Promising Research on Natural Sunscreen Ingredients: Caffeine and Coral Shown to Protect Against UV Damage

If you follow my blog regularly, you already know how I feel about most of the sunscreen sold in stores. I believe that at best, most of the formulas are not as effective at protecting your skin as large companies want you to believe. At worst, they can actually do more harm than good. Thankfully, there has been a push in the scientific community to find a sunscreen that don’t potentially poison the body with synthetic chemicals.

A number of studies conducted within just the last year have found new sources of skin care ingredients. One of the most promising of these studies was done by Rutgers University, where researchers studied the effects of caffeine on cancer caused by UV rays. Though caffeine was already shown to protect against UV-induced cancer when taken orally, this research focused on the topical effects of the famous stimulant.

The Rutgers researchers used mice to determine the effectiveness of caffeine when applied to the skin and found that it reduced the likelihood of cancer by 72%. It appears that caffeine offers similar protection to humans too. Numerous studies have found that regular coffee drinkers had fewer occurrences of skin cancer than those who drank decaf coffee or avoided coffee all together. Great news for habitual coffee drinkers (like me!).

Caffeine isn’t the only thing that researchers have been investigating when looking for new ways to protect the skin. Research done by Dr. Paul Long at King’s College London has focused on coral and how it manages to get all the sunlight it needs to thrive without burning. Because coral needs sunlight for photosynthesis, it must live in shallow water where it is vulnerable to overexposure.

It turns out that algae living within coral reefs create a compound that is transported to the coral. The coral then modifies this compound to create its own sunscreen which protects both the coral and the algae. One of the long-term goals of King’s research is to figure out if this compound can be used to manufacturer sunscreen for human use. Dr. Long sees his research as also having humanitarian potential, saying “If we [can grow this compound] in crop plants have been bred for high yield . . . this could be a way of providing a sustainable nutrient-rich food source, particularly in need for Third World economies.”

If you could buy a sunscreen made from all-natural ingredients instead of the processed, chemical-ridden stuff sold by most companies, wouldn’t you? I know I would! Does the idea of putting coral or even algae on your skin sound too weird? Let us know what you think below.

If you’re interested in making your own all-natural sunscreen, see our last post.

DIY: All-Natural Sunscreen You Can Make at Home

Hi everyone! I hope you’re all managing to stay safe from the sun this summer without putting anything on your skin that could damage your body. Earlier today I found this video that offers an easy way to make natural sunscreen, with a recipe that you can tweak depending on how much protection you need.  While I’ve shared a number of skin-safe ways to prevent sun damage, it’s hard to beat the all-over protection you can get from natural sunscreen.

If you don’t have time to watch the video, here’s the recipe for natural sunscreen:

84 gr / 6 tbsp of Coconut Oil

28 gr / 2 tbsp of other base oil of your choice (I recommend Jojoba)

28 gr / 2 tbsp of Zinc Oxide (oil-soluble powder form)

14 gr / 3 tsp of Shea Butter

8 gr / 2 tsp of Beeswax

Put all of the ingredients in a double boiler (a mason jar in a pot of water works nicely too) until completely melted, then use a stick blender until all the ingredients combine together and you’re ready to rub it on. Warning: the finished product will make your skin look a little white and pasty but the woman in the video swears by the stuff and uses it on her kids, so there must be something to it!

Give Your Bathroom Cabinet a Spring Cleaning: What Products Are Safe?

When you consider how many personal care products are on the market today and how few have actually been tested for safety it’s hard to know how to choose products that are safe. The best thing you can do is stick with products made from natural, plant-based vs. synthetic ingredients –ones that are identifiable and even familiar.

Look for soaps and moisturizers made with vegetable and nut oils (preferably unrefined) like jojoba, coconut, olive oil, hemp seed, sunflower, high-oleic safflower or shea butter. These are ingredients that work with your skin to keep it hydrated and protected and will not clog pores or interfere with your skin’s ability to produce it’s own natural and protective sebum.

Replace your anti-bacterial Triclosan-based products with ones made with Tea Tree essential oil and Lavender alcohols. Instead of propylene glycol, looks for products made with vegetable glycerin and aloe vera juice or gel. And avoid products preserved with parabens.

For an added measure of security, look for products that are certified organic or made with certified organic ingredients. And don’t be fooled by products that combine synthetic ingredients with natural ones. While the natural ingredients may be helpful they don’t cancel out the toxic or unhealthy effects of the other ingredients.

