I just completed an interesting assignment for my environmental science class in which I was asked to take a look at a couple of household products to learn something of the chemicals they contained. The assignment was intended to make us consider the safety concerns of some of the products we commonly use and to learn just how difficult it is to find the inherent risks using the available data sources. I thought I’d share this here as it was an eye-opening experience for me.
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This assignment appears to be intended to make us consider the ingredients that are commonly found in household products. As consumers, we rarely consider the potential dangers of these chemicals. “Green” cleaning products have helped cast some light on this topic, but I had admittedly not done my homework to understand what potential dangers we were bringing into our home. Completing this assignment has helped arm me with the tools necessary to do this.
In completing my research, I found several websites dedicated to the subject and spent a fair amount of time wading through them. Many of the sites seemed to have undeclared objectives, and the information they offered ranged greatly in its usefulness. The government provided sites seemed to be the least biased, but the information on these sites tended to be harder to find and was typically presented in a format which was too complicated for digestion by a layman like me. Other sites appeared were unprofessional in appearance, or seemed to be highly biased by the information they provided, which led me to avoid using them. I landed on the goodguide.com website as it was founded as a “B Corp” by Dara O’Rourke, a respected academic from the University of California-Berkeley. B Corporations are a relatively new construct which intend to use “the power of business to solve social and environmental problems.” (B Corporation n.d.) I did notice some potential issues with this site which led me not to use it alone for my analysis. First, the site seems to have a clear delineation along brand lines. This made me question whether it was possible that something untoward could be involved with the ratings provided by the site. Second, the site encourages you to make changes which also could be seen as questionable. Given the founder’s background and the B Corp status of the firm, I believe that the intentions of the site are noble, but have decided to reference additional sources to ensure I present a balanced view.
I chose to use cosmeticsdatabase.com as a secondary source. This site is put forth by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) a non-profit dedicated to using “the power of public information to protect public health and the environment.” The EWG seemed a fair source to use as little of their funding (2.2%) comes from corporate sponsors.
The method used for this research was simple, but the analysis was quite complicated. Goodguide.com provided findings in a clear and concise format, which allowed me to quickly identify chemicals which deserved greater scrutiny. From there I looked at findings listed on the cosmeticsdatabase.com website to see if they confirmed or contradicted the Good Guide findings. I then determined my perspective on the chemical in question along with my determination on whether or not to continue its use.
Product 1: Fabuloso Lavender
Product Ingredients: Water, Dipropylene Glycol, C9-11 Pareth-8, Propylene Glycol, Alcohol, Sodium C14-17 Alkyl Sec Sulfonate, Cocamidopropyl Betaine, Fragrance, C9-11 Pareth-3, Preservative, Dye
Goodguide.com suggests the following chemicals warrant concern: Propylene Glycol, Cocamidopropyl Betaine & Fragrance
- Propylene Glycol (Good Guide: Medium Health Concern)
- Function: A small organic alcohol commonly used as a skin conditioning agent. (Cosmetics Database n.d.)
Cosmeticsdatabase.com includes cancer, development and reproductive toxicity, allergies and immunotoxicity, use restrictions, irritation (skin, eyes or lungs), enhanced skin absorption, organ system toxicity, neurotoxicity, biochemical or cellular level changes and lack of over all data as possible hazards related to Propylene Glycol. The site had the following to say about Propylene Glycol, “It has been associated with irritant and allergic contact dermatitis as well as contact urticaria in humans; these sensitization effects can be manifested at propylene glycol concentrations as low as 2%.”
The EPA’s Integrated Risk Information System has not yet reviewed Propylene Glycol, but a highly detailed report is available from the Division of Health and Human Services which determined that Propylene Glycol can be harmful in animals at very high doses. (National Toxicology Program n.d.)
After reviewing the available data, it appears that there is some risk at high levels of exposure, but this is not a product we use frequently, nor do we use much of it at any time. Therefore, I am not concerned with the limited exposure to Propylene Glycol that we receive from this product. However, I do think it is important to gain a better understanding of the cumulative use of the products we use that have this chemical in them, as collectively we will likely see a greater risk from this product.
- Cocamidopropyl Betaine (Good Guide: Low Health Concern)
- Function: This chemical is a synthetic surfactant, which lowers the surface tension of a liquid. (Cosmetics Database n.d.)
Cosmeticsdatabase.com includes allergies and immunotoxicity, use restrictions, contamination concerns and ecotoxicology as possible hazards related to Cocamidopropyl Betaine (CAPB).
CAPB was awarded the dubious distinction of “Allergen of the Year” in 2004 by the American Contact Dermatitis Society (ACDS). (American Contact Dermatitis Society n.d.), The award is intended to cast a spotlight on the most common skin allergens. Interestingly, this group which selects the awardee is funded by several of the companies which utilize high volumes of chemicals in their products. This would suggest that the ACDS may have conflicting interests and I would seriously question any research put forth by them. I worry that they may be pointing out the more obvious chemicals, and not casting a light on some of the lesser known, more dangerous ones as they claim. This concern pertains to chemicals not cited for the award, rather than those that have, so I felt confident using their findings in this paper.
