The trouble with clean

MICHELLE ROBINSON
Last updated 05:00 29/07/2012

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Washing our hair, wearing deodorant, spraying perfume and doing the laundry are everyday routines, but ones that could be exposing us to harmful chemicals.

Many shampoos, hair products, soaps, moisturisers, deodorants, perfumes, makeup, detergents and cleaning agents contain allergy-inducing and even hormone-altering, toxic chemicals.

While many people are diligent about reading product labels, few know what to really look for, a recent Colmar Brunton market research survey found.

Since 2009, cosmetic products have had to carry a label listing what's in them and now the Environmental Protection Authority has gone further, ruling nanoparticles must also be listed.

Consumers are becoming increasingly aware of which ingredients they buy and which they avoid, but the survey found 57 per cent of the 1103 questioned didn't know which chemicals were considered harmful.

Just a third knew of the risks of sodium lauryl sulphate, an emulsifier and detergent widely found in moisturisers, toothpaste, shampoo and body wash.

It is also a known skin-irritant that's considered toxic to human organs, and is used in industrial floor cleaners, engine degreasers and car-wash soaps.

A quarter of respondents knew of concerns surrounding parabens, found in a range of personal-care products. The petrochemical-derived preservative mimics the female hormone oestrogen and has been linked to cancer tumours.

New Zealanders have traditionally been slow to pick up on the health and environmental harm of household products, Colmar Brunton managing director Jacqueline Ireland says. But that's changing.

"It's becoming a bigger issue for consumers. Things like phosphates, synthetic dyes, ammonium, aluminium and chlorine - they don't sound that great, and they are connected to different skin conditions."

About two-thirds of survey respondents had someone in their household with a skin condition.

"We didn't expect it to be that high. People reported eczema and dermatitis, but there were also things like psoriasis and rosacea," Ireland says.

"It seems a lot more prevalent than in the past."

Ecostore founder and chief executive Malcolm Rands says he often hears from customers close to giving up on a cure for various skin conditions, before finding more natural remedies can be beneficial.

"People complain of sneezing, rashes, eczema and even asthma."

He says some symptoms can be attributed to common personal and household products, such as laundry detergent, because residue is designed to stick to the fabric and the skin. While our clothes smell nice, enzymes designed to eat at dirt, and that are activated in moist and warm conditions, can affect the skin.

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"These chemicals are up against our skin all the time. They clean so well that they take away the skin's natural protective layer and are absorbed into our tissues. There's no protection. We're not designed to sit around in pools of chemicals all day."

People forget the skin is an organ with the ability to absorb whatever is on its surface, Rands says. Even that familiar baby smell may not be all it's cracked up to be, given that baby oil was a refined petrochemical often used in transformer coolant.

"People think it moisturises their skin because it's nice and greasy, but it clogs the pores without doing any real benefit.

"There are mineral oils, propylene glycol in moisturisers and sodium lauryl sulphate, which is plant-based and biodegradable, so people think it's good. But snake venom is natural too."

Propylene glycol is found in pharmaceutical solvents and antifreeze, and was also used to disperse oil spills. But the skin irritant was also added to conditioners, moisturisers and baby products. Rand says jojoba, coconut oil and shea butter were all healthy alternatives because they acted similarly to the skin's natural fatty protective layer, the acid mantle, whereas chemical products strip the skin's protective layer, causing irritation.

And even "green" products are not beyond reproach.

"Sodium lauryl sulphate is cheap and effective at ripping through grease. It's used in industrial floor cleaners and engine degreasers, as well as shampoos, shaving foam, toothpaste and hand soap, because it's foamy. It rips off the skin's mantle, but because its plant-based, companies can use it without it damaging their eco-credentials."

Consumers appear to be wising up. The Colmar Brunton survey found 81 per cent of respondents got annoyed when companies tried to pass products off as being healthier than they were.

But Otago University chemistry professor Lyall Hanton believes a balanced approach is best, saying chemicals are not inherently unhealthy.

"Many of us are scared of chemicals, but everything we have in modern society is made of them."

It was a fact of life some people were more sensitive to exposure than others, but many of the products contained such a small amount of chemicals they were unlikely to do significant damage.

"Many chemicals used in shampoos and cosmetics have been around for a long time. Parabens, for example, are 'benign-ish'.

"It's a complex world [for] product manufacturing and you may need some antibacterials in products to give them a decent shelf-life," he says.

Chemistry had also led to product improvements like dishwasher tablets with sodium hydroxide ingredients in compact cubes, cutting back on skin exposure.

"Do we want to go back to old-fashioned products that use [inorganic chemical] phosphate? Detergents are now more benign for the environment," he says.

- Sunday Star Times

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