Don’t forget that many of the ingredients that are harmful to you, are also harmful to the environment, both on the manufacturing and production side and on the back-end as they make their way down toilets and drains and into our riverbeds and streams altering the ecological landscape.

You may be shocked and even dismayed to learn that you are using a lot of products made with suspicious and potentially toxic ingredients. But take heart! There are many natural plant-based alternatives out there with new ones coming into the marketplace everyday. With that in mind, don’t be too hard on yourself. Just get your spring-cleaning done by resolving to green your personal care routine first. This will motivate you to explore other ways you can deepen the sustainability of your lifestyle and make more healthy conscious choices.

Give Your Bathroom Cabinet a Spring Cleaning: What to Toss and Why?

By eliminating products made with ingredients that at worst, are toxic and potentially harmful to your health, and at best, irritants or allergens that do not serve you on your path to more healthful living, you will greatly reduce your risk of exposure and may even rid yourself of persistent unexplained health problems.

Still not sure what products pose the most harm? Start with the pile or bin of products you use daily. Anything that goes in your mouth or on your skin, are the biggest culprits to watch out for. Toss out toothpastes made with fluoride, mouthwashes made with alcohol, any products made with propylene glycol –as the key ingredient in anti-freeze this substance may be good for your car but not for your mouth or your skin!

Alcohol, commonly used in mouthwashes, as well as styling products and even some moisturizers, is drying, changes the pH of the mouth or skin, and strips away the protective mucous membrane in the mouth and throat. Fluorides are industrial waste products created in the production of aluminum, phosphoric acid, and phosphate fertilizers, that have been linked to bone problems, diabetes, thyroid malfunction, and mental impairment.

Avoid soaps, body wash, cleansers, and shampoos made with SLS (Sodium Lauryl Sulfate) or Ammonium Laureth Sulfate. These are harsh detergents that typically strip away your skin and hair’s natural oils, leaving them dry and vulnerable to damage. You can tell when they are present because of the never-ending foamy suds or lather they are specifically designed to create!

Other ingredients to be concerned about in your liquid soap, body wash products, and shampoos: Cocamide EDTA (or similar compounds ending with DEA, TEA or MEA) along with formaldehyde-forming substances such as Bronopol, DMDM hydantoin, Diazo-lidinyl urea, imidazolidinyl urea and Quaternium-15. These are ingredients that have been known to react with other nitrogen-based ingredients to form cancer-causing nitrosamines after absorption.

And a special word of caution regarding “anti-bacterial” liquid hand soaps, body washes, hand sanitizers, or any product made with Triclosan. This chemical is classified by the EPA as a toxic pesticide, measured in parts per billion, and one of its by-products is Dioxin. Its over-use has scientists seriously worried about the rise of ‘super bugs’ — harmful bacteria that are resistant to existing antiseptics and antibiotics.

One other ingredient that you should be very wary of is unidentified “fragrance” oils or compounds (sometimes referred to as Fragrance or Parfum). These are synthetic chemicals made in a lab, designed to mimic the smell of many things that exist in nature –fruits, flowers, trees, and food. The problem is that “fragrance” often contains Phthalates (industrial chemicals used as solvents and plasticizers in cosmetics) which are now known to be endocrine disruptors (wreak havoc with your hormones) and potentially damaging to the kidneys, liver, and lungs, but especially harmful to pregnant women.

Phthalates don’t appear on the ingredients lists of the vast majority of products containing them including so-called “fragrance-free” or “unscented” products that may contain fragrances designed to “cover up” the smell of other ingredients. And many so-called “natural” products often use a combination of essential oils and fragrance oils, so be vigilant about this when checking labels.

Give Your Bathroom Cabinet a Spring Cleaning: Out with the Old and In with the New!

New year’s is usually a great time to give your bathroom cabinet a makeover. If you didn’t get a chance to do a New Year’s Makeover, it’s not too late to start. You can make it part of your spring-cleaning ritual instead. Start now by taking a closer look at what’s inside your bathroom medicine cabinet as well as what may be lurking under the sink or in an adjacent closet. Even the most seemingly innocuous items can contain a veritable of soup of chemicals that may be doing you more harm than good.

Read the labels and familiarize yourself with the ingredients. Start by sorting products into two bins or groups: products you use daily vs. products that you use occasionally. The ones you use daily are the ones you should be examining very carefully and these typically include but are not limited to, toothpaste, mouthwash, antiperspirants or deodorants, talcum powder, face creams, lotions, cleansers, over-the-counter cold and pain medications, “anti-bacterial” soaps, shampoos, conditioners, hair styling products, and traditional cosmetics.

