Why should I care about this? The FDA does not currently require health studies or pre-market testing for cosmetic products before they are sold. We live in a world where most of us enhance beauty and daily living through the cosmetics and pharmaceutical industries, and many women use a lot of these products. The typical person uses up to an average of 9 personal care products with as many as 126 unique chemical ingredients, applied to the skin daily. I am a child of this more is more world. Until recently, I routinely used all the latest fragrances, hair dyes, skin care products and cosmetics. This began to change when I had a child. I necessarily made myself aware that environmental exposures early in life can have potential devastating consequences. One example is lead exposure in young children, which can lead to lifelong developmental and behavioral deficiencies. I was also made aware of the dangers of heating plastic bottles and containers. I immediately switched to glass for all of my storage needs for my son. I began to read the bottles of the cleansers and shampoos that I used for my young child. Until recently, however, I did not read the bottles and review the contents of the products that I use. Over the past few months, I simply have not had time to color my hair or get to the department store to buy the latest facial cleanser or moisturizer and I resigned myself to having a few gray hairs as natural highlights. I began to use the natural soap that my son uses, along with his natural and largely organic shampoo and body cleanser. Surprising to me I felt healthier, my hair looked much better and my skin did not have a chronic film of “gunk” on it.
All of this lead me to look more closely into the daily products that not only I am using, but my patients are using. I am a physician and surgeon that specializes in cancer. All of this will, I hope, ultimately lead to better care of my patients. The first group of products, being a gynecologist, that I began to look at more closely are the vaginal lubricants that women use.
Women begin to have a decline in estrogen sometime in their forties and the resulting vaginal dryness can casue discomfort on its own, or lead to painful intercourse. Younger women may also have this problem, especially if they are on a low dose birth control pill. Vaginal dryness can be treated with vaginal estrogen (not the topic of this post – check back in the future) or by non hormonal lubricants. Until recently, there were virtually no natural lubricants on the market and I would recommend Vitamin E oil or the generally available “drugstore” preparations.
It is important to look at the components of the topical agents that we apply to our skin and scalp, as well as those used vaginally. Some of the more popular vaginal lubricants which are mass marketed and generally available in a drugstore may contain gylcerins, propylene glycol and parabens. Glycerin may lead to increased problems with yeast infections. The safety of propylene glycol has been questioned by some groups. Propylene glycol is widely used in food and cosmetic manufacturing. It is a liquid substance that absorbs water and helps to maintain moisture in the product to which it has been added. Some have noted that this agent may be a possible carcinogen and skin irritant. The FDA lists propylene glycol as generally recognized as safe “GRAS”. Parabens are also widely used in the personal care industry as a preservative. Researchers from the Department of Biology and Biochemistry of Brunel University in the UK conducted a study that found that the alkyl hydroxy benzoate preservatives (that is, methyl-, ethyl-, propyl-, and butylparaben) are weakly estrogenic. Allergic reactions and dermatitis may also be caused by parabens. Preservatives are a key component to personal use products, otherwise they can become overgrown with bacteria which has its own set of risks. The following ingredients—can also be used as preservatives and seem to cause the least irritation and fewest allergic reactions: grapefruit seed extract, tocopherol (vitamin E) · vitamin A (retinyl) · vitamin C (ascorbic acid).
While we cannot over analyze each product and its content, there are practical maneuvers that a woman can use in order to cut down on risks from environmental exposures. The effect of any ingredient is dependent on the level of the exposure, including the amount that is contained in a particular product and the frequency of use of the product. Our modern society is moving in the less is more direction with more and more large commercial manufacturer’s marketing and promoting “green” and “organic” products. The trick is to make sure that their claims are true.
The take home message:
- Be aware of the products that you use on a daily basis and what they contain
- Try to avoid vaginal lubricants with parabens
- If possible try to use lubricants based on natural ingredients with organic certified production.
- For more information on your personal lubricant its contents and safety profile go to Skin Deep: Cosmetic Safety Reviews