As no one in my home has allergies, CAPB is not a direct concern for us from that perspective, but the toxicity concerns are valid. We need to determine which products we use that contain this chemical to know whether we are exposing ourselves to it at dangerous levels.
- Fragrance (Good Guide: Controversial Ingredient)
- Function: An undisclosed mixture of various scent chemicals and ingredients used as fragrance dispersants. (Cosmetics Database n.d.)
Cosmeticsdatabase.com includes allergies and immunotoxicity, use restrictions, Neurotoxicity and lack of over all data as possible hazards related to Fragrance.
Fragrance was another winner of the ACDS’ “Allergen of the Year,” taking the title in 2007.
Product 2: Old Spice High Endurance Anti-Perspirant & Deodorant, Fresh
Product Ingredients: Aluminum Chlorohydrate (Anhydrous) (10%). Other Ingredients: Butane, Hydrofluorocarbon 152A, Cyclopentasiloxane, Isopropyl Myristate, Dimethicone, Quaternium-18 Hectorite, Propylene Carbonate, Fragrance
Goodguide.com suggests the following chemicals warrant concern: Aluminum Chlorohydrate, Butane & Fragrance
- Aluminum Chlorohydrate (Good Guide: Controversial Ingredient)
- Function: (Cosmetics Database n.d.)
Cosmeticsdatabase.com includes development and reproductive toxicity, neurotoxicity, organ system toxicity, ecotoxicology, irritation (skin, eyes or lungs) and lack of over all data as possible hazards related to Aluminum Chlorohydrate. Additionally, multiple studies link the accumulation of Aluminum in the body to an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease. (Exley n.d.)
- Butane (Good Guide: Low Health Concern)
- Function: Butane is typically used as a propellant. (Cosmetics Database n.d.)
Cosmeticsdatabase.com includes allergies, immunotoxicity, contamination concerns, multiple additive exposure sources, organ system toxicity, irritation (skin, eyes or lungs), occupational hazards and lack of over all data as possible hazards related to Butane.
- Fragrance – This chemical was detailed with the previous product.
In reviewing the available data on the two products I reviewed, it appears that at least minor concerns need to be cross-referenced against the other products in our household. As we learn more, we will begin to make better informed choices at the point of purchase. I hope to see an evolution of the Goodguide.com site which would allow you to select all of your household products and their frequency of use that would then report back overarching concerns to you. This would be much more helpful than trying to look at this on a by-product level. It would also be useful to receive less technical information from government sources. I would place a high level of trust in them if only I could understand the information they offer.
Finally, to the question of whether or not to trust chemicals with limited or no available safety data, I expect current data gaps to shrink as consumers clamor for better information. Regardless, I would go with a guilty until proven innocent approach to all products, due to the lack of definitive data which is impossible to attain per the scientific method.
American Contact Dermatitis Society. History of Allergen of the Year. http://www.contactderm.org/i4a/pages/index.cfm?pageid=3467 (accessed November 1, 2010).
B Corporation. About B Corp. http://www.bcorporation.net/about (accessed November 2, 2010).
Cosmetics Database. Aluminum Chlorohydrate. http://www.cosmeticsdatabase.com/ingredient/700313/ALUMINUM_CHLOROHYDRATE/ (accessed November 2, 2010).
—. Butane. http://www.cosmeticsdatabase.com/ingredient/700839/BUTANE/ (accessed November 2, 2010).
—. Cocamidopropyl Betaine. http://www.cosmeticsdatabase.com/ingredient/701520/COCAMIDOPROPYL_BETAINE/ (accessed November 1, 2010).
—. Fragrance. http://www.cosmeticsdatabase.com/ingredient/702512/FRAGRANCE/ (accessed November 1, 2010).
—. Propylene Glycol. http://www.cosmeticsdatabase.com/ingredient/705315/PROPYLENE_GLYCOL/ (accessed November 1, 2010).
Exley, Christopher. Does antiperspirant use increase the risk of aluminium-related disease, including Alzheimer’s disease? http://www.sciencedirect.com/science?_ob=ArticleURL&_udi=B6T9S-3SK91CN-C&_user=10&_coverDate=03/01/1998&_rdoc=1&_fmt=high&_orig=search&_origin=search&_sort=d&_docanchor=&view=c&_acct=C000050221&_version=1&_urlVersion=0&_userid=10&md5=c74f5e392248b7e62cab6 (accessed November 2, 2010).
National Toxicology Program. Propylene Glycol Evaluation. http://cerhr.niehs.nih.gov/evals/egpg/propylene/pg.html (accessed October 30, 2010).