I've talked about how, although it's a great starting point for learning about chemicals in personal care products, the Cosmetics Databse is not the end-all source for determining product safety. Today, I'm going to show you how an ingredient that scores a "0" in the database, should really score much much higher.
Vegetable emulsifying wax is used in a lot of products, from lotions to conditioners--even makeup--to make oil and water combine in to a lotion form. It's the emulsifier of choice for home crafters and larger companies alike because it's easy to work with and it's relatively cheap. At first glance it looks natural (after all, it's made up from "vegetable" material, right?) but once you learn what it really is, it's not so great after all.
I did some digging and found out what vegetable emulsifying wax is actually comprised of:
Cetearyl Alcohol (a blend of cetyl and steareth alcohol)
Let's look at these chemicals one by one.
Although cetearyl alcohol scores a "0" risk score in the Cosmetics Database, the two ingredients that it's made up of, Cetyl and Steareth Alcohol, both score a "1" for a mild risk of skin irritation and tumor formation at high doses. Not a terrible score, and I'm not particularly outraged by this ingredient. However, is it a synthetically produced chemical? Yes. Is it truly natural? No.
Also scores a "1" risk score for possibly being a reproductive toxin and for tumor formation at high doses. When it's in small amounts in a lotion, you're probably pretty safe. That said, it's the same story as the cetearyl alcohol--it's not truly natural and it's still a chemical.
This is where it gets hairy. PEG is short for polyethylene glycol. Polyethylene glycol is an ethoxylated compound, meaning that it's been processed with ethylene oxide, a known human carcinogen. Traces of this compound can be left in the product, along with byproducts such as 1,4-dioxane, also a known carcinogen. (Read more about the latest 1,4-dioxane scandal here.) PEG-150 Stearate scores a 4-7 risk score in the cosmetics database, "depending on product usage." So, in a product that would remain on your skin, like lotion or deodorant, I'd imagine that they'd give it a "7".
Even though this ingredient only scores a "1" in the database, it too is an ethoxylated compound, and can also contain traces of ethylene oxide and 1,4-dioxane. It's created by taking stearyl alcohol (a naturally-ocurring fatty alcohol) and combining it with ethylene oxide. The number following the "steareth" is how many units of ethylene oxide reacted with the stearyl alcohol. So, steareth-20 has been reacted with 20 units of ethylene oxide. There are a lot of steareths that range from 2 on up. Steareth-20 is the highest--meaning it's been processed with the highest amount of ethylene oxide.
So, how does this happen? How does an ingredient with all these chemicals end up with a "0" risk score in the Cosmetics Databse?
How this happens
The Cosmetics Database is just that--a database. When an ingredient is entered in to the database, it searches about 50 other databases for safety information based on the key words of the ingredient. When "vegetable emulsifying wax" is entered, the database searches for studies with those words. It doesn't take in to account the fact that there are separate ingredients within the one ingredient. There are little to no studies on "vegetable emulsifying wax" as an overall blend, so no information comes up and the ingredient passes with a "0" score. This happens all the time. ("Coconut fatty acid cream base", anyone?)
How to avoid ethoxylated compounds
Compounds created with ethylene oxide (or ethoxylated compounds) are pretty easy to spot. Any time that you see an "eth" you can be sure it's ethoxylated. Sodium Laureth sulfate, sodium myreth sulfate, steareth, ceteareth, polyethylene. PEG is short for Polyethylene Glycol, so those are culprits as well.
These lotion products are 95% or more organic, and contain no "vegetable emulsifying wax" or iffy ingredients.
Trillium Organics Organic Body Butter
Bubble & Bee Organic Body Butta