Cosmetics, Ethical Choices, Health, Life in Paris, Reflection

Skincare Scrutiny

I ran out of face wash this morning, and it occurred to me that I had no idea what was inside the product I’d been using for the last few months.

I use SVR Sebiaclear Micellar Water, which is essentially just a suspension of tiny oils in water. I sent the product name through a couple of American cosmetic databases, and unfortunately nothing came up in any of my searches. This is a fairly common problem with French products, but there doesn’t seem to be a French equivalent of resources like Think Dirty or the Good Guide.

Luckily, Google is free, and I was undeterred.

I found the full ingredient list and got to work. My particular product contains:  Aqua (Purified Water), Glycerin, Peg-7 Glyceryl Cocoate, Ppg-26-Buteth-26, Peg-40 Hydrogenated Castor Oil, Hexamidine Diisethionate, Tephrosia Purpurea Seed Extract, Zinc Pca, Gluconolactone, Butylene Glycol, Phenoxyethanol, Parfum (Fragrance).

I used the databases from Skin Deep by the Environmental Working Group and from Cosmetics Info. By and large, most of the ingredients are considered safe for cosmetic use, but a couple of ingredients pinged as possible concerns.

Peg-7 Glyceryl Cocoate (a polyoxyethylene) was the first ingredient that was listed as “moderately hazardous” and the same concerns arose when I searched for Peg-40 Hydrogenated Castor Oil – the chemicals thmselves is not dangerous, but their production can lead to ethylene oxide or 1,4-dioxane contamination. These are known carcinogens, which was not a great sign.

Ethylene oxide is a gas at room temperature, and it is highly toxic when concentrated at more than 500 parts per million (ppm).  In the US, permissible exposure to ethylene oxide gas is about 1ppm over 8 hours, and in 1985, the EPA set the upper limit for daily exposure to 0.35mg/kg of ethylene oxide per day.

Here in Europe, ethylene oxide concentrations cannot exceed more than 0.2mg/kg in many polyoxyethylenes, but the specific chemical in my face wash is not mentioned.Considering I use this face wash in 400ml bottles (~.4kg), based on the European regulations, the risk of toxicity even if I were exposed is low.

1,4-dioxane is a little more dangerous than ethylene oxide, and it can also contaminate Ppg-26-Buteth-26 (another ingredient on the  list). Inhalation of 1,4-dioxane is linked to increased cancer development in animals, and prolonged exposure to skin is can cause eczema and cracking, as well as kidney and liver damage. 1,4-dioxane as an environmental contaminant is also a concern, because it can migrate into the groundwater. Not great!!

I took a solid 45 seconds to panic, and then I went for the European regulations. The Scientific Commission for Consumer Safety examined several peer reviewed studies, and based on the average levels of 1,4-dioxane found in cosmetics in the US and Europe:

“the total daily exposure of 1,4-dioxane will probably be considerably less than 87 µg and the lifetime cancer risk from 1,4-dioxane in cosmetics will probably be < 10-5 and should be considered tolerable.”

What does that mean for me? The scientists consider the risk to be tolerable, and probably safe for the consumer, but are they really? In economics, we talk a lot about heuristics and biases that lead people to both neglect the likelihood of certain events (like thinking that something bad won’t happen to you, even if it statistically likely to occur), and to over-weight very small risks (that feeling when even though you know plane crashes are very rare, you are afraid that they will happen to you).

I don’t want to neglect the negative health consequences, both to myself and others, due to 1,4-dioxane contamination, but considering that it may not have in fact contaminated my face wash, and even if it had, it is likely to be tolerable when used on the skin (I.e. Not going to give me facial eczema or kidney damage.)

I don’t want to over-weight the likelihood that this will cause a major health problem for me, because compared to all of my other carcinogenic habits, my face wash is less likely to cause damage than my sugar consumption, or the fact that I live inside a cloud if second-hand smoke (hi Paris, thanks Paris)

The fragrances on the list actually bother me more than the possibility of chemical contamination – I prefer unscented products because my skin is sensitive. Some of the chemicals listed have light scents (one apparently smells like rose?) but I’d prefer not to have additional fragrance in my products.

Based on the environmental and physical toxicity information on the ingredients of my face wash, I plan to re-purchase this particular product. What gives me more pause than the product itself is the fact that I use it with small, disposable cotton rounds.

Considering my 2017 goals of reducing my waste, it would be smart to re-evaluate the environmental impact of my skincare routine, before I freak out about negligible levels of potential carcinogens in my face wash.


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