Scientific Critique of Many Online Skin Care Sites

A lot of misinformation is available on the internet (especially when it comes to personal care products), and unfortunately it is often the first thing that comes up when people look into ingredients. Organic Consumers Association and others (like cosmetics database,com, Environmental Working Group (EWG), and David Suzuki) are not strictly science-based or impartial.  Many of these organizations are heavily influenced by strong agendas and political activism (there are dozens of sites that are all connected – cosmetics database,com, safe cosmetics,org, skin deep, Environmental Working Group, breastcancerfund,org; many of the leaders and activists in these groups are involved with activism all the way to international groups like Friend of the Earth).  Not that activism cannot be used as a positive tool, but there is great potential for negative as well.  Since it is not strictly science-based, opinions and agendas on these sites can change any time something new piques an interest.
In the past, some these organizations have promoted information that implies some products are unhealthy or dangerous for various reasons.  One example that has come up in the past is that some products contain manganese (an essential mineral) – which some sites have labeled as dangerous from their report “MANGANESE PCA577%Developmental/reproductive toxicity, Neurotoxicity, Organ system toxicity (non-reproductive).”  It sounds really scary, but this is total nonsense.  Manganese has been known to be neurotoxic at relatively high levels from industrial exposure.  This is not a possibility from a typical diet and is not even relevant in personal care products.  They also imply that vitamin E (as tocopherol acetate) is somehow toxic in personal care products, and the list could go on and on.
It is unfortunate, since their intentions are likely good.  But their science and analysis is simply over-the-top in many instances, and at the least, very inconsistent.  For example, they rate known allergenic ingredients like comfrey and other herbs as being no risk, while automatically demonizing most anything synthetic.  They also assign hazards to minerals and other ingredients that have absolutely no relevance to the way they are used in personal care products.
There is one final point to make about the majority of information available about skin care ingredients, and health information in general.  Popularity (or the size of the website) has nothing to do with accuracy.  Passing incorrect or inflammatory information by e-mail around the world dozens of times does not make it valid.  No matter how people dress it up, or for what cause they promote it, inaccurate or flawed information is still false.
A good resource for scientifically based information and regulatory issues related to cosmetic ingredients can be found at the following link:  http://www.cosmeticsinfo.org/
Here is some more specific information on a few ingredients that these sites have misstated:
Vitamin A – Retinyl Palmitate
There was a report (from the activist group Environmental Working Group) that indicated the possibility that retinyl palmitate (vitamin A) may increase photosensitization leading to the formation of more tumors in the study rats. From this one rat study, it is stated by the EWG that vitamin A in sunscreens is dangerous and can increase cancer risk. It is not responsible or accurate to draw this conclusion based on that data alone.  This is but one small rat study out of decades of research on vitamin A and the skin.  Secondly, most sunscreens do not include vitamin A in high dosages or as an active ingredient.  It is typically added at levels of 0.5%-1% or less to stabilize the other ingredients in the sunscreen, which are vulnerable to changing temperatures due to normal use of the product.
Here is a rebuttal from the American Academy of Dermatology that should help settle their concerns:
There are several products that contain a small amount of retinyl palmitate.  It is included at dosages of 1% or less, and is used to stabilize ingredients, not to provide vitamin A activity. 
Benzophenone-n
Benzophenone-1, -3, -4, -5, -9 and-11 are compounds made from 2-hydroxybenzophenone. These compounds are powders. In cosmetics and personal care products, Benzophenone-1 and Benzophenone-3 are used mostly in the formulation of nail polishes and enamels. These Benzophenone ingredients are also used in bath products, makeup products, hair products, sunscreens and skin care products.
CIR Safety Review: When undiluted, some Benzophenones, were slightly irritating to the skin and eyes. At concentrations used in cosmetics and personal care products, Benzophenoens were not irritating. Benzophenone-3 was nonsensitizing and nonphototoxic. Benzophenones were nonmutagenic when tested both with and without metabolic activation.
