Monday, August 29, 2011

Does Skin Absorption Matter?

Slather on that sunscreen, relax in a long hot bath, or douse yourself in body spray. There are many products we use every day, ingredients of which end up in our bodies. But skin absorption rates are still largely unknown and varied. And the real surprise is that skin absorption may not be as important as we think--reactions that occur invisibly in the skin can affect the entire body.

You'll see claims on different websites like this:
"Up to 70% of what we put on our body is absorbed in to our bloodstream."
"Upwards of 100% of what we put on our skin ends up in the body."
While we, of course, know that chemicals applied to the skin are absorbed in to the bloodstream, these claims of certain percentages are actually largely un-substantiated. Surprisingly, there has been no study that inclusively details the average amount of a typical cosmetic formulation that ends up in the bloodstream. (And know that when I say "cosmetic" I don't just mean makeup. I mean lotions, shampoos, deodorants--everything you put on your skin.) Numerous studies have found traces of many cosmetic chemicals in breastmilk, urine and blood, indicating that cosmetic chemicals do end up in the body. But as for one definitive study or collection of studies that would enable a claim of "x% is absorbed," there is none.

Let's also take a look at the meaning of a statement like this. When you say 70%, does that mean if you apply 1 ounce of a lotion to your body, 70% of that 1 ounce would be absorbed, or does that mean, of the ingredients list, 70% of the listed ingredients would be absorbed in some amount? Where this claim came from is unknown, but it started online and has become a cornerstone marketing point for "green" companies everywhere.

Dependent Upon Blend of Ingredients

No cosmetic formula is created exactly the same. Even products with similar ingredients are absorbed in to the body differently. The amount of water in the formula, the viscosity, presence of penetration enhancers like glycols, the presence of nanoparticles, pH, the particular chemical makeup--all of these factors will affect how a product is absorbed.

Dependent Upon Usage
Typically, leave-on products like lotions will usually have higher absorption rate than a wash-off product like a shampoo, just for the sheer amount of time and surface area that you're exposed to.

Dependent Upon Age

As we age, our skin becomes thinner and it is theorized that absorption can increase. Also infant skin is thought to be thinner and/or more absorbent as well. (This study found that infants absorbed more phthalates than adults.)

Dependent Upon the Area of the Body
Obviously, the skin on the soles of our feet is much thicker than the skin on our faces, so where the product is applied has a big effect on absorption. Additionally, an area of skin that is not touched much by clothing has the potential to absorb more than an area where clothing would rub a product off the skin.

Absorption Not As Important as We Thought

While the actual absorption of cosmetics is not known, and varies wildly from person-to-person and from formula-to-formula, this does not support the argument that synthetic chemical formulas are safe. Proponents of these synthetics will say that the percentage of ingredients absorbed in to the body are so small that they don't have an effect on our health. But they're completely missing the point...

The skin IS the body. It's not a disconnected external shell. It's an organ that interacts with the rest of the body.

Several studies have found that when certain chemicals are applied to the skin (parabens, triclosan, phthalates) they interact with an enzyme called SULT1E1. This enzyme is what's responsible for flushing estrogen out of the body. These chemicals have been found to inhibit the activity of this enzyme, thus possibly increasing estrogen levels in the body.
(For more details on this, check out my article here.) It's kind of like clogging the drain that allows the estrogen out. If the bathtub keeps running, and the drain continues to clog, at some point it's going to overflow. With an increasing problem of women and men having problems with estrogen dominance syndrome, many natural healthcare professionals and scientists alike agree that estrogenic chemicals applied to the skin can partially be to blame.

So, while absorption rates are still largely unknown and varied, absorption is almost secondary to reactions that actually occur in the skin and that can affect the function of the rest of your body.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

How to Tell if a Product is Really Organic

The world of "organic" personal care products can be confusing to navigate. There are SO many tricks and ways that companies bend and break the rules of organic labeling. So many times you can buy something that gave you the impression that it was organic, but then you turn it around to read the ingredients and find out it has things like phenoxyethanol, vegetable emulsifying wax, "fragrance," Grapefruit Seed Extract, and other harmful chemicals. Here are some of the common tricks that companies do.

Organic claims without certification. No matter if it's a food or a cosmetic, labeling and marketing an agricultural (ie, plant-based product) product as organic or 100% organic without certification is illegal. Check out this screen shot from an actual website. While the ingredients may check out, the company doesn't have certification, so there is no way to verify if the claim is true or not. This is an apparent illegal organic claim.

