Whether they are bought from the chemist or the supermarket, and whether or not they feature the mention “hypoallergenic,” “paraben free” or “dermatologically tested,” many cosmetics contain chemical and allergen substances, preservatives and especially endocrine disruptors, which can have an effect on the hormonal system.
Potentially, these chemical substances are dangerous, particularly for pregnant women and young children. Some doctors are even saying they carry a cancer risk.
So what are the real risks? Why are some pharmaceutical companies still using these substances? insiders investigates.
A natural start to life
Augusta is four months old. For Bozena, her mother, there is no question of her using any products containing these chemicals.
For example, the body lotion she uses is an oil and calcium liniment; a mixture based on olive oil, 100 percent natural.
“Companies tend to add a lot of useless products, like preservatives, containing lots of endocrine disruptors, and I think that not only are they unnecessary, they are harmful to health, for adults and even more so for young babies,” said Bozena.
Bozena is one of the small majority of mothers who actually read the labels on cosmetics.
It is precisely by examining the labels that the consumer association UFC-Que Choisir has compiled a list of 250 products that contain substances that could be considered as worrying.
Featured on this list is the much talked about Methylisothiazolinone – known as MI or MIT. In 2013 this substance was given the unenviable label of “allergen of the year.”
On the list also are those products containing parabens and phenoxyethanol, which is another preservative that specialists claim is dangerous for the liver and blood.
Even more worrying is the fact that some chemical substances can affect the hormonal system. These are the endocrine disruptors.
“With an allergen, you develop spots and the next day you stop and put the product to one side. With a product that contains endocrine disruptors there is no visible side effect. It is even more worrying as the effect will only become apparent 30 years later,” said Gaelle Landry, a Chemist at UFC-Que Choisir.
For some doctors, the use of endocrine disruptors should be eliminated at all costs, particularly for children and pregnant women. Specialists are also warning about the cocktail effect. These endocrine disruptors are also present in food, the air and sometimes even in the water.
“They (the endocrine disruptors) affect everyone’s body, particularly women who are pregnant. This is a crucial time as women are transferring their toxins to the baby,” said Professor Pierre Souvet, of the Association Sante Environnment France.
“Potentially, they are going to affect the programming of the baby’s cells, and this could lead to various illnesses later on, particularly different forms of cancer, because it is a known fact that the most frequent cancers are those that depend on hormones, like prostate or breast cancer.”
Cancer, the word has been said. Others talk about diabetes, infertility and even a link with pathologies like autism.
So what opinion can be drawn from the results of the Que Choisir study? We asked Doctor Anne Dux this question. She represents the industries from this sector which, she says, respect the obligatory safety regulations – including safety checks.
“This safety assessment evaluates all the ingredients used in the products, and they are all safe. Normally no cosmetics are put on the European market if they are dangerous, and the conclusions from the study you are quoting are, at the very least, exaggerated,” said Anne Dux, from the French Association of Cosmetics Professionals, (FEBEA).
In any case there are endocrine disruptors in most cosmetics. Everyone agrees on that. The controversy comes over the amount used.
The industry says it is tiny. But others say it does not make them any less dangerous.
“The amount defines whether it’s a poison, that’s not the case any more for these disruptors. It’s been demonstrated that with a smaller amount, the effect was sometimes more negative than higher quantities,” said Pierre Souvet.
Anne Dux insisted: “The German Safety Agency brought together scientists and experts from different sides of the world very recently – and experts concluded that there was currently no scientific evidence that this phenomenon existed.
“In other words, it’s an exaggerated phenomenon, that no-one is sure actually exists.”
No rules for childrens’ cosmetics
As strange as it might seem, there are no specific rules covering the use of chemical ingredients contained in childrens’ cosmetics.
But the industry insists it already addresses this, by limiting the number of substances for example.
“The skin of a baby, in terms of permeability, which in terms of how molecules pass through the skin, behaves exactly like the skin of an adult,” said Anne Dux.
“After a few weeks of life, very very quickly, there is no difference between a baby’s skin and the skin of an adult.”
Chemist Gaelle Landry said: “Scientifically, this is wrong. The little ones have more fragile skin, it is thinner. So if it is thinner, the molecules will pass through more easily.
“Then it is more fragile because it’s not as protected as adults. Adults secrete sebum, sweat, toddlers sweat very little. So they do not have the sebum or sweat. They have a hydrolipidic film, which is not completely protective.”
Natural versus chemicals
So why don’t manufacturers replace chemicals with natural materials?
Some say it’s because they do not want to change their process; others say it’s because chemicals are very effective.
But it seems that there are alternatives.
After a career in the chemical industry, Celine Couteau became a mum and launched a range of natural cosmetics for babies.
Typical nappies contain 80 percent plastic. But she has some that are 100 percent natural.
“We assume that today natural materials are as good as a material derived from petrochemicals,” explained Couteau, Co-Founder of Love and Green
“It delivers exactly the same efficiency, the same care results, the same cleaning qualities as a petrochemical molecule.
“You can achieve exactly the same efficiency results and performance with a natural product as a product derived from petrochemicals. “
The European Commission has given its definition of endocrine disruptors, describing them as substances that have adverse effects on human health, which act on the hormonal system – and the link between them is proven.
But it’s not enough for the consumer associations, who also want more debate over industry lobbying and animal testing.