FDA: Link to Code of Federal Regulations for Benzophenone-3 (Oxybenzone) and Benzophenone-4 (Sulisobenzone)
Benzophenone-3, listed as Oxybenzone, and Benzophenone-4 and -5, listed as Sulisobenzone and Sulisobenzone Sodium
These respectively, are included in Annex VII, Part 1 (UV filter which cosmetic products may contain) of the Cosmetics Directive of the European Union. Oxybenzone may be used at concentrations up to 10%, and products containing 0.5% Oxybenzone when used in sunscreen products must be labeled “contains Oxybenzone.” Sulisobenzone and Sulisobenzone Sodium may be used at concentrations up to 5% as Sulisobenzone.
Link to the EU Cosmetics Directive:
There are studies that suggest that some sunscreen ingredients, including Oxybenzone may have activity like the hormone, estrogen. Therefore, the European Commission’s Scientific Committee for Cosmetic Products and Non-Food Products Intended for Consumers (SCCNFP) was asked to consider if UV filters as used in sunscreen products have estrogenic effects which have the potential to affect human health. The SCCNFP concluded that UV filters used in sunscreen products allowed in the European market have no estrogenic effects that could potentially affect human health.
Link to SCCNFP opinion on the potential estrogenic effects of UV filters
A responsibly formulated product line will have been extensively tested under dermatologist and ophthalmologist supervised conditions. Also, all products and ingredients would be reviewed and analyzed by a board certified toxicologist for cytology and toxicology. All ingredients should comply with safety standards set by governmental regulations, which are overseen by the CTFA (Cosmetic Toiletry and Fragrance Association). 
*(information adopted from http://www.cosmeticsinfo.org/ )
Sulfates
Here is some information on sulfates, which are commonly brought up as an issue:
Several common sulfates are sodium myreth sulfate, disodium laureth sulfosuccinate, and sodium lauroyl sarcosinate.  Despite sounding similar to sodium lauryl/laureth sulfate, these three ingredients behave quite differently; they are common ingredients which create foam and bubbles and act as detergents, thereby removing oil and dirt from the hair.
Most concerns about laureth-7, disodium laureth sulfosuccinate, sodium myreth sulfate, and sodium lauroyl sarcosinate arise from a misunderstanding of sodium laureth and sodium lauryl sulfate. In this article, we will address this misinformation and provide you with scientific resources to allay any concerns regarding the safety of these ingredients.
The SLS/SLES Myth
A sudden rash of websites and emails have popped up claiming that SLS/SLES cause cancer and industry officials know this substance is harmful. One radical email went so far as to state, “[t]his substance is found in most shampoos, and the manufacturers use it because it produces a lot of foam and it is cheap. But, the fact is that SLS is used to scrub garage floors…and [it] is proven to cause cancer in the long run.”
Contrary to rumors such as these, sodium lauryl sulfate and sodium laureth sulfate do not cause cancer or make your hair fall out. Both are common ingredients used to create foam and bubbles, and both are found in a variety of shampoos, cosmetic cleaners, bath and shower gels, bubble baths, toothpastes and mouth rinses.  Both compounds are cosmetic detergents, which exert emulsifying action, thereby removing oil and soil from the hair and skin.  We will discuss their safety in more detail in the next section.
Unfortunately, there are now dozens of anti-SLS sites online, all of which repeat much of the same misinformation. If you have encountered these sites, you have probably seen one of the following claims.  We will discuss the actual science behind each claim.
Claim 1: 
SLS is contaminated with carcinogenic nitrosamines.
This statement typically references another claim (made twenty-one years ago) about nitrosamines possibly being formed during the manufacture of SLS/SLES or by the interaction of these two compounds with other nitrogen-containing compounds in a personal care product.  However, searching in any modern scientific research databases fails to return an actual paper or journal article detailing the mechanism behind this claim. 
