There’s a lot of talk these days about avoiding products that contain “sulfates” and “petrochemicals.” But how many folks know why they should avoid these ingredients? And more important, which ones are hazardous?
Ever since I was a child, I can remember having an actual “fear” of chemicals. My Dad, a physician doing medical research that sometimes involved microscopic photography, had a darkroom not only at the Medical University where he worked, but also in our home. He has always loved photography, and in those days, he knew well how to safely handle the chemicals necessary for developing one’s own work. Multiple times, Dad tried to get me interested in learning my way around a darkroom, but I could never get passed the trays of smelly liquids, which I knew contained chemicals that probably weren’t good for us. Silly, I think now… but a childhood fear nonetheless.
All grown up and a lot wiser of the world, I learned to live with, and even consume, the
difficult-to-pronounce chemicals that come our way, each and every day. That is, until, one sleepy-eyed morning while brushing my teeth. I was looking at my husband’s can of shaving cream on the bathroom shelf and saw “Propane” listed in the ingredients. Propane? On your face??? They were kidding, right?
Nope, they weren’t kidding. And the rest of the ingredient list on that can of shaving cream looked just as scary!
But here’s the rub… Yes, that was a bad product that no longer can be found in our home because we stopped buying it. But for many other products, did you know that a lot of those scary-sounding chemical names aren’t scary at all? Of the following ingredients, can you identify which one was awarded the highest toxicity rating on the Environmental Working Group’s Hazard Scale?
a) Behentrimonium methosulfate b) Sodium laureth sulfate c) Sodium lauryl sulfate
All three products contain sulfates; yet, the correct answer is b) Sodium laureth sulfate.
Want to know why? We’re happy to explain…
According to the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Database, Sodium Laureth Sulfate (SLES) is an ingredient derived from ethoxylated lauryl alcohol and used as a surfactant. It is also an ingredient that is commonly contaminated with toxic manufacturing impurities such as 1,4-dioxane and ethylene oxide (a/k/a known carcinogens). Its contamination with unwanted byproducts is the reason that it’s considered a hazardous ingredient. The other two ingredients listed: a) Behentrimonium methosulfate, an anti-static and hair-conditioning agent, ranks 0; and c) Sodium lauryl sulfate, a surfactant and foaming agent, ranks 1-2, depending on use. (Neither of these latter two ingredients are known to be contaminated with carcinogens.)
Both 1,4-dioxane and Ethylene Oxide rank a robust 10 on the EWG’s hazard scale. These carcinogenic byproducts contaminate up to 46% of personal care products tested! (See articles and sources). Although it’s been shown that 1,4-dioxane can easily be removed from products before they are sold, for cost reasons, most manufacturers fail to take this simple step.
And just when you thought it was safe to go back into the shower, we ask that you please take a closer look at the “sorbates” on your product labeling as well. For the same reason that one sulfate may be safe, while another may be carcinogenic, other so-called “safe” ingredients commonly found in products that are listed as “natural” or “organic” can be just as confusing.
Polysorbate-20, -40, -60 and -80 don’t pass muster with us for being safe ingredients! In fact, they’re listed right alongside Sodium Laureth Sulfate as common carriers of 1,4-dioxane and ethylene oxide. If you’re interested in checking out a comprehensive list of all ingredients suspected to be contaminated with our featured carcinogens of the day, here it is. The top name in each category is the name most commonly found on product labels. So while you’re busy looking for sulfates in products, be sure to check out those pesky polysorbates too!
Is your brain ready to explode? Ok. Enough for today. But as we’ve said over and again in our newsletters, all it takes is a little studying to be an informed consumer. Don’t rush to judge an ingredient before checking it out — but most certainly do check ingredients listed on all product labels! You may be surprised at what you find.