After all, these are products you routinely apply to your skin or your teeth and gums –both the fastest routes for substances to be absorbed into the bloodstream. When substances are absorbed into the body this way they often by-pass the liver –your body’s principle detoxifying organ– or worse, clog and congest it. That means many toxic substances aren’t properly eliminated and often take up residence in the fatty tissue of our organs where they build up over time, turning into a virtual “thorn in your side” that can compromise your immune system and leave you susceptible to a host of health problems. A congested liver is also one of the fastest routes to inflammation in the body, and inflammation is the foundation for most degenerative diseases.

Ironically, many of the chemical ingredients in personal care products are there to improve the texture and consistency, appearance, or shelf-life stability of the product and have no functional purpose. To add insult to injury, many are primarily there to speed up or enhance the penetration of the other ingredients into the skin; increase the thickness and intensity of the lather (making it harder to rinse off); or make the product more visually appealing.

And while it may seem hard to believe, new evidence has recently surfaced suggesting that exposure to some of these ingredients may even lead to pre-mature childhood obesity! There’s a lot we don’t know yet about how routine and repeated exposures to these substances can affect our health. Given all the alarming information that’s floating around, it seems foolish to wait until there’s proof positive that these substances are indeed harmful. Take a cue from your mom … better safe than sorry!

Biting Off More Than They Can Chew: Is the Environmental Working Group Going Too Far?

In my last post I questioned whether the Environmental Working Group is starting to cross the line from being an independent research and activist organization agitating for meaningful and desirable change to a slightly overzealous mouth-piece that is relying on its growing visibility and clout to use fear-mongering to achieve its goals. This observation is not based solely on the information and recommendations in its 2010 Sunscreen Guide.

I recently noticed the Skin Deep ratings on some of our products slip a little (from the lowest safety concern rankings of 1 to 3 to a 4). If it were not for the essential oils used in the products, all of our products would originally have had rankings of 1 and 2. Now I’m told that some products have been flagged due to the use of certain ingredients they are beginning to scrutinize like Sodium Borate (the botanical or INCI name for Borax) and now Emulsifying Wax. Both of these ingredients (certainly the latter) are widely used in the manufacturing of creams and lotions (including natural products) to bind the water and the oils together to form stable products that don’t separate after they’ve been made.

Sodium Borate or Sodium Tetraborate as its sometimes called is a naturally occurring mineral that’s marketed under the common name Borax and used as a common water softener. When used in a cream or lotion, its purpose is to soften the water making it easier to bind with beeswax. Usually it is used in very small quantities (i.e. a 1/2 teaspoon per gallon). Emulsifying Wax is usually used in place of beeswax, partly because it’s less expensive and also because it makes a superior and very stable emulsion. You would be hard-pressed to find a good lotion or cream that doesn’t use it (by good I mean one that goes on smoothly and doesn’t separate over time or use other funky ingredients as a replacement). We use a combination of beeswax and vegetable emulsifying wax in our lotions and a pinch of sodium borate to facilitate the emulsion.

The EWG is beginning to scrutinize and question it because there’s not a lot of disclosure as to what is in this ingredient, which can vary somewhat from one supplier to the next. I am guessing that they are concerned that it will eventually be revealed that this ingredient (or some versions of it) contains potentially harmful ingredients, in much the same way that many “fragrances” contain phthalates, which most people weren’t aware of until recently because there is no requirement to disclose the components of a fragrance by the fragrance manufacturer.

As I’ve said before, I don’t question or take issue with EWG’s intentions. I think they are honorable. But I have to wonder, given the thousands of chemicals and ingredients used in beauty and personal care products at present, are they biting off more than they can chew by going after all of them at once? Certainly there are far worse offenders when it comes to products and ingredients. While taking an approach of ‘better safe than sorry’ is admirable, when it ends up being a ‘guilty until proven innocent’ situation does this really serve everyone’s best interests?

What irks me about this is that now the burden of proof is being placed on all the companies using these ingredients (big and small) to demonstrate that it’s not harmful. As a small manufacturer, my hands are tied because the ingredient manufacturers are the ones who refuse to provide complete disclosure. What I want to know is why EWG is not putting more pressure on the ingredient manufacturers? All their efforts at the moment are focused on product manufacturers. This is not a balanced approach and threatens to harm the little guys who don’t always have the information they need to make better choices or whose choices are limited by what’s available in the ingredients marketplace.

