Chemicals In Hair Care Products – HAPPI –

The Hair’s The Thing column lists eight separate categories of common ingredients found in hair care cosmetics. Just about everything listed is either not true or has not been used in hair care products. The purpose of this listing is to scare consumers about competitive products and by deceptively advertising their products as being “free of” these ingredients.

The latest scare concerns endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs). What are they? An endocrine-disrupting compound was defined by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as “an exogenous agent that interferes with synthesis, secretion, transport, metabolism, binding action, or elimination of natural blood-borne hormones that are present in the body and are responsible for homeostasis, reproduction, and developmental process.” Notice the comment, “IN THE BODY.” So don’t eat cosmetics!

EDCs replaced parabens, which replaced phthalates, which replaced sulfates, which replaced isopropyl alcohol , which replaced formaldehyde, which replaced silicones, which replaced synthetic perfumes, which replaced keratin, which replaced etc. etc. etc. as the “bad “guys in cosmetics.

Here are the facts.

  • Parabens: Years ago, a paper was published in the UK claiming that parabens caused breast cancer from their use in underarm antiperspirants. The facts: Parabens were introduced in 1920 as a preservative to protect cosmetics, drugs and foods from contamination by bacteria, yeast and mold. They remain as the most used preservatives because they work as stated in low level, are inexpensive, are safe and the study from the UK was withdrawn. Why was the study withdrawn? The number of subjects in the tests was eight! The author’s controls show higher breast cancer than those with parabens. Parabens have never been used in underarm antiperspirants. And even if they were used, how would they get from the underarm to the breast? APs do not penetrate the skin. So, I assume they take a car to get from the underarm to the breast.
  • Phthalates: Three different esters were cited as being bad. The usual problem was reproductive harm when ingested. Diethylhexyl phthalate is the most common one. Like all the esters, the most frequent use is to soften plastics. An example is plastic shower curtains. We did not use this ester in cosmetics. Dibutyl phthalate (DBP)is the second most commonly used phthalate in plastics. We have used this for years in nail polish. It is impossible (with one exception) to get exposure to DBP from nail polish. When nail polish is applied to the nail and dried, it becomes a hard plastic. Even if you chewed your nails and swallowed this as you could not get exposure to DBP as it remains incapsulated in the plastic (nitrocellulose) used in nail polish. Of course, the exception is if you are a termite, as they are the major known organism that can digest cellulose! Diethyl Phthalate (DEP) was commonly used in fragrances . The safety review organization reviewed the safety of all three phthalates in 1985, 2005 and 2017 and found that they were safe to use in cosmetics. Because of the “phthalate-free” craze, we no longer use these in cosmetics.
  • Sulfates: The “free of” marketers cause more problems claiming sulfate free than any other chemical. This has resulted in litigation over false advertising. If you mean sodium lauryl sulfate-free say it, not sulfate free. There are two Sulfates that were attacked—sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) and sodium lauryl ether sulfate (SLES) also known in correct labeling as sodium laureth sulfate. Sometimes, instead of sodium, ammonia was used as these products are stable at pHs below 7 where sodium salts are used above 7. So, what are the facts? In the beginning we shampooed our hair with soap . Soap is defined as the reaction of natural fats and oils with bases like sodium hydroxide. There were several drawbacks to using soap. It did not foam well, it left the hair with a dull appearance (unless you used soft water —and the only place I found soft water in the house was in Suffolk County in New York) as the minerals reacted with soap to form insoluble products.

The history of sulfate free shows how strong marketing terms lead to the bad label of “sulfates.” It started by a couple who worked in a hair salon. They found that dyed hair lost a small amount of the hair color when shampooed with SLS. They then started their hair products company for “professional use only.” The “does not contain SLS” soon turned into “sulfate free,” and the rest is history. The issues are that sulfates are found in most surfactants as salts and barium sulfate is a critical ingredient in makeup.

  • Isopropyl Alcohol (IPA): The presence of IPA is due to the emergency approvals for hand sanitizers during the Covid crisis. They were prohibited to be on the market as of January 1, 2022. The use of IPA is allowed in topical drugs. Putting IPA in shampoos cuts the viscosity and tends to dry hair. Viscosity is more important than dry hair. The author has confused IPA with alcohol. Alcohol is the drug name and INCI name for ethanol or ethyl alcohol . Most gels used on hair are water based, not IPA- or alcohol-based. Hair sprays always contain alcohol.
  • Formaldehyde: The author uses the term methylene glycol which is the correct name for formaldehyde gas dissolved in water. Other names for this include methanal, methylene oxide, oxymethyline. I have no idea what oxo methane is. Formaldehyde is a naturally occurring chemical found in every cell in our bodies. Most people were introduced to formaldehyde solution in biology classes when they dissected fish and frogs. As they had a strong odor and was yucky to use, it quickly got a bad name. It was and is still used a preservative. We do not use it in cosmetics because of its unpopularity. It is very cheap and is frequently used in parts per million to preserve raw materials. 5-Bromo-5-nitro-1,3-dioxane, DMDM hydantoin, imidazolidinyl urea and quaternium-15 (no longer manufactured) are unique chemicals made from the chemical reaction with other chemicals. Depending on the final chemical, they can rapidly release methylene glycol or slowly release it and kill bacteria in water-based systems. They were very popular preservatives and very safe to use. But this led to them getting bad names by speakers who were looking for excuses to condemn competitive products. As this negative publicity resulted in restricting or prohibiting their use.

