A Closer Look at Personal Care Products

Amanda Filipowicz, CNP, BES
A Closer Look at Personal Care Products

A majority of these chemicals baffle me with their literary composition, having such a difficult time trying to sound them out one can hardly be expected to understand what they are. This, to an extent, is part of the game of using toxic chemicals within products that have such a close relation to our bodies. It is true that all the ingredients are listed on the products, unfortunately, the language that is used is not that known by the average human being (however, this is also only true to a certain degree as some companies refrain from directly listing their products ingredients and instead intend the consumer to call and inquire). Another misleading attribute of products, as will soon be found out, is the fact that a majority of products are greenwashed. The words natural, bio, organic, toxic-free, have for the greater part lost their meaning.

Below two chemical ingredients will be expressed and explained in detail, so as to allow for a better understanding of why they are found in certain products, what they do and if they have any negative effect on the body or environment. The first being the chemical methylisothiazolinone and the second cetyl alcohol.


Methylisothiazolinone, first introduced to the European Cosmetic Industry in the 1970s, it was not until the early 1980’s that the product found its way into North America. The product is one of the most popular and powerful preservatives to be used in the production of cosmetics and personal care products, primarily hair care products, skin and eye products as well as bath products. In the few products I looked into, methylisothiazolinone was found within three, Nexxus Salon Hair Care Botanoil Nourishing Hydrating Shampoo, St. Ives Fresh Skin Apricot Cleanser Foaming Face Wash as well as Nivea’s Nivea Cream. The main reason for its use in cosmetic products is to primarily prevent the growth of bacteria which would spoil the cosmetic. The Cosmetic Ingredients Review (CIR) Expert Panel conducted several in vivo studies and although it has been hypothesized that the chemical could presumably be a neurotoxin, none of the tests provided sufficient evidence to assist the theory, therefore it was determined that methylisothiazolinone would have no neurotoxic effects within cosmetics and other personal care products.

DOW, a chemical company produces methylisothiazolinone and provides a detailed assessment of the product in its Product Safety Assessment. The first outstanding fact is that the chemical has over ten different names it can go by, this results in an increasing veil of fogginess across the eyes of the consumer. In the product overview they state that the chemical is an “antimicrobial product […] broad-spectrum, formaldehyde-free product” which can be used in a number of different products; water-based adhesives, paints, polymer emulsions, paper coating materials and of course cosmetics and personal care products. This wide spectrum of uses is rather shocking as people can get exposed to the chemical in several different ways.

The report continues by stating that low levels of exposure to the product, whether it is through cosmetics or paint, should not cause consumers any discomfort. However, with so many avenues of exposure could bioaccumulation occur? DOW believes, at least in terms of the food web/chain that any bioaccumulation could not occur, as methylisothiazolinone is completely soluble in water and if “biological wastewater-treatment processes” is available all traces should be removed. However, methylisothiazolinone is toxic to aquatic species in a small amount. Although human beings can sometimes take in more toxic build-up, effects can still be seen.

DOW states that the product cannot come in contact with the eyes, as it will cause extreme irritation and or chemical burns, in the worst-case scenario resulting in eye damage. This is quite unfortunate as the chemical is found in shampoo. Furthermore, they state that skin contact has the possibility of producing skin allergic reactions. St.Ives face wash must cause severe damage to facial tissue after repeated use, whereas Nivea Cream, a product held in high acclaim by many is slowly affecting the quality of healthy skin. Yet another shocking revelation, the product can cause severe irritation of lungs and the respiratory tract as methylisothiazolinone is turned into heat vapor and mist. Could this possibly happen when taking a hot shower, could any of the particles get into the air? In DOW’s Exposure Potential of the product, they state that they do not sell the chemical in paints or cosmetics should not attribute to any health risks. However, there is still potential that it might.

The American Environmental Protection Agency provides a R.E.D. Facts on methylisothiazolinone. Just as with DOW, they state that the exposure to humans is far too low, however, the potential for toxicity is there. What can be derived from the two assessments is that the effect on the environment is prevalent, especially in terms of the aquatic environment. Although the effects on human beings may be minimal the deterioration of the environment is present.

Cetyl Alcohol

Cetyl alcohol is a white, waxy solid and is fatty, straight-chain alcohol extensively used in personal care products and cosmetics. It occurs naturally in plants and animals and has a composition of 16 carbons. It is used in personal care products, especially lotions and creams, to prevent the oil and liquid ingredients from separating. Moreover, cetyl alcohol provides cosmetic and personal care products with added thickness, so that the product will not be too watery as well as amplify the products foaming ability and stability of the foam once it is produced.

The online site cosmetics info, as well as the American Food and Drug Administration, find that the safety of the product in cosmetics and personal care products is definite and that no irritation should occur. However, scientific studies have been conducted that reveal that cetyl alcohol can potentially cause the lipid bilayer of the epidermis to undergo allergic reactions, especially for individuals with highly sensitive skin. I for one, have highly sensitive skin. I used to get highly irritated to certain products and chemicals, some of which I knew and would do my best to avoid. As we are exposed to so many different chemicals throughout the day it can be very hard to decipher which ignited a skin irritation. Cetyl Alcohol was found in four of the products I looked into; Nexxus Salon Hair Botanoil Nourishing Hydrating Conditioner, H2O Sea Pure Perfecting Eye Cream, Naturelle Hemp Hydrating Conditioner Strengthen with hemp seed Oil and St.Ives Naturally Soothing Body Lotion with Aloe and Chamomile. It is true that when in use in cosmetics and personal care products cetyl alcohol is plant-based but is it organic? Does it have residue from pesticides and other contaminants? Furthermore, can something else be added to creams for individuals with sensitive skin?

