Being passionate about science, I can’t help but feel sick when a brand misses the mark with their ingredient choice communication. It usually centres on the whole concept of chemical nasties and the things that the brand has decided to leave out. The fact that anyone would use this as a selling point is, to my mind at least, more about marketing, perception and bandwagon, than about science. And while that isn’t necessarily bad, my feeling is that it can only go one way and that’s check-mate. Anyway, the thing that got my attention this time was a brand called ‘Yes To Carrots’. Sounds nice, looks nice and no doubt does the job of cleansing, caring and preening my body beautifully, but when it comes to ticking my science literacy box, I have to give them a C-.
Before we delve into some specifics, it is essential to understand the term ‘chemical nasty’. However, to do this fully would take far too long so I’ll just give you my professional and personal opinion, which may or may not float your boat.
It is my belief that the cosmetics industry doesn’t have it all sorted out just yet as far as having access to the greenest, safest, non-toxicest ingredients goes. Before you scream out “ha, I knew it”, this all comes with a big “but”. Clinical research, brand development and ingredient sourcing is not something that you do once and never re-visit and the same holds true for efficacy and safety testing, the measurement of environmental exposure , bio-accumulation and product refining. I see that cosmetic ingredients are constantly reviewed and challenged both in terms of their general chemistry and purity, and their application. For example the acrylamide based thickener Sepigel 305 was re-formulated to reduce traces of free acrylamide, after research found evidence that the chemical can cause cancer in laboratory animals. “So the cosmetics industry was poisoning people then?” No, the vast majority of acrylamide exposure comes either from within food or during the cooking process, (high temperatures can cause its formation and release). Cosmetic ingredients get nowhere near to the levels found in things like coffee, fried goods such as potato chips and bread – all of which can be organically grown and processed, yet may still result in acrylamide formation when cooked. The Sepigel example only ever contained acrylamide in the 100-200 parts per million level and as the ingredient is usually used at anywhere between 1-5% in a product the risks of getting cancer from acrylamide in a moisturiser based on that ingredient are so small as to be practically insignificant but that didn’t matter. The process was cleaned up, acrylamide levels dropped to below 10ppm (probably the lowest detectable or practical level), and everyone was happier (and theoretically safer), than they were before.
This is just one example of how the cosmetics industry is constantly cleaning, pruning and refining, there are many more which is why I have much more than faith in the cosmetics industries ability to keep products safer, greener and cleaner. I have scientific evidence, research papers and my own toils but that doesn’t mean it is all perfect, nothing is perfect.
So, when it comes to my position on the ‘toxic ingredients’ that are in cosmetics, I say this. Yes, there are some ingredients that people are allergic to (after my chemistry degree and years of formulating, I too have some contact dermatitis issues), but with such a diverse range of products on the market, AND the fact that in most countries now the ingredients must be labelled this, is now less of an issue for sensitive souls. Yes, there are some ingredients used in cosmetic products that can bio-accumulate, (some fat-soluble vitamins that make it through the skin along with a few pigments, some solvents and perfume ingredients), and yes this could potentially cause problems especially when chemicals are found in breast milk and bodily tissues – nobody wants to feel like a chemical waste dump. However, these chemicals are assessed for their risk in a cosmetic formulation and are used under strict guidelines to avoid or at the very least reduce the potential for the ingredients to get through the cells and into the bloodstream where they could cause harm. The fact that our exposure to bio-accumulating chemicals comes from a variety of sources not least food, household cleaning products, paints and resins and many other routes is un-nerving, and I agree that we should work towards a cleaner, greener future but we are not likely to get anywhere without a tad more understanding.
So getting back to our carrot brand, it is time to look at what it is that offended my science tuned ears and eyes, and it’s all to do with sodium coceth sulphate.
‘Yes To Carrots’ has a range of shampoos that are SLS free. This is nothing unique as many brands claim to be devoid of the once main-stay of the hair cleaning formulation SLS, (the milder cousin of SLES, (SLS is sodium lauryl sulphate and SLES is ethoxylated to increase its activity sodium laureth sulphate)). These were some of the first ingredients to be sullied with the ‘toxic’ and ‘nasty’ chemical tag because they are ‘harsh’ on the skin, can cause contact dermatitis and are also used in industrial cleaning products, (as are water, glycerine and essential oils). Concerned individuals helped raise awareness of this so-called skin pollutant via viral e-mails, magazine articles and finally via the likes of the Environmental Working Group and the Skin Deep Chemical Database, (which gives the family of SLS/SLES ingredients hazard ratings of between 3-4 or ‘moderately hazardous’).
