Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Breaking Down Beauty: Tampons & Dioxins

Why start with dioxins, you ask?  Well, this whole discussion about possibly toxic beauty got started with two things.  

The first was a rumor I heard in the late nineties and only recently asked Seth, my chemistry guru, about.  What I heard was something along the lines of, "I don't use mainstream tampons anymore because they bleach them and they get contaminated with dioxin."  Of course, I had no idea what dioxin was, but I also don't use tampons (I'm weird that way), so I didn't really think about it again until...

The second was information that I came across online that stated there are several "toxic" ingredients being used in the cosmetics industry.  The information seemed to be presented in a pretty reasonable way and I'm no chemist, but I tried just doing a general search online and came up with all kinds of things being used in cosmetics that various people were claiming to be toxic.  My thought was, "Why are they allowed to put all this stuff into cosmetics?!"  

Instead of letting the panic continue, I called Seth and and gave him the skinny.  He felt it was an interesting thing to research.  Since I had just remembered the tampon/dioxin rumor, we started there.  So, in case you were worried, we do realize that tampons aren't cosmetic.  And away we go:

Jess:  So...what the heck is dioxin?

Seth: Dioxin is the common name for the chemical compound 2,3,7,8 tetrachloro-dibenzo-dioxin...

Jess:  What the what?

Seth:  TCDD for short, it is a highly potent carcinogen.  It disrupts the ability of the body's defense system to target and kill cancer cells.  
     The plural term "dioxins" is used to refer to a group of seventeen "dioxin-like" compounds, which share the basic structure of TCDD.  But the toxicity of these compounds is between 10-1000 times lower than that of the highly toxic TCDD.  Both TCDD and these dioxin-like compounds (from here on out, we'll refer to them as just "dioxins") are monitored in the environment and regulated by the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency).

Jess:  So there are eighteen of these compounds (including TCDD) out there - how did they get out there in the first place?

Seth:  Traces of TCDD and dioxins are found in the air, soil, waste, water and food, but they aren't produced for any commercial purpose.  They are by-products of certain industrial processes.  For example, the bleaching of wood pulp with chlorine gas, the synthesis of certain herbicides, and the burning of hazardous waste.  
     Herbicides, whose synthesis produced TCDD and dioxins, such as those in Agent Orange, have been banned since 1985 by the EPA.  Non-chlorine bleaching of wood pulp has been phased in by manufacturers to eliminate that source.  Burning of waste remains as the major source of this contamination.  But food is the major source of human exposure to these compounds, which accumulate in the fatty tissue of animals.  The EPA regulates the level of these compounds in drinking water and the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) regulates the levels in food (1).  The EPA's long-term goal is to completely eliminate environmental TCDD and dioxins.

Jess:  ...Have we gotten to the tampons yet?

Seth:  Almost there.  In 1989, reports began to circulate in the media, alleging that tampons contained toxic amounts of TCDD and dioxins.  This suspicion appeared possible, since the rayon fabric in some tampons was made from wood pulp and it was known that bleaching wood pulp with chlorine gas could produce trace levels of both TCDD and dioxins (as by-products).  
     These allegations caused great concern, coming so soon after:  The implication of dioxin exposure as the cause of a variety of toxic symptoms (cancer, birth defects, immune system suppression) experienced by Vietnam veterans who were exposed to the use of Agent Orange defoliant.  And an increase in incidents of TSS (toxic shock syndrome), attributed to bacterial contamination of tampons (2).

Jess:  So some amount of TCDD and/or dioxins was found in tampons, but how much of it?

Seth:  In 1989, the EPA estimated a lifetime daily dose of TCDD/dioxin due to rayon tampon usage was equivalent to one trillionth of a gram of dioxin, accumulated over 80 years.  This was approximately one million times lower than the EPA's estimated dioxin dose due to food intake.
     Just the same, by 2000 (and some before then), tampon manufacturers had switched from chlorine gas bleaching of wood pulp to either bleaching with chlorine dioxide, or to totally chlorine-free bleaching.  Fibers made from wood pulp bleached with chlorine dioxide did not produce any detectable TCDD or dioxins using analysis methods which were sensitive to four-hundredths of a part per trillion.