In February 2013, in the Contact Dermatitis Environmental and Occupational Dermatitis magazine, a scientific study was published on how fatty alcohols have the potential to influence sensitivity in consumers. They provided numerous cases of individuals who showed sensitivity to different levels of fatty alcohols, among them cetyl alcohol. The study expressed that the reactions did not occur immediately, resulting in misinformation as to why some reactions were obtained later on. Several patch tests were applied to patients, in Hay’s Test Chambers, some investigations lasting up to six months so as to be able to obtain clearer test results of all chemicals present in cosmetics and personal care products. This showcased definite reactions to the fatty alcohols in contrast to other products that were also in use in various cosmetics and personal care products.

Often times, as with many other issues in big business, when the majority are not susceptible to the toxic effects of a product, a simple warning “Test before use in case of sensitivity” is enough to warn consumers. But if some signs of toxicity or irritation will not occur until a week after use how is one to know what affected them and what did not? There are products out there that are potentially all-natural and nontoxic for all skin types, however, contamination will occur whether from the plastic container or a mishap during production. Nonetheless, consumers have a choice and one solution to the problem is to make do without the products and make their own.

Make Your Skin Healthy and Clean

There are numerous sources, online, books, and workshops that provide information and inspiration on producing homemade cosmetics and skin hair products. Furthermore, a lot of small companies are starting to pop up that produce all-natural personal care products with the use of only organic essential oils and minerals. Toronto, as many other cities, has many trade shows (The Green Living Show) and outdoor markets (Farmers Markets, Vegan Festival) that showcase the local organic products.

Rarely is the environment kept in mind when using cosmetics and personal care products. Believing that these products are cleaning us one would not question their effects on the environment after all ‘clean’ in the greater spectrum means safe. However, newer technology and a greater amount of money need to be put into advancing sewage treatment plants due to the fact that new chemicals and toxins enter the environment daily. Small doses of these chemicals may not cause much of a problem but their accumulation over time and interaction with other and newer chemicals has the potential to cause problems. Bioaccumulation in aquatic animals and small mammal and insect species may not affect human consumers, but they may have an effect on the balance of an ecosystem. If one species was to disappear or decline vastly in number the ecosystem would falter, even more so if a keystone species where to be affected.

There is so much to consider when choosing and consuming products with chemical compounds in them, the human body is not the only one being affected. Making changes does not need to be drastic. Using up the rest o the products that you have in your household and purchasing a few that are essential and clean to both the body and the planet is a good start. If you find them to be too expensive, with so many choices for natural cleaners the prices have become more reasonable, you can make your own household cleaners and personal care products at home. Also, make sure that you do your research before you make any purchases, greenwashing can get you at the store. It may be hard to let go of products that one has grown accustomed to, it is simply mind-over-matter, is the product a need or a want and will you be able to live without it or not.

References and Further Reading

(Ed) Adelson, G., Engell, J., Ranalli, B., & Van Anglen, K.P. (2008). Environment an Interdisciplinary Anthology. Yale University Press, United States.

Benetti, S., Bianchi, A., Borghi, A., Corazza, M., Vigili, A., & Zauli, S. (2013). Contact Dermatitis caused by fatty alcohols: May polyethoxylation of the fatty alcohols influence their sensitizing potential? Contact Dermatitis environment and Occupational Dermatitis. Volume 68, Issue 3, page 189-190.

Cosmetic Info. (n.d.) Cetyl Alcohol. Retrieved from http://cosmeticsinfo.org/ingredients_details.php?ingredient_id=483

Cosmetic Info. (n.d.) Cetyl Alcohol more details. Retrieved from http://cosmeticsinfo.org/ingredients_more_details.php?ingredient_id=483

Cosmetic Info. (n.d.) Methylisothiazolinone. Retrieved from; http://cosmeticsinfo.org/ingredients_details.php?ingredient_id=684

Cosmetic Info. (n.d.) Methylisothiazolinone more details. Retrieved from http://cosmeticsinfo.org/ingredients_more_details.php?ingredient_id=684

DOW. (2010). Product Safety Assessment, DOW Methylisothiazolinone (MIT) Antimicrobial Products. Retrieved from; http://msdssearch.dow.com/PublishedLiteratureDOWCOM/dh_07ee/0901b803807ee59c.pdf?filepath=productsafety/pdfs/noreg/233-00792.pdf&fromPage=GetDoc#M

EPA. (1998). R.E.D. Facts: Methylisothiazolinone. Retrieved from; http://www.epa.gov/oppsrrd1/REDs/factsheets/3092fact.pdf

FDA. (2011). Cosmetic Microbiological Safety Issue. Retrieved from; http://www.fda.gov/downloads/Cosmetics/NewsEvents/UCM302283.pdf

Pearce, F. (2006). When the Rivers Run Dry. Journeys into the heart of the World’s water crisis. Key Porte Books Limited: Toronto.

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