As I have mentioned before, there is nothing wrong with ‘Yes To Carrots’ stating that they are not putting an ingredient into their formula, as long as they are not putting it into their formula. However, upon inspection, I see that the second ingredient in the list is ‘Sodium Coceth Sulfate’, which makes me think “what’s that then?”
Coceth is the term for coco or coconut, which is basically what the backbone of the ‘Yes To Carrots’ key surfactant is made of. Coconuts contain fatty acids of the C12 (lauryl) and C14 (myristyl) variety with a little C8 (capryl) throw in. So far so good, only the Lauryl that’s in the sodium lauryl and laureth sulfate that is so bad is also derived from coconut or palm, and is just the C12 fraction rather than the full Monty. So does this affect the safety of the ingredient? Well according to the Skin Deep Database that is a big YES, as it gets a hazard rating of 0, which I find a little hard to swallow being as though it is practically the SAME THING AS THE ETHOXYLATED SODIUM LAURETH SULFATE!
Having sold my fair share of surfactants over the years, (working with products from Stepan, Hallstar, Akzo, ICI and Huntsman), I thought I would check out the material safety data sheet for this one to see what the manufacturers thought. Well, would you believe it; the sheet actually specifies that the handling hazards for Sodium Coceth Sulfate are ‘equivalent to that of Sodium Lauryl Sulfate’. I suspected as much and this is why:
- Chemically Sodium laureth Sulfate and Sodium Coceth Sulfate are so similar that they are practically interchangeable as the only difference is the cut of the tail chain. The length of the tail end of the surfactant does make a difference to the ingredients irritancy potential and surfactant properties but not when the difference is as minor as this. If you had a C8 tail and pitched it against a C18 tail surfactant you would expect bigger differences as the irritating head group makes up a smaller percentage of the overall chemical thus making it less irritating. However, very long tails and small heads make the surfactant less able to do its job, which isn’t such a good thing. Just to re-iterate, these two chemicals are practically identical in the tail department.
- Secondly, both the coceth and the laureth have been ethoxylated, or reacted with ethylene oxide, which is something that many “natural” and practically all “organic” brands want to avoid. Why? Because ethoxylation usually, (but not always), comes from petroleum, and many brands want to be petroleum chemistry free. As both of these have been ethoxylated, there seems no scientific basis to call one “toxic” and the other “safe”.
- Thirdly, and very importantly, if formulated and sourced correctly, (from responsible manufacturers), neither sodium laureth sulfate or sodium coceth sulfate need be irritating or “toxic” at all. In fact, you can even get Sodium Laureth Sulfate in a 100% natural form now as Rhodia, (among others), have perfected the art of making ethylene oxide from vegetable feedstock rather than petroleum.
- Fourth, and finally, it has to be mentioned that the ‘Yes To Carrots’ website doesn’t actually mention which version of sodium coceth sulfate they are talking about. There are a few varieties with differing surface activity based on the amount of ethylene oxide that they contain with some being as high as 30 moles and some as low as 2. Being as it is probably this that plays a large role in how effective a surfactant or degreaser the ingredient is, I would have thought that this would have been mentioned, but no.
So, ‘Yes To Carrots’, I agree with you that we should eat more veg, and I applaud you for setting up your seed fund to invest in sustainable agriculture, education, and organic gardening, but I can’t give you a pass mark on your chemistry. The thing that I get most disappointed about is, as I mentioned at the beginning of this piece, our love of a band wagon and the haste with which we jump on board, waving goodbye to our independent minds as we let a chance for growth slip us by. We say that we value freedom of speech, but what good is it if we can’t be bothered to think freely, to question and to engage in debate? ‘Yes To Carrots’ look to have been excited by the prospect of marketing a “toxic free” range, but something seems to have been lost in the translation as their version of “non-toxic” is both different from mine and to the folks at the Environmental Working Group, (‘Yes To Carrots’ do contain petroleum derivatives, Propylene Glycol (haz rating 4), PEG-40 Stearate (haz rating 4-7) Fragrance (8) and Dimethicone (2-3)). While I don’t view any of these things as toxins, the brands target audience just might, and that strikes me as a little unfair.
The ability to think things through from first principals, to build on an idea, to gather and appraise evidence for both sides of the argument, seems to be a dying and undervalued skill in our modern society. If I had one wish, it would be that ‘Yes To Carrots’ get behind my cause and start saying YES to more science, and NO to un-substantiated urban myths, as it’s going to take a whole lot of thinking and experimenting to clean up the mess that we’ve all made. This isn’t band camp so let’s all get off the wagon.