Jess:  In other words...their equipment couldn't detect any.

Seth:  Precisely.  Now, despite the aforementioned EPA estimates and the switch away from chlorine gas bleaching, popular concern about tampons and TCDD/dioxins remained sufficient so that in 1997 Congress passed the Tampon Safety and Research Act to ensure that tampon materials did not contain these contaminants.  The FDA would henceforth stipulate that manufacturer submissions for tampon product approval should document testing of both tampon materials and finished tampons for TCDD and dioxins, as well as identifying the bleaching method used on wood pulp as either elemental chlorine free or totally chlorine free (3).
     In 2002, EPA scientists reported that they were able to barely detect several dioxins in rayon tampons at their method's detection limit of approximately one tenth of a part per trillion.  TCDD itself and most of the seventeen regulated dioxins could not be detected and thus were present, if at all, at levels below one tenth of a part per trillion (4).  In 2005, FDA scientists confirmed the 2002 EPA findings, using a method with a detection limit down to four hundredths of a part per trillion (5).  The FDA paper re-emphasized the fact, as have several FDA bulletins, that exposure to TCDD and dioxins in food dwarfs the exposure through tampon usage.

Jess:  So can we conclude that bleached tampons nowadays are not hazardous to our health due to TCDD or dioxins?  Or is there still some reason to only use chlorine-free/unbleached tampons?

Seth:  Today the bleaching process for tampon fabrics in the United States should be either elemental chlorine (chlorine gas)-free or totally chlorine-free.  Potential levels of TCDD or dioxins in these tampons should be either zero or so low as to not have a significant impact on health. 
     In conclusion, those who want to reduce their exposure to dioxins should consider reducing their intake of meat and fish rather than discontinuing their use of bleached tampons.  It should be noted that the early concerns over the tampon issue and the 1997 congressional action accelerated the switch away from chlorine gas bleaching of wood pulp, a significant benefit to the environment.

(1)  EPA Fact Sheet - Dioxins and Furans
(2a)  R. Sciallo, Reproductive Toxicology, 15, 231 (2001) - Tampons, Dioxins and Endometriosis; (2b)  2009 FDA Bulletin on medical device safety - Dioxin and Rayon Concerns; (2c)  2009 FDA Bulletin - Tampons and Asbestos, Dioxin and Toxic Shock Syndrome
(3)  FDA Recommendations for Submissions for Approval of Menstrual Products - 2005
(4)  M. deVito and A. Schechter, Environmental Healthy Perspectives, 110(1), 23 (2005) - Dioxin and Furan Levels found in Tampons

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Breaking Down Beauty: Definitions

Some Basic Definitions from Seth:

Before proceeding we should first agree on the definition of the following key terms: chemical, toxic, organic, synthetic chemical, natural chemical.

molecule/chemical/chemical compoundThe Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines a molecule as a group of atoms chemically bonded together, representing the smallest fundamental unit of a compound that can take part in a chemical reaction. For example, vitamin C is a molecule consisting of six carbon atoms, 8 hydrogen atoms, and 6 oxygen atoms - bound together in a specific geometrical way.  In common usage, the terms molecule, chemical and chemical compound have become interchangeable – thus, vitamin C is also considered a chemical or a chemical compound.

toxic:  The OED defines toxic as:
     (1) poisonous - The OED defines "poison" as a substance that causes death or injury when swallowed or absorbed by a living organism. Thus, the term toxic applied to a chemical present in a cosmetic infers that the chemical causes death or injury when absorbed/applied to the skin of a human subject.
     (2) relating to or caused by a poison - This definition of toxic covers a very wide range of injury, from the low end of toxicity, with a chemical which irritates the skin so as to produce an itching rash which remains for several hours and then goes away (after which one assumes you will stop using the product) without permanent injury, to the high end of toxicity with death.

