31 August 2009

Parabens - Hype or a concern?

Parabens are used in cosmetics because they exhibit broad spectrum anti-fungal and antibacterial activity, that is, they kill fungi and bacteria that may contaminate and spoil cosmetics. You are most likely to encounter them in moisturisers, skin care lotions and creams, shampoo, sunscreen, gels and shaving creams. Parabens occur in nature (more about that later), but are mostly synthetically produced by the esterification of para-hydroxy benzoic acid (pHBA); hence, the name: paraben. pHBA is an organic acid found in most plants and used in many metabolic pathways by plants. Parabens are easy and cheap to synthesize, and therefore attractive to the cost-conscious cosmetic's industry. The most common are:
  • methylparaben
  • ethylparaben
  • propylparaben
  • butylparaben
  • isobutylparaben
Parabens have not been shown to cause cancer and the American Cancer Society disavows the rumours out there that say otherwise. So then, what is the concern? In 1999 researchers discovered that parabens and their precursor, pHBA exhibited estogenicity, that is, they mimic estrogen activity. Since upwards of 80% of all breast cancers rely on estrogen to fuel their growth, this is of concern. In 2004, Phillipa Darbre et al discovered parabens in breast cancer tumours. This was not a causal link, but warranted further study. Indeed, the EU limits parabens in cosmetics to 0.4% per paraben type and a maximum of 0.8% for a combination of parabens. There are no similar limits in North America. Search 'paraben' in the EWG's Skin Deep Cosmetic Database and you will find a wide array of concerns. Darbe followed up in 2005 specifically looking at the estrogenic activity of the paraben metabolite p-hydroxybenzoic acid (pHBA). She capped it off with the 2008 study, Paraben esters: review of recent studies of endocrine toxicity, absorption, esterase and human exposure, and discussion of potential human health risks and not only confirmed the intact transmission of parabens across the skin barrier into the blood and urine, but concluded that we simply don't know enough to declare parabens safe and as such the precautionary principle might be useful until we know more.

So, where does this leave us? Well, at the very least if you want to avoid parabens, you are going to have to read labels and ask questions. Companies may claim that parabens occur in nature. pHBA certainly does, but it's estrogenicity is thousands of times less than paraben esters. Methylparaben can be found in strawberries and blueberries - but in minute concentrations, far less than you will find in typical synthetic paraben ester laden lotions, potions, sprays and shampoos. If you are concerned about estrogenicity, you might want to avoid parabens, synthetic and natural alike, though synthetic paraben esters will be many times the concentration than those paraben precursors that are found in nature.

What we can look for is further research on the subject, with particular interest in whether there is a causal relationship between certain cancers and paraben (and/or other environmental estrogen mimics) exposure. Until then, there are many proven alternatives out there, so if you want to avoid synthetic parabens, it's not only possible, but relatively easy with a little homework and label reading.

22 August 2009

What is Soap anyway?

I get a lot of questions at Rocky Mountain Soap about, well ... Soap, as I guess I should since we sell more than 30 different kinds! The most common questions are: "What is soap anyway?", "Is your soap natural?" and "Do you have glycerin soap?", so let's address these here.

What is soap anyway? : in lay terms it is the product of an oil reacted with lye or potassium/sodium hydroxide. You take almost any oil - olive, coconut, and almond oils are very
common - and you mix it usually with KOH (potassium hydroxide) and/or NaOH (sodium hydroxide) and a gelatinous slippery material is produced - i.e. soap. KOH and NaOH historically were derived by pouring water through wood ash - this is rarely they case anymore - but the reaction is a natural one, and both materials occur naturally. Indeed, Pliny the Elder mentions this in his Historia Naturalis (AD 79), so we have been using soap for a long time. As you can see from the picture to the right, soap comes in solid form, but it also comes in liquid that is dispensed as is. Recently companies have been aspirating glycerin enhanced liquid soaps to produce a very luxurious and natural foaming wash. Of course natural soap may just be that, without any additions. However, for those that like texture or scents or colours, essential oils and extracts are used, such as lavender essential oil or apricot fruit extract to name but a few. Colours are usually natural earth minerals and textures such as pumice, seeds, grains and even coffee are sometimes added for look, feel or exfoliating purposes.

