Is it safe?
It is a simple question to ask about an ingredient but harder to quantify.
Do we mean safe for the people in the factory to make?
Safe for the packers to handle in bulk?
Safe to transport?
Safe to formulate with?
Safe to use on our skin?
Safe for our bathroom surfaces?
Safe for the soil?
For our septic tank?
Or the mainstream waterway that it will eventually end up swimming in?
Well I’ve been looking at all of these and have found on more than one occasion that some synthetics outperform their natural counterparts.
Before I go on and show you the examples I want to make it quite clear that I sympathise with the natural way, not least because of the sustainability argument – fossil fuel usage isn’t good on any level and is used as a feedstock for most if not all ‘synthetic’ ingredients I looked at – but also emotionally. Like many of you I enjoy the mental pictures that I conjure up when reading of a natural surfactant based on sugar or a preservative picked from a rose. It sounds much more romantic, free and liberating than ‘this was once coal or dirty, dirty oil’. But romance isn’t helpful when it comes to planetary health and safety I guess…….
Anyway, I’ve looked at a couple of examples here and will spend the next few weeks building on this data. My motivation for doing this is for professional development – when it comes to formulating for really sensitive skin I want to make ingredient choices based on the safest and least-likely to cause issue ingredients rather than what looks good on the label. Secondly my motivation is personal, I have pretty bad skin in terms of eczema and general itchiness and often come a cropper in terms of irritations, rashes and sores. I have only just finished a course of antibiotics for an infection caused by dirt getting trapped under my Wedding ring and pushed into a cut that was there because I scratch too much. I have often talked on the blog about eczema and about how many products claim to be good or suitable for people with this condition purely on the basis that they are all natural or organic. Very few people have their claims actually tested and fewer still get their eczema product TGA approved. When, like me your skin erupts and tries to kill you the minor details of ‘proof’ and ‘evidence’ start to look way more motivating in terms of directing my choice than the fact that the product contains pure organic coconut oil or whatever.
So here is what I found so far:
Ingredient Selection was based on what I COMMONLY use, I basically just went with the main ingredients in my toolbox. Yes there probably are safer examples and alternatives out there in the natural camp and more dangerous synthetics but the ingredients below are widely used and typically found – just check the back of packs on the cosmetic counter to check!
- Decyl Glucoside is a commonly used natural alternative to Polysorbate 20 in terms of spritzer solubiliser. It is much more irritating to the eyes than the latter, synthetic alternative. However, more importantly it has much higher long-term toxicity to aquatic life than Polysorbate 20. This is probably not what people choosing natural cosmetics want to hear – not as safe on EITHER count. The other commonly used synthetic solubiliser is PEG-40 Hydrogenated Castor oil and that too trumped Decyl Glucoside as a safer alternative.
- Emulsifier wise I was confused that the natural alternative to the Cetearyl alcohol, ceteareth-20 seemed to be much safer given the fact that both are predominantly cetearyl alcohol and that is the biggest contributor to irritation potential. As long as the data I have for cetearyl alcohol is correct I’d bet that both of the above would be on a par in terms of eco and skin safety. Interestingly there was little information available on the olive derived ingredient although I’m going to spend a bit more time looking for that and will go back and ask the manufacturer to see if they have any updates on the MSDS I have.
- Surfactant wise while both of those are natural the caprylyl-capryl glucoside being a sugar based non-ionic is often touted as the safest choice. This, along with Decyl Glucoside (a solubiliser and surfactant) are clearly not as safe as we expect them to be based on MSDS sheet analysis.
- Natural preservatives seem to be equally troublesome in terms of their potential to irritate or damage eyes although environmentally all that I looked at were OK. I guess this matters more when you are looking to preserve spray products or eye creams as eye irritation would be less of a concern otherwise.
- Chelating agents are where we get a favouring towards natural as the sodium phytate has better skin compatibility than EDTA although environmentally there is little issue (EDTA biodegradation does require an alkaline soil though). The big difference here is the price with EDTA being well under a third of the price per dose of Sodium Phytate.
- Essential Oils are the last thing I will mention. We can probably imagine that it won’t be nice to put these in our eyes it was interesting to see that things like Lemon Oil are pretty terrible for fish. This matters more for bulk transport than in our cosmetics but I did think it was worth considering as transport these things we must!
After looking at the little bit of work I’ve already done in this regard I feel that it really is time we stopped with this over-simplistic mindset of ‘natural looking ingredient name’ is better. It is possible that over time scientists could replace the petroleum feedstock for something else to produce things like Polysorbate 20, Cetereth-20 or Phenoxyethanol making these things completely natural and more sustainable too. However, what incentive is there to do that with all the ingredient prejudice there is and the fact that the general public is clearly easily influenced by a cute story and an innocent looking label name. I have to face facts too, even though I’ve known that things like Decyl Glucoside aren’t actually as ‘safe’ as polysorbate 20 for many years I’ve only just put pen to paper and sat down to fully research this. Was I sucked in too or was I just too tired to get up and fight the rolling waves of shallow thinking……
I want to make products that are non irritating and both myself and my client base prefer them to be all-natural. However, I simply MUST look to the future and encourage the use of the SAFEST technology and ingredients possible. When it comes to the crunch I care much more about the future of the planet than the fashion for shallow decision-making processes.
Let’s get innovative!