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A Closer Look at Ingredients in Personal Care and Household Products: Harnessing the Power of Computer Technology

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By Julie Ennis PhD, OICC Research Fellow

Take a moment and think about your morning routine and the number of household and personal care products that you use. From shampoo and toothpaste to air fresheners and dishwashing detergent, the list of products can easily become surprisingly long.

The ingredients in these products are designed to keep your hair silky, your breath minty, your house smelling fresh, dishes sparkling and so on. While it’s tough to argue that these aren’t valuable, there is a large interest in understanding whether daily exposure to all of these ingredients has an impact on our health and growing consumer demand for guidance when it comes to deciding which products to use.

Studying the impact of combined and cumulative exposure vs. single chemicals in isolation may now be easier to achieve

Most studies that explore the links between the chemicals in consumer products and effects on health have focused on single chemicals in isolation. These studies have generated helpful information on the toxicology of individual chemicals and acceptable exposure levels.

However, questions remain about the impacts of the combined and cumulative exposure of chemicals found within and across the different personal care products typically used by consumers.

There are a number of challenges to researching combined chemical exposures from consumer products. However, things may now be somewhat easier following a report published last summer in the scientific journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

Researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign are using computer-technology to identify chemical mixtures in personal care products

Researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have harnessed the power of computer-technology to bring together large amounts of information in order to identify chemical mixtures commonly found in personal care products.

  • First, they selected 55 specific “target chemicals” that have been associated with the development of asthma and a group of compounds known as Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals (EDCs).(2)  EDCs have been studied in relation to a broad number of health conditions, including hormone-sensitive cancers, since evidence from animal studies suggest that they can mimic the activity of and modify the levels of hormones in the body.(3) 
  • Next, they used a software program to pull information from an online retailer to create a database with information on close to 40,000 products and over 32,000 distinct ingredients. They assigned the same chemical name to all the possible synonyms that can be used on a product label (for example methyl paraben is the same thing as 4-hydroxybenzoate) and classified each product into familiar categories such as “deodorants and antiperspirants”.
  • Finally, they combed through all of the data to look for the most common mixtures of chemical ingredients that are found together.

Current labelling system makes it a challenge for consumers to identify potential sources of chemicals

A number of important findings from this article suggest that the target chemicals are found in many products sold to consumers and that the current labelling system makes it challenging to understand all of the potential sources of these chemicals.

  • Almost a third of products (30%, 11,688) contained at least one of the 55 target chemicals, while 13% contained more than one target chemical.
  • Certain product categories were more likely to have at least one of the target chemicals, cosmetics being the worst (72% of foundations, 69% of bronzers & tanners, 67% of eye makeup products), followed by hair care (63% of hair styling products, 58% of conditioners) and personal care (72% of sunscreens, 66% of lotions and moisturizers).
  • Over half (56%) of the target chemicals were found in at least one product.
  • Most prevalent of the target chemicals in the analyzed personal care products were the preservatives methyl paraben and 2-phenoxyethanol and the natural fragrances linalool and limonene.
  • Most common cocktail of target chemicals was found to be 2-phenoxyethanol, methyl paraben and ethyl paraben although this was only found in fewer than 3% of products.
  • 19 of the 55 target chemicals appeared on the labels under more than one name shining light on a possible area for regulatory efforts to ensure that product labels can be easily understood and compared by consumers.

This work also highlighted the prevalence of missing or incomplete information on product labels which means that the database may underestimate the presence of the target chemicals in consumer products. Beyond this, incomplete product label information poses another challenge for consumers who look to labels to guide their decisions about personal and household products.

More analysis is needed on impact of concentration

Gabb and Blake’s paper is an important addition to the scientific literature with regard to chemicals in consumer products but a number of important points should be considered. This analysis only used information on whether a chemical is present or not in a product and does not take into consideration the concentration. The way that a product is typically used also factors into the level of risk it poses. A conditioner which spends on a short period of time on hair is expected to pose less of a risk than a body lotion which is slathered onto the skin and left to absorb. The authors of this study have also collected information on active ingredients, concentrations, costs, brand, description, size, user directions, warnings and contraindications. We look forward to following these authors’ future work.

Using the “precautionary principle” until a product is proven safe

It is certainly exciting to see this research into the products that are marketed to consumers. We look forward to additional product testing, larger observational studies in humans and evaluations into common cocktails of chemicals to improve the understanding of the impact of these products on health. While waiting on this research, many choose to follow the “precautionary principle” and do their best to avoid or minimize exposures until a chemical or ingredient is proven safe.

One of our favourite tips to help with this is to simply cut down your personal care and household products to those that you feel are truly necessary. Maybe you don’t need to use a conditioner, leave-in conditioner spray, volumizing mousse and heat-protectant hair spray? This may be an extreme example, but there are likely some products that can easily be cut out of your routine.

Another great resource for information about ingredients in personal care products is the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Cosmetics Database: This database is consumer-focused and is easy to navigate and compare between products.

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