages the Core Synthesis and Analytical Services Facility for the Center for Protease Research at NDSU.

“For a lot of those chemicals, we don’t know what their toxicities are. Most have not been tested completely to understand how much toxicity is associated with them,” he says.

Fragrances top his list of concerning chemicals. They’re considered “trade secrets,” and according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, companies aren’t required to list the ingredients of their fragrances.

A lab analysis of 17 fragrance products (perfumes and colognes) found that, on average, each contained 14 additional chemicals that weren’t listed on the label, 10 sensitizing chemicals associated with allergic reactions (asthma, headaches, contact dermatitis, etc.), and four hormone-disrupting chemicals.

Of the “secret” chemicals not on the label, 66 percent have not been assessed for safety, according to the study, commissioned by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and assessed by the Environmental Working Group.

“There are always pluses and minuses, but in my personal opinion, when it comes to synthetic chemicals, there are only negatives,” Bala says.

‘Hot-button’ ingredients

Dr. Ahmed Abdullah, a cosmetic surgeon with Fargo’s Plastic Surgery Institute, says that by definition, the term “chemical” includes all ingredients found in skin-care products, including pure substances like water.

Abdullah developed an aloe vera-based skin care line in 1996 called Lexli.

He calls the push for chemical-free formulations “misleading.”

“With that said, some ingredients can, indeed, be irritating to certain individuals and/or have the potential to cause harm when used for extended periods of time,” Abdullah says. “However, some ingredients become stigmatized due to incomplete research or intentional marketing efforts.”

Parabens, for example, have been used safely in skin-care products for more than 80 years, he says.

Abdullah cites a 2004 British study that found paraben-like substances in breast-cancer tissue. The study, however, didn’t show that parabens themselves cause breast cancer.

“Despite statements from groups like the FDA and the American Cancer Society denying proof of a linkage between parabens and breast cancer, the fear campaign surrounding parabens has continued, spurred on by various special interest groups and even ‘natural’ skin-care manufacturers,” Abdullah says.

He says a determination about an ingredient’s safety can’t be based on a single study.

“It’s a challenge for consumers to determine which ingredients are truly harmful and those that have gotten a bad rap,” he says.

His advice? Read ingredient labels and research “hot-button” ingredients.

Limit products

Bob Root, chief technology officer of Keys Care, which makes natural healing therapies for people and pets, says the number of products you use makes a difference.

Root says the typical man uses eight to 10 products on his body daily, the typical woman 25 to 38, depending on age group.

If each of those products contains 0.5 percent of a potentially harmful chemical, it adds up.

“When we’re putting this on our skin, it’s not just about what’s in that one individual product,” he says. “It’s everything that we’re exposed to – laundry detergent, dishwashing detergent ...”

Abdullah, of the Plastic Surgery Institute, says not everything will permeate the skin, which he describes as “semi-permeable.”

“Most skin-care and cosmetic ingredients feature too large of molecules to pass the outermost layer of skin,” he says.

Water, for example, can’t penetrate the skin beyond the outermost layer. Other ingredients, like aloe, can reach the deeper layers, Abdullah says.

“Skin-care chemists have worked for decades to develop penetration enhancers to penetrate beyond the skin’s outer layer,” he says.

Penetration enhancers used in skin care include propylene glycol and sodium lauryl sulfate, which are used to help deliver active ingredients like vitamin C and retinol, Abdullah says.

Despite some information that says most chemicals in cosmetic and beauty products are OK to use, West Fargo mom Langlie plans to continue using as many natural products as she can.

“I feel that I’m hopefully prolonging my life,” she says. “We pay attention to the food we eat, why not what we put on our faces?”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Anna G. Larson at (701) 241-5525.

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