The downside of positively-perceived ingredients
This article is part of a special collaboration between Nitty Gritty Pretty and KINDLINGS.CO
In beauty, as in life, things aren’t always as they seem. Choosing natural alternatives, pampering yourself, and even protecting yourself from environmental damage seems like an easy choice, until you know the full story. It’s important to understand that “natural” ingredients aren’t always truly natural, nor without their own consequences on human health and the health of our planet. Let’s learn about some of these under-the-radar ingredients and their impacts.
Nanoparticles are particles that are smaller than 100 nanometers (about 40,000 times thinner than a hair). They are used in a variety of beauty and personal care products from foundation to sunscreen. They sound great in theory. Smaller particles in foundation can give more even coverage, hide blemishes better, and fill in lines smoother.
It’s commonly agreed upon that nanoparticles can’t be absorbed into healthy skin. But, they can penetrate through skin that has impaired barrier functions, like skin affected by eczema, psoriasis, dryness, cuts, and scratches, or even just acne. When used in powder form, nanoparticles also pose the risk of inhalation, which can lead to irritation or inflammation and mucus build up. This is especially of concern for people with allergies or asthma. With all the dangerous, and/or potentially dangerous, ingredients in beauty and personal care products, any chance of these ingredients entering or building up in the body should not be taken lightly. Also, because nano ingredients behave differently than their larger forms, more information about their safety and environmental impact is needed.
Sunscreens come in two major varieties - physical and chemical.
Physical sunscreens reflect or scatter UV light and usually appear white on the skin, as the active ingredients are titanium dioxide and/or zinc oxide, both of which are naturally white and chalky. Both are naturally occurring minerals, but most zinc oxide is synthetically produced. They both offer strong sun protection. Many sunscreens now utilize nanoparticles these ingredients to achieve less of a white cast. Fortunately, a significant number of studies indicate that nanoparticles from zinc oxide cannot pass through the skin in a great enough amount to cause concern or adverse effects. However, when washed off the skin, these nanoparticles go down your drains or directly enter the environment. Once in the environment, the effects are unknown. It’s good to know that the only nanoparticle UV-filter ingredient the European Commission has permitted is that of titanium dioxide. Zinc oxide is not allowed because the SCCS (Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety) concluded that “the safety of zinc oxide as a UV-filter had not been sufficiently demonstrated.”
Chemical sunscreens are different to physical sunscreens because they absorb UV light, and are normally less perceptible to the naked eye. The most common active ingredients in chemical sunscreens are avobenzone, homosalate, octinoxate, octisalate, octocrylene, and oxybenzone. These ingredients have all been flagged for human health concerns, but oxybenzone is widely considered the most threatening. Oxybenzone acts like estrogen in the body, alters sperm production in animals, and is associated with endometriosis in women. Because oxybenzone has been found in urine and breast milk in humans, there are also concerns about the potential presence of this chemical in fetuses as well.
Octinoxate is nearly as bad as oxybenzone. It also presents hormone-like activity, and causes reproductive system, thyroid, and behavioral alterations in animal studies. (Please see our sources list to view some of the studies evidencing these findings.) In the environment, it doesn’t get much better. Again, when washed off or when swimming in the ocean or pool, these chemicals enter the environment. A study published in the journal Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology found that even a tiny amount of oxybenzone can harm or kill live coral in the sea. Octinoxate and 4-methylbenzylidene camphor, another sunscreen ingredient, have also been shown to cause coral bleaching.
Silicones are widely used in cosmetics and personal care products, from serums to shampoo. Silicone INCI names typically end in “-cone” or “-siloxane." While they sound similar to silica, the most abundant mineral on earth, it is only one of many synthetically produced derivatives of silica.
Their function is to create a nice sensorial experience and make hair or skin feel smoother without looking shiny or feeling sticky. It can also form a sort of sheath over hair to help protect it from being dried out. The problem is that, over time, silicones accumulate, causing adverse effects. As long as you wash your face nightly, accumulation on your face is unlikely. But, many of us do not wash our hair every day. Accumulation of silicones on the scalp may lead to excessive production of sebum, which equates to greasy, flat hair.
The environmental impact of silicone is a much bigger deal than the human one. It’s first important to understand that silicones can either be volatile or stable. Volatile silicones can be burned off or evaporated, and thus not accumulate as easily in the environment. Stable silicones are the opposite. However, neither type are considered biodegradable, as they take an average of 400-500 years to fully decompose. While no studies have proven negative effects of silicones in aquatic ecosystems, just imagine the weight of all that stagnation on our land ecosystems and landfills.
Just so you know, bees have an awesome job. Imagine if your life’s work was to fly around, drink up flower juice, vomit it back up as a sweet golden goo, and store it in a hexagonal maze to later be eaten by your friends and family in order to help sustain their lives. This magic can be part of its allure, but it also has many real benefits. It’s a natural moisturizer, emulsifier, and thickener. It also has anti-inflammatory, antiviral, and antibacterial properties, while requiring no preservatives. When used in cosmetics, hair care, and personal care products, it can help add shine and a smooth texture. For these reasons, beeswax is used in everything from lipstick and lip balm to body moisturizer, and is often considered as a good alternative to petroleum jelly. (a petrochemical -- read more about this here)
Beeswax is the material used to construct a honeycomb. The bees use the comb as storage for honey that will be eaten later on, or in winter months. So, while beeswax has great benefits in you products, some consider it cruel to take honey and wax away from these bees, who desperately need it to survive. Controversy also surrounds the treatment of bees in commercial bee farms. According to PETA, “many bees are killed or have their wings and legs torn off because of haphazard handling.” After an alarming drop in bee populations, due to the “‘combined stress” of parasites, pesticides, and habitat loss,” even the Obama administration has taken notice. Another downside, like all the other hive products, beeswax can cause allergic reactions, especially in people who already have a history of allergies. Not to mention, beeswax is not considered vegan.
Even the best intentions, in choosing products that you feel align with your goals and values, can still cause harm to the environment and to yourself. But the tricky thing is that, while using beeswax and some of these other ingredients is not without consequences, these ingredients are often still better alternatives to worse ingredients, like petrochemicals.
It’s important to constantly educate ourselves on the environmental impact we make, and do what we can to make our impact as positive as possible. We hope for continued advancement and research that will not only provide better solutions going forward, but help to repair the damage already done.
You can check out the sources for this article in the link here.