Sometimes I think the EWG is going a little too far and the end result as I mentioned in my last post is more confusion and fear for the consumer with no reliable way to make their own truly informed decisions. At the same time, small product manufacturers who are trying to do right by their customers are hurt in the process because of the false perception created by exaggerated or inadequately qualified safety concern ratings. If you scrutinize their ratings you will frequently find what they themselves have identified as a Data Gap –meaning incomplete information about an ingredient that gives it a more questionable ranking which can ultimately raise the overall ranking of a product that contains it.

They need to pick their battles wisely instead of trying to cover all their bases at the same time and diluting their efforts in the process. Certainly there are bigger fish to fry right now … Start with the worst of the worst. And work step-wise from there.
What are your thoughts on this? I’d really like to know. Should the EWG (and the FDA for that matter) focus all their energy and limited funds on scrutinizing every ingredient out there because they believe it may pose potential harm? Or should they focus on eliminating ingredients that are already known toxins?

The Precautionary Principle Run Amok: Walking a Fine Line …

As a member of the Safe Cosmetics Campaign and a participant in the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep cosmetics database, I support and applaud these organizations efforts to bring some reform to the way cosmetics and personal care products are formulated -especially in the case where products are still being made with known toxins. With the recent introduction of the Safe Cosmetics Act of 2010, they are clearly making some significant strides in moving their agenda forward.

This is important work because of the potential benefits and protection it could provide consumers who are at present like experimental subjects in the giant petri dish that comprises the $35 billion a year beauty and personal care industry (often ironically referred to as HABA or HBA which is shorthand for Health and Beauty).

However as a small manufacturer who is working hard and diligently to make safe and effective products I sometimes wonder if, in spite of their best intentions, they are on a course that will soon run amok. What I mean is as they continue to gain credibility as an independent authority on the subject (and right now they are pretty much the ONLY independent authority on the subject) they will begin to wield real power or market clout that can have an impact on consumers perceptions of what’s safe and what’s not. And that is not something to be taken lightly.

While these are the “good guys” looking out for your health and safety, at the end of the day they are NGOs (non-governmental organizations) that have neither the scientific backing nor the funding to legitimately substantiate all the red flags they are continually raising. They are walking a fine line now between fear-mongering and agitating for meaningful change.

The latest red flag is the finding from a 2009 FDA study that the ingredient Retinyl Palmitate, which is a synthetic form of Vitamin A found in many skin care products and apparently widely used in sunscreens as well, may actually speed the development of cancer, even when present in low doses. The industry puts Vitamin A in its formulations because it is an anti-oxidant that slows skin aging. It seems that if you use these products at night or indoors you’re ok but if you go out into the sun after applying them you may be in big trouble.

This is not an insignificant finding, however I have to wonder what must be going on in the average consumer’s head when they hear this. In its 2010 Sunscreen Guide, the EWG recommends that consumers avoid all sunscreen products with this ingredient. If more than 40% of sun products contain it then that doesn’t leave a lot of options to choose from. Basically, out of 1400 products with sunscreen that were assessed, the EWG identified only 39 products that were worthy of their coveted “green” rating and all of those products used zinc or titanium oxide (sun blocks) as their primary ingredients.

It reminds me of the story of the boy who cried wolf. If day in and day out, all we hear is more bad news about cancer-causing ingredients and products and little or no useful or better alternatives we can trust, then we might as well all slit our wrists and jump off a cliff now and get it over with! I’m being facetious of course. But my point is if this is all that’s presented to us, eventually fatigue will set in and we will stop listening and that’s not good for anyone. This is one of my fears about what might happen if the EWG continues to lead us down this rabbit hole.

The Seven Sins of Greenwashing: A Candid Review of the State of Things

In November 2008 and January 2009, TerraChoice (a Market Research firm) sent its researchers into leading ‘big box’ retailers in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia with instructions to record every product making an environmental claim. For each product, the researchers recorded product details, claim(s) details, any supporting information, and any explanatory detail or offers of additional information or support.

In the United States and Canada, a total of 2,219 products making 4,996 green claims were recorded. These claims were tested against best practices, notably against guidelines provided by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, Competition Bureau of Canada, Australian Competition & Consumer Commission, and the ISO 14021 standard for environmental labeling.

