Putting chemicals all over your head

Safety debated of ingredients in shampoos, conditioners

Health & Fitness

October 31, 2004|By Dawn Fallik | By Dawn Fallik,Knight Ridder / Tribune

Your hair is drab. Dull. Fine. Gone. Needs more volume. Needs less frizz. It needs something. Maybe it needs cetyl alcohol. Mixed with a dash of propylene glycol, and how about a little butane?

Once upon a time, people lathered, rinsed, never repeated, and went on their merry bad-hair days. Then, science and chemistry specialized the way folks wax and pomade, condition and shine.

About 10 years ago, companies began creating new compounds so they could design products for specific hair types, for curls and fine hair and thick locks alike.

Now, some consumer groups worry about the mix of chemicals that meld into that sudsy rinse every morning. They point to incomplete labeling and little government oversight of the cosmetics and hair industry, accusations the Food and Drug Administration does not deny.

"The FDA needs to define what is safe to put in these products, and come up with standards," says Tim Kropp, a senior scientist with the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit consumer organization in Washington that helped produce a study on problem ingredients in everyday products. "There are no safety standards in place."

Independent analysts and hair-care executives say the products are safe. They say some ingredients may cause irritation in rare circumstances, but the ingredients are not toxic.

"The good news is: Hair-care products are better than ever before," says Paula Begoun, a former makeup artist who writes extensively about the cosmetics industry. "It's really hard to buy a bad product, but you can get conned by products that are overpriced or bad for your hair."

What's in the bottle

There are many unrecognizable ingredients on a shampoo bottle label. Propylene glycol (which inhibits freezing). Ethylparaben (a preservative that prevents bacterial growth). Cyclopentasiloxane (smooths the hair). It's hard for a curly-haired girl to figure out whether the ingredients back up what's promised on the label and support the $25 price tag.

Basically, all shampoos have the same recipe: lathering agents, cleansers, preservatives and fragrances. So do all conditioners.

OK, maybe most of them don't have butane, a pressurizing agent that helps force the mousse out of the can. (It doesn't harm people, just the environment, Begoun says.)

The government doesn't help consumers figure out the suds either. The ingredients used in cosmetics and hair-care products, unlike pharmaceuticals, have not been tested, so there's no list of products for consumers to watch for, says Kropp.

"The companies do their own testing, but they don't have to submit data to show it's safe," says Linda Katz, director of the FDA's office of cosmetics and colors.

The government hears about problems from consumers and watches for trends before investigating a particular product.

Most reactions "are just rashes or local irritation," Katz says. "Sometimes people complain that the product just made them look worse."

Environmental groups worry about the cumulative effects of all the products people use, from shampoos and conditioners to floor cleaners.

Tom Natan is a chemical engineer for the National Environmental Trust, an advocacy group that helped conduct a study in May on chemicals in everyday products. The study noted that a lot of the same chemicals appeared in many common products and no one was studying those compounds.

"We don't know very much about these chemicals; no one does," Natan says.

There are some concerns about specific products; phthalates, for example, are found in fragrances (listed on most hair products as simply "fragrance"). Some studies have found that phthalates have caused cancer in rats. But companies do not have to list the ingredients of products purchased elsewhere -- often fragrances or colors -- according to FDA regulations.

Then there are the preservatives, the parabens, used to keep products from growing bacteria. Other studies, also in rats, have found a risk of disrupting the hormone system, says Begoun, author of Don't Go Shopping for Hair-Care Products Without Me.

But even organic products can have some chemical ingredients.

"There is no such thing as a completely natural product," says Begoun, who uses a dark-colored dye on her hair. "Should you avoid products that have parabens or phthalates? No one really knows."

Consumers' attitude

Many consumers say they don't much care what's in the bottle as long as their 'do does what they want it to do.

Victoria McCoy, 31, an interior designer, has ironed, permed, dyed and rolled her hair.

Now she dyes her hair about once a month, and uses fairly inexpensive shampoo and conditioner -- L'Oreal Fresh Vive and Suave conditioner (at about $3.50 and $1.50 respectively) -- and expensive styling products -- Texture's curl creme and Texture shine ($14 and $12).

About 15 years ago, hair-care products underwent a revolution, partly due to the introduction of silicone. The silicone clings to the strands, taming and conditioning frizzy and dry hair without making it greasy.

"As the baby boomer population comes of age, they have all different kinds of hair issues," says Alan Meyer, vice president of research and design for L'Oreal, a division of Procter & Gamble.

Although you might need a chemistry degree to decipher the label, most alcohols -- cetyl alcohol in particular -- are fatty acids, used for thickening and coating. Glycerins attract water from the air and make hair feel fuller. Lanolin makes hair feel smoother.

Product study

The advocacy group National Environmental Trust helped conduct a study this year on chemicals in everyday products. For more information about the study, visit the group's Web site at www.net.org, or call 202-887-8800.

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