MOISTURISE, moisturise, moisturise is the mantra of most women, but many of those creams claiming to keep our skins smooth and wrinkle-free contain parabens, which may not be so kind to your health.
Parabens are used frequently in face moisturisers and body creams because they can inhibit microbial growth, so extending the shelf life of products both in-store and at home.
However, researchers at the Clinico Hospital in Spain have proposed a possible link between parabens and breast cancer, after finding increased levels of environmental parabens in breast tissue removed from cancer patients.
The study cited cosmetics as one of the most common sources of the absorbed chemicals. According to the lead scientist, Dr Nicols Olea, cosmetics that include oestrogenic substances (parabens, phthalates and some ultraviolet filters such as benzophenone) strengthen the effects of the female hormone, which drives the development of cancer.
Dr Chris Flowers, a toxicologist and the director general of the cosmetics trade association, the Cosmetic Toiletry and Perfumery Association (CTPA), suggests there is little scientific concern: "There is actually no evidence that parabens are absorbed through the skin, but even if they were the quantities required to effect cancer growth would be staggering."
If you share the concerns of the Spanish scientists, check the ingredients list on the back of all your beauty products - the National Environmental Research Institute of Denmark found that 77 per cent of rinse-off cosmetics contain parabens (the figure rises to 99 per cent for leave-on cosmetics such as sunscreens).
You might not see the word parabens, but that does not mean they are not there, as these chemicals might be listed as methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben or butylparaben.
When buying your moisturiser also look out for diazolidinyl urea, which has similar preservative qualities.
The American Academy of Dermatology has found this chemical to be a primary cause of dermatitis, an inflammation of the skin which can be both uncomfortable and unsightly.
IN 2004, Dr Phillippa Darbre published findings in the Journal of Applied Toxicology that stated a link between the parabens used in deodorants and breast cancer. After traces of the chemicals were found in breast cancer tissues, the team of scientists at the University of Reading proposed that their use in the underarm area allowed the substances to be absorbed easily into the breast and called for their safety to be reviewed. It was the first study to suggest the accumulation of these substances in human tissue. While there was no evidence to suggest the parabens had caused the cancer - and Cancer Research UK has confirmed there is no direct link - it does imply that if used over a long period, the chemicals will build up in your body.
Further reviews have found that deodorants which contain parabens are in the minority, but it is important to check your brand's label if you want to be as toxin-free as possible.
THERE have been many scare stories about the continued use of permanent hair dyes, mainly focusing on the properties of arylamine, an ammonia derivative. In 2001 researchers at the University of Southern California found that women who used permanent dyes could double or treble their risk of developing bladder cancer. Women who coloured their hair every month for 15 years had the greatest increase in risk. Swedish researchers also found that continued use for 20 years or more could almost double the risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis. The link between permanent dye and the disease is unclear, but the scientists suspect that some of the chemicals may affect the immune system, so triggering the onset of arthritis. Semi-permanent or temporary dyes don't have the same effect.
Hair removal cream
MOST women feel a slightly uncomfortable sensation when using depilatory creams, or a stinging irritation afterwards. This could be owing to the thioglycolic acid used in the majority of brands to break down hair. In mild concentrations, it causes nothing but a little skin irritation, but on contact with your eye it may burn and leave the cornea cloudy. Commercial creams must not be more than 5 per cent thioglycolic acid, to ensure their safety. "The concentrations of thioglycolic acid used in depilatories are high enough to cause damage to the hairs," says Flowers, "but provided they are used as per instructions and washed completely off the skin, they should cause no adverse reaction. It is true that some cosmetics have hazardous properties in certain forms or concentrations, but it is the job of the cosmetic scientists to ensure that domestic substances are safe."
THE rich soapy lather which gives us that squeaky-clean feeling when washing our hair is usually produced by sodium lauryl sulphate (SLS), used in many foaming bathroom products. For some it can cause irritation, scalp rash and allergic reactions.
Flowers insists that though in large quantities the chemicals in shampoo can be irritants, in approved cosmetics there is no health risk.
"There are rumours that SLS is carcinogenic, but no scientific studies have shown a link between shampoo and cancer. At a high concentration, if SLS were not washed off the skin, it would certainly irritate the skin but the cosmetics industry would never use it in those quantities, or in that form."
If you use an anti-dandruff shampoo, you should also look out for the antifungal chemical zinc pyrithione, which aims to tackle the root cause of skin flakes.
Although considered safe for external use, avoid swallowing it as it can have serious health implications. Lab tests on rats found that ingested zinc pyrithione caused progressive hind-limb weakness, muscle wastage and penile prolapse.
