Interpreting Product Labels, Episode 2.

I recently did a post on what I could tell from reading the ingredients list and packaging of some products that were in my hotel bathroom. Several people got in touch to ask for more of that kind of post, so here is Episode 2. Like the first episode, this article is about what we can work out quickly without necessarily having to be a scientist. Just for the record though, we ARE scientists.

The context for Episode 2 is someone I know being given three baby products after the birth of her little girl. The gift-giver is one of the well-meaning consultants in a multilevel marketing skincare brand with products that she describes as natural, derived from natural ingredients, organic, certified organic, healthy, wonderful, ethical… Oh and she’s going to live the life she’s dreamed of and earn a white Mercedes while she’s at it. But I digress…

Looking at the ingredients, I was reminded that one upon a time, I read a post by a blogger who was very tired of being asked about this same brand. She put up the ingredients list of one product (foundation) and wrote the single-best-ever sentence to express what she felt about it: It’s practically like rubbing a garden all over your face!

I still giggle whenever I think of that and I will never forget those words. Best summary ever! Dripping with… Irony? Sarcasm? Whatever it’s dripping with, it’s hilarious! At least, it’s hilarious if you’re not putting this stuff on your skin or the skin of your child.

Like her, I’ll just focus on one product for now – Herbal Nappy Cream – because it would simply be too overwhelming to cover the ingredients of all three products at the one time.

Arbonne nappy low res

The ingredients are in the photograph.

At a glance, you’ll see water and the name of lots of plants. That’s nice – there are many fine qualities about them. If these were all you were using, it could well be like rubbing a garden into your face.

If we assume the ‘garden ingredients’ were all sourced ethically, processed in a manner that is non-polluting and without entering into the debates over genetic modification (I found conflicting information), you could feel pretty good about the plant oils and extracts. Note that there’s no specification about them being Certified Organic, so it’s reasonable to expect that the ingredients were grown using conventional farming methods (herbicides, pesticides, chemical fertilisers etc) rather than being the result of organic farming.

Once the ‘garden’ is removed, we’re left with the not-so-gardeny ingredients: Zinc Oxide, Butylene Glycol, Cetyl PEG/PPG-10/1 Dimethicone, Ethylhexyl Palmitate, Caprylic/Capric Triglyceride, Polyglyceryl-4 Isostearate, Cyclopentasiloxane, Hexyl Laurate, Ceresin, Ozokerite, Hydrogenated Lecithin, Tocopheryl Acetate, Ascorbyl Palmitate, Retinyl Palmitate, Cyclohexasiloxane, Sodium Chloride, Caprylyl Glycol, Hexylene Glycol, Sorbic Acid, Ethylhexylglycerin, Phenoxyethanol, Potassium Sorbate, Sodium Benzoate.

I’m going to start with Retinyl Palmitate. The link contains a lot of information and a truckload of references to scientific articles / research. In some other parts of the world, this chemical has been banned, found unsafe for use in cosmetics or its use in cosmetics is restricted. It produces excess reactive oxygen species that can interfere with cellular function and interfere with DNA. It comes with warnings of reproductive and developmental toxicity at low concentrations, links to cancer and it’s even been implicated in cardiovascular disease.

Exit hilarity. This is genuinely depressing. Why is this in a nappy cream?

The Cetyl PEG/PPG-10/1 Dimethicone was next to catch my eye. Given that the vast bulk of a product typically is made up by the first five ingredients on the list. The presence of this ingredient so high up on the list is not what I would expect of a product in a range whose consultants promote it as natural and organic.

Any chemical with ethicone in its name is a synthetic silicone oil. Potential health issues aside, natural, it ain’t. Also, PEG stands for polyethylene glycol and PPG stands for polypropylene glycol, so this chemical has been through the ethoxylation process. This means one or more components were combined with the toxic chemical ethylene oxide to form an ingredient that can be used for things like creating bubbles (in a cleanser or shampoo) or in this specific instance, to help combine (emulsify) the oil-based ingredients with the water-based ingredients in the formulation.

One by-product of the ethoxylation process is the carcinogen 1, 4-dioxane. You won’t see it on an ingredients list because it’s there as a contaminant. It pollutes our bodies, our waterways and our landfill – for no good reason, because there are plenty of cleaner alternative ingredients available. It speaks volumes that the fact that the presence of 1,4-dioxane is pervasive in the products of a number of brands currently is the subject of a class action in the US against personal care giants including Johnson&Johnson, Procter & Gamble, Kimberly Clark.

You know what? I was going to continue, and have written roughly triple this amount in preparation for this article, but it’s all just more of the same. So I’m going to stop here. For all the lovely botanical ingredients to pretty it up, this is a cream made of petrochemical and synthetic ingredients, the merits of which we could debate all day. Is this (or that) ingredient OK or not OK for use on skin? On and on it goes. Meanwhile we’re missing the point. If we’re debating whether or not something might be acceptable to use, we’re clearly not aiming high enough.

I honestly don’t know how this product could be promoted as natural, organic and healthy. It’s not natural, it’s not organic, it’s not healthy, and all the wishful thinking of the sales ‘consultants’ isn’t going to make it so.

Aim higher. Look for what really is good, healthy and contributes positively to the wellbeing of you, your children and our environment.

If you want to know more about how to better understand personal care products, get in touch. Whether it is just to get practical tips and hints about how to make more informed decisions, or whether you want to truly delve and get into the science of this stuff, we have workshops and courses that will be right for you:

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