MI oh MI....

In January 2014, SkinsMatter investigated the worrying increase in allergies to two preservatives – MCI and, principally, MI. Almost a year on, Alex Gazzola looks at the current state of play, and whether we are any closer to them being restricted or banned in skincare products – or indeed other household products.

It was a year ago this month that Cosmetics Europe, the European cosmetics trade association, following discussions with the European Society for Contact Dermatitis (ESCD), issued a statement recommending that “ … the use of methylisothiazolinone [MI] in leave-on skin products including cosmetic wet wipes is discontinued. This action is recommended in the interests of consumer safety in relation to adverse skin reactions. It is recommended that companies do not wait for regulatory intervention under the Cosmetics Regulation but implement this recommendation as soon as feasible.”

It was their view that MI was safe to use in rinse-off / wash-off products (such as shower gels) and in leave-on products applied to the hair, rather than skin (hair serums, conditioners), at the currently permitted levels of 100 parts per million (100ppm).

At around this time, The European Commission also asked the Scientific Committee for Consumer Safety (SCCS) – its own body of scientists, charged with evaluating evidence – to review the available science and form its own opinion on the preservatives.

Their conclusion was that MI should no longer be used in leave-on skincare products (that is creams, moisturisers, balms, lotions and make-up – and also haircare) and limited to a maximum of 15 parts per million (15ppm) in wash-off or rinse-off products – a drastic reduction from 100ppm.

In response to this opinion, Cosmetics Europe pointed out that at 15ppm, MI was generally ineffective as a preservative, and that following through on the SCCS’s recommendations would in effect mean an outright ban on the preservative. They submitted further evidence and data to the Commission in support of their recommendations, which were that MI ought to continue to be available for use in wash-off cosmetics and leave-on haircare products at up to 100ppm.

This is currently being considered – but no law has yet been passed.

Is a ban likely?
Yes, on leave-on products it is, and may be swift in coming. But MI remains in use, and may still be found on cosmetic shelves because, even when manufacturers wish to remove it, the reformulations of products containing it will take time to redevelop, test and pass as safe. Some will almost certainly choose not to reformulate their rinse-off products – at least for the time being – because it is possible, even probable, that the law will not change for these types of cosmetics. 

The Cosmetics Toiletries and Perfumery Association (CTPA), who support Cosmetics Europe’s position, says that an outright ban is not beneficial to the industry as a whole, given that there are relatively few preservatives available for use as it is, and that further restrictions will only further limit the available palate to cosmetic manufacturers, risking their overuse – and potential problems in the future.

Sensitisation levels
The science suggests that sensitisation – that is, becoming initially allergic – to MI can only occur with leave-on products containing the preservative. Once that initial sensitisation has taken place, individuals can then subsequently react to any form of contact with MI, even in rinse-off products. But the key point is that sensitisation cannot occur, say the experts, with rinse-off products containing MI at 100ppm.

This policy on MI will, it is hoped, halt the epidemic of sensitisations to the preservative, but is little comfort to those individuals who have already been sensitised to MI in recent years and will have to carry on avoiding it in rinse-off products. It is for this reason in part that some have called for the total ban.

Among them is the Soil Association – the environmental charity which campaigns for a more natural approach to farming and for organic produce – whose policy director Peter Melchett has said that it seems ‘nonsensical’ that there may be different rules for leave-on and rinse-off products.

“There is no better time to eliminate these harmful and unnecessary ingredients from beauty products,” he has said. “We have seen a sharp rise in the use of MI and MCI, due in part to the negative press about parabens, but we could be in a position where consumers are unknowingly irritating their skin by simply purchasing face wash, shower gel or even face wipes from a high street chemist or high-end department store.”

Calling for the outright ban, he added: “It is not right that a consumer needs a degree in chemistry to be sure they are avoiding such ingredients in a skin or face product, nor that the EU are repeatedly failing to eliminate these preservatives when the evidence about their harmful effects is so clear.”

Strong words, but are they perhaps exaggerated? MI, where included, must be present in the ingredients list of cosmetic products, which is a legal requirement. Consumers with an allergy to MI need only check the list, much in the same way as someone with a dietary allergy may need to look for peanut or wheat on a food product’s lablling, or someone who is vegan may look for milk or beeswax. Frustrating, time-consuming – but no degree in chemistry required, despite the need to learn to be able to spot the word ‘methylisothiazolinone’ in the list.

That said, stories on the internet abound of people who have suffered badly to make one think twice about one’s position, and there are reports of people in the beauty industry having to abandon their careers because of their allergy. Many experience have also been outlined in our blog on the subject, which continues to attract comments, well over a year after we wrote it.

How do you know if you are allergic?
It’s vital you do not self-diagnose an allergy to MI, because it is easy to be mistaken. If this happens, you may inadvertently continue to expose yourself to your genuine allergen – if indeed you have one – or even expose yourself to an alternative one when you swap skincare products, which could leave you vulnerable to developing additional sensitivities.

The advice of a professional is important. If you feel you are reacting to something – the typical symptoms are red rashes, cracked or blistery skin, itchy and angry skin – do go a doctor for a referral to a dermatologist, who can conduct contact dermatitis patch testing on you. Results are usually available within a few days, and the procedure is only a slight inconvenience and mildly uncomfortable.

What can you do if diagnosed?
If you are diagnosed with an allergy to MI – or indeed another ingredient present in cosmetics and toiletries – your dermatologist will provide you with a list of ingredients you will need to avoid (an allergy to one ingredient may mean you are likely to be allergic to ingredients which are closely related to that ingredient or in the same chemical ‘family’).

If you do have multiple sensitivities, finding skincare products may be a challenge. Natural and organic ‘free from’ ranges may be your best bets, and look for oil-based balms and ointments, rather than water-based creams and lotions. Fragrance free products (scroll to the bottom of the article) are also valuable to those with fragrance sensitivities. Try simple and plain natural soaps over scented liquid shower gels. Mineral-based make-ups may be worth considering over high street brands.

There have been some reports from Australia that sensitised individuals are reacting to some brands of toilet papers, as MI may be used in the processing of paper, and other contacts with materials in shoes, for instance.

Bear in mind that MI (and other allergens) can crop up in household products such as washing liquids (which should be labelled), and also in other materials, such as paints or paint thinners (which are unlikely to be labelled). Among the household cleaning brands which use the preservative are Fairy, Calgon and Finish. MI turns up in most popular fabric conditioners and softeners too, as well as supermarket own brands.

But cosmetics and toiletries, typically ‘wet’ gels and rinse-off lotions, are the key sources of MI exposure on the skin. Brands which use it include Baylis & Harding, Dove, Head & Shoulders, Herbal Essences, Pantene, Paul Mitchell, St Ives, and Tresemmé – but there are many, many others besides.

Those diagnosed with an allergy to MI, sadly, at present, have no choice but to scan a lot of ingredients labels to stay safe.

First published November 2014


* Methylisothiazolinone Victims - Facebook group
* Methylisothiazolinone Free - information site

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