Propylene glycol is a solvent found in dozens of bathroom products, including some soap, lotions and baby wipes. Much has been made of the fact that this chemical which we put on our skin can also be used as anti-freeze. A US study published in the journal Pharmacology, found that although it is a relatively safe substance, overdoses of propylene glycol have been associated with serious adverse effects. When ingested, propylene glycol can cause depression of the central nervous system - and while adults are less likely to get soapy water in their mouths, this is something to take on board when choosing soaps for children and babies. In milder cases, it can cause hives and exacerbate eczema. However, the Cosmetic Ingredient Review - an independent body which tests the safety of cosmetic ingredients - has concluded that the chemical is safe for domestic use in concentrations of up to 50 per cent.
THE major concern with nail varnish is the inclusion of phthalates, which are termed "endocrine-disrupting" chemicals, meaning they tinker with our hormonal balance. They are also included in hairsprays and vinyl flooring. But the ones to watch for in your beauty products are dibutyl phthalate, diethyl phthalate or dimethyl phthalate.
The World Wildlife Fund has raised concerns about the impact of this hormonal shift. "You won't get ill immediately after using these products, but we don't know what the lifelong consequences may be of disrupting the hormonal system, and there are suggestions that they affect the way the reproductive system develops in pre-natal males." There is no conclusive proof that they cause damage in cosmetic concentrations, and therefore no recommendations for their use to be restricted, however next time you are painting your nails, you might want to consider that the European Commission has restricted the use of phthalates in soft toys that might be sucked by young children.
THERE have long been concerns about the chemicals in hairdressing products - particularly hairspray, which can so easily be inhaled. Environmental campaigners argue that the copolymers - plastics to coat the hair - can cause respiratory problems on contact with the lungs.
There have also been studies to show that long-term exposure can affect the foetuses of hairdressers. A Swedish team of researchers found that although there was no clear link between individual exposure and birth defects, frequent perming and spraying during pregnancy were associated with an increased risk of having a small baby. The scientists concluded that while the risk seems to be moderate, hairspray contains chemicals, such as ethanol and acetone, that have sometimes been linked to reduced birth weight.
IF you wear lipstick, you will probably get through an average of five lipsticks every year. Between the ages of 16 and 60, scientists predict, you are likely to swallow two pounds of the stuff. Although this poses no serious health risk, the Women's Environmental Network estimates that even as you wear it you absorb 90 per cent of what you apply, meaning your body has to break down and excrete the chemicals involved - which are likely to include propylene glycol and parabens. That just might make you think twice about licking those lips.
Avoid the toxins: Four ranges with a purer approach
• ONE of the more affordable ranges of natural beauty products. Using plant, flower and mineral-based detergents, the range is on average 97 per cent natural, and around a third of the price of high-end organic labels. They cover all toiletry concerns from body scrubs to bath soaks, including Manuka Honey hand lotion and White Ginger Laid Bare Refreshing Body Wash, 3.99, left. All are available at most Boots stores nationwide.
• ANOTHER great alternative to the high-street choices, Neal's Yard works on the principle that what we put on our skin, can go into our bodies. They eschew the use of many chemicals, including parabens, with the aim of reducing the amount of toxins in our bodies and in the environment. Covering all aspects of holistic health, its natural cosmetic products like this Rose Body Cream will luxuriate without overloading your skin. Their trademark dark blue bottles and jars also look fab on your bathroom shelf. Go to www.nealsyard remedies.com
• MADE famous by celebrity fans such as Madonna, the Dr Hauschka range is one of the leading natural alternatives to traditional cosmetics. It uses bio-dynamically or organically grown herbs (so fewer chemicals) as much as is commercially viable. Plants, petals and herbs are gathered by hand at sunrise and the products are developed using a rhythmical method of extraction rather than alcohol (which can dry some sensitive skins). The Dr Hauschka's Toned Day Cream is a tinted version of the best-selling Rose Day Cream (which is rumoured to be a favourite of Kate Moss) that moisturises while adding a gentle healthy glow. Available from Harvey Nichols, Space NK or www.drhauschka.co.uk
• THIS cosmetics range is 100 per cent natural and is never tested on animals. Synthetic chemicals are replaced by coconut oil, essential fatty acids and a natural preservative of citrus seed. Try the organic shampoo which has no parabens or petrochemical detergents (such as sodium laurel sulphate), priced at 8.99. Available from Real Foods in Edinburgh (0131-557 1911) or Grassroots in Glasgow (0141-353 3278).