About 10-15 years ago, “Brazilian Blowout” hair treatments became the rage. The treatment to hair, led to smooth, straight hair with a glossy look that lasted for months. The problems were the failure of salons to have proper ventilation so the rooms smelled of formaldehyde solution. As the treatment took about 4-5 hours to do properly, this exposure without proper ventilation led to health issues.

  • Silicones: Silicones are a family of chemicals which are made from organic materials and silicon. Their first use was to water-proof material for tents used in WW II. There are over 100 silicones used in cosmetics. They started by their addition to creams and lotions to prevent foaming which appears as a white film that works into the skin. A major breakthrough was the use of silicones in shampoos which resulted in 2-in-1 products that cleaned the hair and also prevented tangling and hair breakage.

Regarding the question of silicones being endocrine disrupters as noted in the column, here’s insight. The starting material to make all silicones is D4 or INCI Tetracyclodimethicone. This is very volatile and is only available now as a starting ingredient that is not found in any commercial silicone. The safety of silicones has been proven for decades. We ingest drugs consisting of siloxanes to eliminate gas in the stomach.

  • Synthetic perfumes: Fragrances are mixtures of many chemicals to give the aroma or smell that consumers want. In the beginning, the starting materials were “naturally” occurring oils or simple extracts. These were frequently called essential oils but they are not really natural as the common process of steam extraction, changes the composition. All of the materials used, whether they are synthetic chemicals, natural extracts or essential oils, function in the same way. They are inhaled and we get the results. Consumers are sensitive to many if not all of these materials. We started making synthetic aroma chemicals as they are the same purity in every batch. Compare this to what a flower smells like and it will vary every day.

The safety of all these components is performed by Research Institute for Fragrance Materials (RIFM). RIFM sets the standards, runs safety testing and establish maximum use levels in all applications, which includes cosmetics, drugs, detergents, floor polishes, candles, etc. It would be an unpopular world without them! Products sold as “fragrance-free” usually contain fragrance to block the smell of the chemicals used in products, so they have little or no odor.

  • Keratin: This is an important protein found in skin, hair and nails. It can be reacted with other chemicals to give other properties. Listing it as a harmful chemical makes no sense!

In 1538, Paracelsus said “the dose makes the poison.” Just think that a dropper of H2O (aka water) will kill you. It is called drowning! For too many, label claims, not facts, are enough. Too many companies use false claims to convince consumers to buy the product. Cosmetics are required to be safe and labeled correctly. If a consumer has a question about the safety of a product or ingredient, she/he can contact the name and address on the product and ask for the safety data. If they refuse, just contact the FDA. Do not contact the EWG as its science is just a little bit ahead of Chicken Little who proclaimed “The sky is falling!” Consumers should boycott any product that tries to sell them something on what it doesn’t contain instead of what it does contain.

In time, perhaps the US will adopt what Canada did to stop this “free of” nonsense. To make this claim in Canada you must first have the product registered with the government. Then you must prove to the government, using an outside testing lab, that there is none (that means zero) of this chemical in your product. Then and only then can you label your product “free of” whatever. But this claims is allowed for only one year. At the end of one year, it must be removed from the shelf. No sell-through is permitted. When Canada adopted this, the retail stores did not want to be bothered policing products in their stores. Their answer—we don’t want it! 

David C. Steinberg established Steinberg & Associates, 1995. On Dec. 31, 2021, he retired as president but remains available to the company as founder. With more than 50 years of industry experience, he a world-renowned industry expert whose preservative knowledge is second to none. He founded the Master’s Program in Cosmetic Sciences at Fairleigh Dickinson University and has taught many courses, including chemistry of skin care, chemistry of hair care ingredients, cosmetic raw material regulations, and preservatives for cosmetics. In 2006 he founded the Cosmetic Preservative Council and served as Executive Director. He is a Regulatory Affairs Professional Fellow and has served as Chapter Chair, National Treasurer and National President of the Society of Cosmetic Chemists. He served on the Board of Directors for the Independent Beauty Association (IBA, previously ICMAD) for many years. He has received many awards, including Eminent Visiting Scholar Virginia State University, Paper of the Year Australian Society of Cosmetic Chemists, and Society of Cosmetic Chemists Merit Award. He is a featured speaker at many industry events and always provides a unique perspective that many find invaluable.


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