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In Contact With Chemicals: Our skin is a gate not a wall

15 Jun. 2011 Posted by Hannah Mich in parabens, phthlates, dyes, fragrance-free
body products, shampoo, lotions, cosmetics, perfumes

While researching for this topic, I came across some interesting online articles and blog posts that made me decide to give a small human biology lesson first. I found that many people were unsure whether the human skin is permeable or not, and therefore questioned whether we could in fact absorb chemicals used in our clothes, cosmetics and other beauty supplies through our skin.

The skin is in fact semi-permeable, which means selective molecules can get through your intact skin. If the skin is cut, this increases the risk of molecules getting through because of the break in the barrier or your skin. Your hair follicles, and oil and sweat glands are also areas where chemicals may be able penetrate. The size of the molecule and its water or fat solubility, in part, determine whether or not the chemical can penetrate your skin.

Although your skin is a good barrier and plays an important role in your immune system, it is still prone to absorbing chemicals that bombarded it on a daily basis. In fact, science and technology have provided new ways to make skin more permeable in order to administer drugs and treatments like with the Nicotine patch. Even if chemicals are not directly absorbed through your skin, chemicals can disrupt the natural balance of organisms living on the surface of your skin, causing dermatitis, acne and rashes.

So where do all these chemicals come from? It would almost be easier to answer where they don’t come from. Chemicals are present in our clothes, soaps, shampoo and other hair products, cosmetics, creams and lotions, and perfumes. Now, not all the chemicals used are going to be absorbed into our skin, but the chemicals that are absorbed must be broken down and “expelled” or stored. Just like drugs and alcohol the liver breaks-down the chemicals and releases them in our urine. In some cases, though, chemicals are fat-soluble and are deposited right in our fat stores where they accumulate.

It may be hard to imagine being exposed to such chemicals on a regular basis and that they might be causing such problems as infertility, thyroid dysfunction and cancer to just name a few. So lets take a look at some of the chemicals used that are in question. Many dyes used today are synthetic and made from petrochemicals [petroleum]. They may also contain heavy metals. Other chemicals used to treat clothing are formaldehyde, chlorine bleach, sodium nitrate and PBDEs. Even before cotton clothing is dyed, cotton crops are heavily treated with pesticides. Furthermore, cosmetics, perfumes, soaps and lotions frequently contain phthalates, parabens, sodium laureth sulfate and sodium laurel sulfate. Nanotechnology and nanoparticles are making their way into beauty supplies, as well. These nanoparticles may, consequently, increase the permeability of the chemicals mentioned above.

So if all of these chemicals are so bad, why are they being used in our everyday clothes and products? Well, these products make companies a lot of money; the long-term affects of these chemicals are still not completely understood and alternative methods are still being developed. Plus, changing the manufacturing process and the ingredients used is often very costly for the company, at least initially. Regardless of these excuses, the use of these chemicals without knowing the true long-term and accumulative affects on humans makes you and all other consumers lab rats in an uncontrolled experiment.

Even though some short-term experiments claim these chemicals are being used in a safe amount in products, they do not take into account all the other chemicals you are being exposed to and the accumulative affect of years of use. One chemical or substance may make another chemical more permeable through your skin or more dangerous; and some chemicals may accumulate to dangerous levels, over time.

Fortunately, there are alternative product options that are available. Organic, dye-free clothes are the best and safest clothing option, especially if you have dye or chemical sensitivities. If you are not ready to give up “color” in your clothes, look for clothing with clay or vegetable dyes or low-impact reactive dyes. For beauty and body products, look for fragrance-free, phthalates-free and paraben-free on the labels. Products made for "sensitive skin" tend to be fragrance-free, too. As always, research companies and brands, and read the ingredients on any product you are looking to purchase.

We need more research to learn more about the affects of these chemicals because the current research is thin and lacking long-term studies on humans. Furthermore, the cosmetic industry, which is not regulated by the FDA, is not going to encourage such research. Therefore, you, the consumer, is going to have to step-up and start purchasing products from companies that make product safety and consumer health a top priority.

Call To Action: 

Purchase organic cotton clothes
Purchase beauty products fragrance-free
Purchase products that are listed as eco-friendly

“Journal of Investigative Dermatology”; Barrier Function of the Skin: ‘‘La Raison d’EŒ tre’’ of the Epidermis; Kathi C. Madison; 2003; Allergic Contact Dermatitis to Preservatives and Fragrances in Cosmetics; Tatyana Hamilton, MD, PhD and Gillian C. de Gannes, MD, FRCPC
“British Journal of Industrial Medicine”; Asthma, Rhinitis, and Dermatitis in Workers Exposed to Reactive Dyes; Ralph Nilsson, et al.; 1993
“Alternative Medicine Review”; Toxic Effects of the Easily Avoidable Phthalates and Parabens; Walter J. Crinnion, ND
CNN; Tests Reveal High Chemical Levels in Kids' Bodies; Jordana Miller, October 2007

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