Subconscious Marketing. This one is a little more subtle. They're not calling the product organic, or have the word organic very large on the product. But they have a little slogan or other small marketing point that suggests that the product is organic. While the product has a few organic ingredients, it does not have any level of certification. This is not a breach of the law, but a reminder to always read the ingredients.

Illegal use of the seal on websites. Another trick that companies will do is to (illegally) use the USDA seal on their website, but not the product label. They're using some organic ingredients, so somehow they think that they can use the seal. But without certification as a company, this is totally illegal and misleading. For instance, check out this screen shot from an actual website.

You'll notice there on the top it says "our partners." This graphic would indicate that the USDA Organic program is one of the company's partners. But not so. This company has no certification and is apparently using the USDA Organic seal illegally.

Here's another site...Check out the organic claim that is made here:

In order for a product to legally say "made with organic" the product, of course, must be 70% or more organic content, it has to be made in a USDA certified organic processing facility under strict conditions, and only contain certain approved non-organic ingredients. Does this product make the grade? Check out the ingredients list:
Aqua (Water), Aloe Barbadensis Leaf Juice(1), Cocamidopropyl Betaine, Sodium Laurylglucosides Hydroxypropylsulfonate, Glycerin, Sodium Cocoyl Isethionate, Stearic Acid, Sodium Lauroyl Sarcosinate, Borago Officinalis Seed Oil, Helianthus Annuus (Sunflower) Seed Oil(1), Linum Usitatissimum (Linseed) Seed Oil, Olea Europaea (Olive) Fruit Oil(1), Vitis Vinifera (Grape) Seed Oil(1), Allantoin, Bisabolol, Sodium Citrate, Sodium PCA, Panthenol, Tocopheryl Acetate, Guar Hydroxypropyltrimonium Chloride, Benzyl Alcohol, Potassium Sorbate, Sodium Benzoate.
(1)Certified Organic Ingredient
Cocamidopropyl Betaine is not on the approved list of synthetics...neither is a number of those chemicals listed. What does it matter if the product is 70% organic if it contains toxins like benzyl alcohol?!

Using organic in the company name
This is probably the most common trick. A company will use the word "organic" in their brand name, but they don't have certification or anything close to it.

Beware of "organic" makeups
Micas, iron oxides, titanium dioxides and other mineral pigments are not on the approved list of substances allowed in an organic product. At all. If you see a makeup that's marketed as Organic, it is not certified by the USDA or else has been apparently mistakenly certified, because they include these prohibited substances. (For the list of approved non-organic substances allowed in an organic product, visit this page.)

Look at this claim from a makeup's home page:

But look at some of the ingredients in the product:

Most of these ingredients are prohibited for use in a USDA certified product! Something doesn't add up here, even though the company still has their certification and the USDA claims that it is currently valid. Both the company and the certifying agency are based outside of the US and I believe that something has been lost in translation. It will be interesting to see how this unfolds.

How do they get away with this?

There is a common misconception that there are no laws governing the term "organic" in personal care/cosmetic items. There are laws--the same laws that are applied to food. To market a product as "organic" without organic certification is illegal. Period. However, the resources of the USDA organic program are highly limited in the enforcement department. There are literally only five people on the national staff to enforce the rules of the National Organic Program. The State of California's Agriculture Department is the only other enforcement body, and they can only enforce products being sold in California. So, with the limited resources that these agencies have, they have had to focus on regulation of foods because that is their first and foremost concern.

However, there is hope. The USDA has recently deemed this to be an "era of enforcement" for the organic program. The staff of five people is actually an increase from one or two in years past. Perhaps with pressure from consumers and non-profits such as the Organic Consumers Association, the issue of illegally-labeled body care products will be more strictly enforced. For a list of truly organic body care companies, and for ways that you can help call out organic fakers, visit the Organic Consumer's Association Coming Clean Campaign website here:

Be an Organic Sleuth

With all of this rule breaking and bending, it IS possible for an organic body care product to be really and truly organic. Look for the USDA seal, first and foremost. Second, find out the company's third-party certifying agency. If it's not easily available on their website, ask them to provide that information. Third, if you still feel like it's fishy, you can check them out online through the USDA's website. The USDA has a national database of companies with organic certification. Here is the link--you can look up any company! Sometimes if a company just recently got their certification, they won't be on this list. But you should be able to verify with the third-party certifier. QAI, for instance, has their own online database of operations they certify. And as always, read the ingredients!

To read more about our organic certification, visit this page!