Since cosmetics are often applied several times a week for long periods of time, it is certainly appropriate to investigate whether the chemicals present in cosmetics are harmful to your health. 

organic:  Organic Chemistry is the study of the compounds of carbon. So, to a chemist, the term organic applies to all carbon-based compounds, whether they are obtained from nature (vegetation, micro-organisms, animals) and are thus “natural”, or they are synthetic (man-made). 
     For example, vitamin C is found naturally in vegetation (from which it can be extracted), and it can also be synthesized in a laboratory for use in commercial vitamin supplements. It is considered organic in both cases by a chemist. Whether vitamin C is considered natural or synthetic depends only on its source (nature versus laboratory) and the actual vitamin C compound is the same whether it is extracted from a plant or made in the laboratory. 
     Over time, common usage of the term organic has morphed into an implication that something is “natural,” for example: food that has been grown without the use of man-made pesticides, herbicides and hormones, and commercial products (e.g. cosmetics) prepared with all natural (obtained from nature) ingredients, such as plant extracts. I will bow to common usage and use the common definition of organic in this series.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Breaking Down Beauty: Introduction

There is a glut of misinformation out there about beauty products and cosmetic ingredients.  It can be very hard to figure out what is true and what is misunderstood.  Misinterpretation of scientific findings can lead to erroneous and alarmist statements.  Having worked in the natural foods industry (which includes beauty products), I heard a lot of different things from supposedly reliable sources and I never thought to question the accuracy of the information or do my own research.

These days it is also becoming more difficult to separate fact from fiction because certain key words appear to have been redefined by the industry.  Seth, PhD in Chemistry from MIT, has volunteered/been coerced into exploring the different meanings of toxic, organic, synthetic, natural and chemical.  Are these terms just savvy advertising?  A way for one cosmetic company to slam another?  Or are there real reasons to worry about what companies are adding to their products?  I imagine it may be a mix of all three.

The aim of this series is to try to help you (and me, because I want to know too) sort through all the marketing, hype and misconceptions.  And to provide you with some tools to bust myths and help all of us be a little more wary of alarmist media, which I myself have fallen prey to in the past.

We will also be discussing cosmetic ingredients that people have concerns about like parabens, anti-bacterials, sodium lauryl sulfate, coloring agents and sunscreen chemicals.

Hopefully we will leave you with more answers than questions.

Speaking of questions:  Since this will be an ongoing project, Seth and I would love to hear your questions and concerns.  You can comment on a post or contact me directly and Seth or I will get back to you.  I am acting as curious consumer in this series and co-researcher, but Seth will be doing the grunt work.  He is going to try to break down the science for us - no easy feat for people like me who aren't big into chemistry. And he will provide you with sites and books to reference so that you can do more research on your own.  If you have discovered an alarming ingredient in one of your cosmetic products, do share!  

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Moblin Beauty on LostGirls

There are a couple of kids bath products mentioned in my most recent LostGirls post - For the Moblins...

I have been doing a bit of babysitting this month for a friend of mine.  Her toddler is not afraid of monsters and completely understands that the moblin (which is how she says goblin) that lives in the storage closet of my house is not to be disturbed, but is not mean and won't eat her.  Unless she's stinky - moblins like stinky things.  Did you know?  [read more...]

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Beauty on a Budget: Neutrogena Ultra Gentle Daily Cleanser

You may remember my review of Neutrogena Ultra Gentle Soothing Lotion and  how much I loved it.  A few weeks later, I am still excited to use it every day.  However, it did take me a while to decide on using the cleanser from the same line.  I don't usually trust that all products in a particular line will work as well as the first one I fall for.  I have been burned before (literally, in the case of an Aveda product that had cucumber extract in it, which it turns out I'm allergic to) by thinking that everything by a particular brand must be used together.  In most cases, it is simply not true (it's called "marketing").  I've found that picking and choosing carefully is the best way to go and I rarely love every single product I try in a line, no matter how much I love the brand.

Neutrogena Ultra Gentle Daily Cleanser is an exception to that rule for me.  I had already seen a slight decrease in my usually facial redness from using the lotion.  Adding the cleanser to my routine has pretty much eliminated it.  When I get out of the shower, I'm so used to seeing my skin a pale shade of red from the heat (it doesn't take much) that not having any red was almost shocking.  And so delightful.  The skin on my face is more comfortable, less oily without going straight to dried out, and very soft.  