Is your soap natural?: If soap is produced in the above manner, it is considered natural. However, most 'soap' these days is hardly natural, and sometimes isn't even soap. Detergents, which contain no actual soap are often formed into bars with added moisturisers. Dishwashing liquid is also usually just a detergent with synthetic fragrances added. Most detergents contain harsh surfactants like SLS, SLES or Coco Betaine etc. Rocky Mountain Soap's products are all 100% natural. If you are unsure, read the ingredient list, if there is one. It should say something like saponified oils of coconut (insert oil of choice here) - but if it says something like "derived from" coconut (etc) oil, then you might want to question how it was derived...

Do you have glycerin soap?: All real soap has glycerin. The oil molecules that real soap is made from contain a component called glycerol on one end. In the saponification reaction, this is converted to glycerin. In commercial soap production, the glycerin is often skimmed off, and sold for industrial purposes, as it is quite valuable. Natural soap makers usually leave all the glycerin in their soap because it has natural cleaning and moisturising abilities. This is what helps give the soap its silky and slippery feel. It is also a natural humectant, that is, it attracts moisture - another reason that you will also find it in natural moisturisers. However, many people think of those clear, almost see through soaps when they think of glycerin soap. This is simply because alcohol has been added during the soap making process. Aesthetically, this might be more pleasing to some, but alcohol is drying and helps defeat the purpose of glycerin being left in the soap in the first place.

Soap is a pretty simple product - yet there are a variety of issues surrounding it. Read ingredient labels and when in doubt, ask your soap retailer for clarification so that you get what you really think you are buying. Natural matters!

10 August 2009

Are your Essential Oils pure?

Adulteration: the willful and purposeful addition of cheaper oils, oil fractions, by-products, isolates, natural and/or unnatural synthetics, to reduce the cost of the oil. Essential oils are becoming more and more popular with the general consumer. As holistic and natural health trends increase, people are becoming more interested in aromatherapy and essential oils and their benefits. I can remember 15 years ago trying to find chamomile essential oil and having to finally mail order for it. Now, the consumer has a reasonable expectation to find most common essential oils in their local heath food store, aromatherapy shop or even local mall. With rising popularity often confusion follows. Aren't all essential oils the same? Well they should be, but sadly, the adage caveat emptor is best followed. Because essential oils are, depending on the oil, comparatively expensive in small amounts, there exists the temptation to dilute them to make them go further. This is called adulteration.

Adulteration occurs in a number of ways. (i) Addition: invisible, where a vegetable or mineral oil is added to dilute the essential oil (EO) or visible, the addition of a constituent like alcohol, (ii) Mixture: with cheaper essential oils such as Rosemary EO being diluted with eucalyptus and/or white camphor oils, and (iii) Synthetic "nature identical" addition, such as when bergamot EO is adulterated with linalol and/or linalyl acetate. The only way to confirm if adulteration has occurred is through gas chromatography (GC) and manufacturers using essential oils should request an HPLC (liquid chromatography) test of the essential oils they are buying from their supplier to ensure strict compliance.

The reason for this is that the essential oils must be pure to provide the benefits that they promise and are expected. Adulteration can reduce and/or remove these properties and even introduce undesirable ones.
  • EO's contain many powerful antioxidants
  • Many EO's facilitate the release of endorphins
  • EO's are often immune system stimulants
  • Some EO's are natural chelators
  • EO's are often antibacterial, antifungal, antiviral
  • EO's can act as nutrient transport agents to cells
  • Most EO's contain terpenes that are beneficial to cellular function
As a consumer, ask your supplier of essential oils or your favourite natural personal care products store if they are sure that not only are their oils natural, but free from adulteration. If you make your own natural bath and body products, check with your supplier. For further information and as a starting point, I have found AromaWeb interesting and useful.