Of the 2,219 North American products surveyed, over 98% committed at least one of six previously identified “Sins of Greenwashing” and a new Seventh Sin emerged. The following are the highlights of the 2009 Seven Sins of Greenwashing research (from the report’s Executive Summary):

  • The emergence of a seventh Sin – the ‘Sin of Worshiping False Labels’. Some marketers are exploiting consumers’ demand for third-party certification by creating fake labels or false suggestions of third-party endorsement.

  • More products are making environmental claims. The total number of ‘green’ products increased by an average of 79% (a range between 40% and 176%) in stores that were visited in both 2007 and 2008.

  • Greenwashing is still rampant, with more than 98% of ‘green’ products committing at least one of the Sins. Compared to the 2007 study, there appears to be a small decline in the frequency of greenwashing, but it is not statistically significant. Of 2,219 products making green claims in the United States and Canada, only 25 products were found to be Sin-free.

  • Eco-labeling is on the rise. Legitimate eco-labeling is nearly twice as common as it was last year, increasing from 13.7% to 23.4% on all ‘green’ products in the report.

  • Kids (toys and baby products), cosmetics, and cleaning products are three categories in which green claims – and greenwashing – are most common. These products, among the most common products in most households, deserve particular scrutiny from consumers.

  • Greenwashing is an international challenge, with very similar patterns in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia. The most significant differences between these countries are the environmental issues associated with the claims made on products. Water conservation was more common in Australia for example, and recyclability in the United States.

Two Common Product Label Claims That Might Indicate Greenwashing

Here’s a summary of some of the claims you should look out for when evaluating a product that is packaged in a way that makes it appear to be either “Natural” “Eco-Friendly” or “Green”:

  • Natural Claims

    This is the most common and the most nebulous of claims on personal care products. Since there are no regulatory standards here, you have to educate yourself as much as possible on the difference between natural and not-so-natural ingredients to decipher the claims. The main things to consider are a company or brand’s track record, and hidden trade-offs with respect to the product’s ingredients.

    The Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database enables you to see how both companies and their individual products rank in terms of health and safety. Products with higher rankings (i.e. 7-10) generally contain a higher amount of potentially toxic chemicals and questionable ingredients. Companies whose products rank in the middle to high range should be scrutinized more carefully. Their claims of being “natural” likely involve trade-offs –meaning they may contain natural ingredients but they also contain harmful ingredients. Keep in mind that the term “natural” does not speak directly to the environmental benefits of the product or the manufacturer’s environmental practices.

  • Free From Claims

    Beware of “free from” claims –ones that tend to emphasize what’s not in the product at the expense of what is. These can be highly misleading because they either imply that the free from ingredient is in some way undesirable when that may not be the case, or worse, the free from ingredient is one that has no relevance to either the safety of the product or its environmental impact. These types of claims can also be another way of re-directing attention from the hidden trade-offs mentioned earlier. And oftentimes, there’s no way to verify the legitimacy of the claim.

    For example, a company that makes scented products using “fragrance” may put a “free from phthalates” claim on its label. Since the term “fragrance” is not regulated, how can you know that this claim is true? What proof is being offered to validate the claim either on the label or elsewhere? In this example the only way you can judge is if the product is still scented with “fragrance” as opposed to pure essential oils. At the end of the day, you have to know how to read and understand ingredient panels to determine if there are in fact hidden trade-offs that are being masked by the more prominent claims or so-called seals on the product labels.

Greenwashing: When it Comes to Labels Confusion Reigns!

I recently came across some startling and revealing market research on how American consumers view natural and organic claims on personal care products. It seems that many consumers believe that the term “Natural” is more reliable than the term “Organic.” In fact just over half the participants in this study believed that the terms “100% Natural” or “All Natural Ingredients” were better than “100% Organic” or even “Certified Organic Ingredients.”

Clearly the brand influence of many large companies in the beauty industry puts them in the position to make vague, unsubstantiated, and even misleading product claims when it comes to being natural or green. This unfortunate practice is known as “Greenwashing” and while it continues to persist across various product categories in spite of the phenomenal growth of companies and products that are truly natural and green, it remains disturbingly prevalent in the personal care and cosmetics arena.

At the same time, the lack of regulation around the use of specific marketing claims and reliable standards for natural and organic certification, creates even more confusion which ultimately leads to suspicion and skepticism in the marketplace. This not only slows the rate of adoption (and ultimately the production) of healthier, greener products, it overshadows the importance of organic ingredients in personal care products both from the perspective of consumer health and safety and creating a truly sustainable environment.

Over the next couple of posts, we’ll take a look at some of the common claims that are used and how you can read between the lines so to speak, so you can tell if you’re being “greenwashed.”