This is a soap-free, dye-free cleanser without sulphates.  It does produce a small amount of (SLS-free) lather, but rinses clean quickly.  It would be even better if there was no added fragrance, but at least it's at the very end of the ingredients list. There is one ingredient listed that will make me reconsider this product (in other words, I have to do more research), but such is the result of buying inexpensive products - a long list of ingredients in a beauty product is likely going to mean lots of chemicals and preservatives, which is why researching ingredients is so important (more on that in my next post).

More Reviews:
NouveauCheap blog
Saved by the Beauty blog

Thursday, August 2, 2012

My Poor Uncrafty Hands, Pt. 2

For those of you who want a hand wash that lathers but are worried about your crazy dry hands, there are a lot of moisturizing handsoaps on the market.  If you're like me and forget to apply lotion regularly, these soaps can help keep your hands from drying out.  If you're a fan of Bath & Body Works, they have a line of moisturizing hand soaps in various scents that cleanse without stripping moisture.  Cold-process, all-natural soaps like the one pictured below from Plantlife are supposed to be the best moisturizing and non-irritating soaps you can find and I know for a fact that your local Whole Foods Market (or local natural foods grocer) will carry a few different brands (honey, oatmeal, goat's milk and shea butter are great ingredients to look for in these soaps).  Then there's Palmer's Cocoa Butter Formula Cream Soap Bar which contains pure cocoa butter and Vitamin E and has been long trusted by moms-to-be.  
There are also a slew of great hand moisturizers that are designed to soak in so quickly that you can go right back to crafting without ruining the materials you're using.  Shepherd's Choice Secret Stash is a light, quick-absorbing balm with no greasy residue.  The Knit Picks Butter Hand Cream sounds like it should be sticky and greasy, but it is a quick-absorbing, vanilla-scented, lanolin and dye-free, vegan hand cream.  And I'm thinking of trying Knit Happens from Alsatian Soaps (which has a whole knitters line, as well as one for gardeners), a softening balm that won't harm natural fibers.  There is a long list of these balms and lotions specifically for those working with fibers available at yarn stores, on Etsy or you can even make your own.

The key is to find what is going to work for you.  Something that leaves your hands moisturized, doesn't leave residue on your work, is easy to remember to use, helps the yarn glide through your fingers and smells great to you.  I love my LUSH Lemony Flutter, but a combination of a moisturizing handsoap and one of these knitters balms might just be in my future.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

My Poor Uncrafty Hands

As those of you who read Uncrafty know, I learned to crochet in July.  I am really excited about being able to make things.  In fact, I crochet any time that I can - watching TV, waiting for something to bake in the oven, while on the phone, etc.  Because I have sensitive skin, some of the yarns I've used have irritated my hands and, as all crafters know, yarn and other media will suck the moisture right out of your skin.  

As I've gotten older, the skin on my hands has started to dry out anyway and I've already found some really excellent hand creams/lotions/etc.  My biggest problem is forgetting to use them.  When I do remember, my favorite product to use is LUSH Lemony Flutter Cuticle Cream.  I did originally purchase it just for my cuticles, but it is recommended for dry cuticles, elbows, toes and heels (and in the video above, hair!).  I'm a bit obsessed with the sweet lemon scent of this stuff and a very small amount goes a long way.  The biggest complaint I hear about it is that it's greasy, but if you truly use a small amount it soaks right in.  By a small amount, I mean one teensy dab, emulsified between your hands.  This is also a great on-the-go, multipurpose product.  I always carry a small container with me and the regular size always goes in my carry-on when I travel.  I love to smell like this stuff.

But since I often forget to moisturize my hands throughout the course of the day, I am truly grateful to LUSH for creating a new hand product - a non-lathering, super moisturizing hand cleanser.  Putty for Your Hands soothes and moisturizes with oats, marshmallow mucilage and shea butter (among other things) and most notably without any foaming agents (which often irritate skin).  You can use it by lightly rubbing the bar over your hands or by breaking a piece off and crumbling it into your palm first.  This creates a sort of thin paste, which you then rinse off.  It doesn't feel greasy afterwards and your hands will feel softer, be lightly scented (the lavender in this is very subtle) and you can stick some of this in a tin and take it with you wherever you craft.