Rather, it seems plausible that since the sulfate moiety is an oxidizing agent, any nitrogen-containing compound might react to produce a tiny amount of nitrates, which in turn might react with something else to produce a nitrosamine. But the fact of the matter is that your body itself produces a huge amount of sulfates as byproducts of normal metabolic processes.  Additionally, the body also produces countless nitrates by similar mechanisms. These naturally occurring sulfates and nitrates exist in far greater amounts than could possibly be absorbed from a personal care product, so if this was truly a concern, the human body itself would be the greatest cause of it.  (Similarly, the claim on some sites that lauryl sulfate reacts with formaldehyde to produce “nitrosating agents” is simply false, since neither compound contains a nitrogen atom.)
Claim 2:
 Statements supposedly referencing the “Medical College of Georgia.”
You may have noticed that some anti-SLS sites mention “studies from the Medical College of Georgia” or preface their information with “the Medical College of Georgia says…”  Typically these statements are followed with a list of harmful effects that SLS causes on a variety of mammalian tissues.
The actual paper these statements refer to is a 1989 article in the obscure journal Lens & Eye Toxicity Research.  Some sites go so far as to call this twenty-year-old paper “recent research,” despite the fact that it actually makes no reference to any of the supposed harms.
In that article, Keith Green and his colleagues simply made the not-at-all-surprising observation that if there is already a chemical or physical injury to the cornea, a large concentration of the detergent slows down healing. In the actual study, the group shaved pieces off the outer surface of the eyes of rabbits. Not surprisingly, pouring shampoo detergent into the eyes interfered with healing.
Claim 3: SLS/SLES causes cataracts.

Sodium lauryl sulfate is indeed used in a model for cataract formation in the lens of the eye (see J. Biol. Chem. 262: 8096-102, 1987). What these misinformed sites don’t mention is that these experiments immersed transparent lens proteins in concentrated solutions of detergent, similar to what you might do with very dirty clothes. As a result of this immersion, the proteins were altered and reduced to mere translucency.
The application of this to normal shampoo usage is irrelevant, since these transparent proteins are only found within the lens itself, which is deep beneath the surface of eye.  The lens won’t be exposed to the shampoo even if you were to splash SLS directly into your eyes.
Reviews of extensive studies by independent panels of medical, scientific, and industry experts have demonstrated the safety of both sodium lauryl and sodium laureth sulfates in personal care products designed for brief, discontinuous use.
Other claims
For information regarding other bogus SLS/SLES claims, the American Cancer Society has put together the following document:
The truth about SLS/SLES

A report from an expert panel of the Cosmetic Ingredient Review committee (and released by the Cosmetic, Toiletry, and Fragrance Association – CTFA) concluded the following:
“On the basis of available information…Sodium Laureth Sulfate and Ammonium Laureth Sulfate are safe as presently used in cosmetic products.”
A search of credible, peer-reviewed medical research journals yields no legitimate evidence linking SLS/SLES to cancer in humans.
As mentioned above, one of the common sources of misinformation regarding SLS is an article by Keith Green, PhD, DSc, of the Medical College of Georgia.  Dr. Green began studying SLS and related compounds in 1982, and he had the following to say about the internet rumors described above:
“These rumors on the Internet are absolutely ridiculous. Like many other chemicals, it is the manner of usage that is important. As long as you don’t rub it all over your body and reapply it every hour for 24 hours, it’s perfectly safe.
“We did a study using diluted SLS as an eye drop. We put the test amount on the eye of a rabbit and after a certain amount of time we found that SLS got inside the tissues, heart, brain, lungs, but in very minute amounts… Second, all of it washed out in 96 hours.”
As a matter of interest, Dr. Green also noted that SLS behaved differently in younger rabbits than in adult rabbits.
“It [SLS] went in faster and came out faster. Whatever you place on the eye, only 1/1000 of that amount gets inside the eye. So, if you put on one milligram, one microgram goes in…The eye stayed pristine. There was no redness and no irritation. These were not toxic effects.”
It is also important to note that Dr. Green’s research primarily concentrated on SLS as an eye irritant.  Despite the common misuse of his data, Dr. Green was not studying whether or not SLS causes cancer, and he notes that he is not aware of any studies in this area at this time.
