First we learnt about additives and E numbers in our food. Then we became aware of organic, free range, food miles and the benefits of wholefoods rather than processed. Consequently we are much better informed about the composition and provenance of our food. We are what we eat, indeed.
How does this relate to grooming and beauty products? Well, if we have become so concerned about what we put into our bodies, shouldn’t we be equally vigilant about what we put on them? You might think that products bearing the words ‘natural’, ‘organic’ and ‘pure’ are exactly that, but you’d be wrong. There is no legal definition of those descriptions. They’re just another word, like ‘lovely’.
This issue concerns men as well as women. Many of the ingredients in our shampoos, deodorants, toothpastes, shower gels, perfumes and aftershaves, hair gels and other grooming products are chemicals. All have been cleared by the appropriate bodies for legal use. What should concern us is that there is insufficient data on the effects of long-term use of these compounds.
All products need some form of preservative to give them longevity. We like our soaps, shower gels and toothpaste to foam, confusing lather with efficiency. That requires chemicals to produce that effect. And we like our creams to be smooth and silky, which necessitates the addition of other chemicals.
What are these nasty chemicals?
Now comes the science. Sodium Lauryl Sulphate (SLS) and Sodium Laureth Sulphate (SLES) are foaming agents used in many of the products mentioned above. Sodium lauryl sulphate is not only used in soaps and shampoos, but also in products employed to de-grease car engines or to clean your car. SLS can be absorbed into the body through the skin. It cannot be metabolised by the liver. Once it has been absorbed, it can mimic the activity of the hormone oestrogen.
Phthalates are compounds that can disrupt the endocrine system by mimicking our hormones. They are used to make shampoos, lotions and powders, perfumes, aftershaves and deodorants. They are also used in insect repellent and rocket propellant.
Parabens are the compounds that most of us might have heard of, because many products are now branded as ‘paraben-free’. These chemicals are used as preservatives to fight bacteria and fungus, giving longevity to the products we buy. As long ago as 2002 the Toyko Metropolitan Research Laboratory of Public Health reported that parabens can adversely affect the function of the male reproductive system.
Although all chemicals used in the products we buy are judged to be safe and legal, I have tried to buy paraben-free and SLS-free ever since I interviewed broadcaster Sarah Beeny about a documentary she made on the subject several years ago.
“We slather on moisturiser, make-up and lip gloss, spray ourselves with deodorants and scents, without any thought as to how much our bodies are absorbing,” Beeny said at the time. “Yet if you think about nicotine patches, which seep through the skin into the bloodstream, why would baby cream or moisturiser be any different?”
There has been very little research into the long-term effect of using all those chemicals, she said. While they had all been tested individually, had the effects of using a broad spectrum of chemicals been considered? It certainly was food for thought.
Since then I have searched out brands that have tried to minimise the use of such chemicals. Recently I have noticed that many established brands are now proclaiming themselves to be paraben- and SLS-free. One such brand is Ahava, made from Dead Sea minerals and mud, which has proven regenerative and age-delaying qualities that promote softer, smoother skin.
“We haven’t always been paraben-free but, over the past five years or so, we have been taking the parabens out and replacing them with preservatives,” says Pat Strutt, UK managing director of Ahava UK. “We’re replacing the SLS and SLEs too, to make the product more natural.
“There has to be some form of preservative, however. If there were none it wouldn’t last a week once it was opened. It would be like a bottle of milk.”
Ahava’s extensive range of facial care, moisturisers and bath and shower products are kind to the skin and effective, but it’s been a long battle. “Taking out preservatives is a lot more difficult than we thought. It makes the product unstable, so we have had to reformulate from scratch.”
Men’s skin matters too
It is not just products for women that are going chemical-free. Male skincare brand Bulldog was created because Simon Duffy discovered that the products his girlfriend (now wife) used were much kinder to her skin than his were.
“The idea came about when I realised that all the products she used were natural, with no nasty chemicals. But when I went out to find some for myself there was nothing on the shelves,” he says. “A shop assistant told me to use women’s skincare products instead.” And thus a gap in the market was plugged when Duffy launched Bulldog.
Bulldog moisturisers, shower gels and aftershave balm are now available at Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Waitrose, Boots, Planet Organic and Whole Foods.
Other ranges to look out for include REN, Aveda, Caudalie, Darphin, Liz Earle, Chantecaille, Nars, Kiehl’s, Tisserand and Space NK’s own brands, and that’s not the half of them. So, while the jury is out on the long-term effect of chemicals in skincare, surely with a growing number of products that have stripped them out, it’s easier to give them a wide berth?