Conclusion

As you can see from the preceding information, “don’t believe everything you read” is apt advice – particularly with a medium such as the internet that allows anyone (knowledgeable or not) to post an interpretation of data. We hope you have come to the same conclusion we have: that articles proclaiming “anything with SLS/SLES is bad” are full of inaccuracies, innuendos, and outright lies.  These sites are irresponsible to brand any compound as toxic without providing appropriate scientific or experimental information to back up such a bold claim.
If SLS/SLES are indeed toxic or carcinogenic, there should be clear scientific evidence on the matter.  However, searches of current medical research literature have failed to turn up any legitimate reports of carcinogenic effects as a result of using products containing SLS/SLES.
The bottom line: you may continue to use your SLS/SLES-containing shampoo and toothpaste without worrying about acquiring cancer or any other health condition as a result.
Alcohols 
Alcohols are a large and diverse family of chemicals with different names and a variety of effects. In cosmetic labeling, the term “alcohol,” used by itself, refers to ethyl alcohol. To prevent the ethyl alcohol in a cosmetic from being diverted illegally for use as an alcoholic beverage, it is usually denatured. Denaturing is the process of rendering ethyl alcohol unfit to drink. Due to very strict regulations most cosmetic products use denatured alcohol. In cosmetic products, denatured alcohol functions most often as a solvent. Solvents are necessary liquids used to dissolve other components within cosmetic products.
The alcohol in the toner is denatured ethanol.  The second ingredient in the product may be the second most in percentage, but this is not necessarily an indication of absolute amount.  In other words, it takes a certain dosage or absolute amount to be irritating.  Just because it is the second ingredient does not mean there is a lot of it in the formula. If the first ingredient in a product, for example, is 75% of the total, the next ingredient could be 5%, followed by 20 other ingredients that make up the total.”
PEG or Polyethylene Glycol
As far as the PEG ingredients, the following is an explanation from a 3rd party cosmetics expert (Paula Begoun): “Also listed as PEG on ingredient labels, polyethylene glycol is an ingredient that self-proclaimed “natural” Web sites have attempted to make notoriously evil. They gain a great deal of attention by attributing horror stories to PEG, associating it with antifreeze (however, antifreeze is ethylene glycol, not polyethylene glycol), and there is no research indicating that PEG compounds pose any problem for skin. Quite the contrary: PEGs have no known skin toxicity and can be used on skin with great results (Sources: Advanced Drug Delivery Reviews, June 2002, pages 587-606; and Cancer Research, June 2002, pages 3138-3143). The only negative research for this ingredient indicates that large quantities given orally to rats can cause tumors, but that is unrelated to topical application.
Polyethylene, when it is not combined with glycol, is the most common form of plastic used in the world. It is flexible and has a smooth, waxy feel. When ground up, the small particles are included in scrubs as a gentle abrasive. When mixed with glycol, it becomes a viscous liquid. In the minuscule amounts used in cosmetics, it helps keep products stable and performs functions similar to those of glycerin. Because polyethylene glycol can penetrate skin, it is also a vehicle that helps deliver other ingredients deeper into the skin. It is also used internally in medical procedures to flush and clean the intestinal tract.”
The answer to your question about fragrance can be found at the following link on our database:
Fragrance
Fragrance is an integral part of the success of personal care products, and even products that claim to be “fragrance free” are not necessarily void of fragrance ingredients. The FDA has made the following regulation regarding this claim:
“Fragrance Free: implies that a cosmetic product so labeled has no perceptible odor. Fragrance ingredients may be added to a fragrance-free cosmetic to mask any offensive odor originating from the raw materials used, but in a smaller amount than is needed to impart a noticeable scent.”
Fragrance is an integral part of the success of personal care products, and even products that claim to be “fragrance free” are not necessarily void of fragrance ingredients. The FDA has made the following regulation regarding this claim:
Fragrance Free: implies that a cosmetic product so labeled has no perceptible odor. Fragrance ingredients may be added to a fragrance-free cosmetic to mask any offensive odor originating from the raw materials used, but in a smaller amount than is needed to impart a noticeable scent.”
As this states, fragrances are part of almost any product – even fragrance-free ones.  We have gone to great lengths to find and use a fragrance that is non-allergenic for most individuals.