Skin creams - a barrier to health?

Micki Rose investigates

It started with a question on the FM eczema forum: ‘Are there any better creams out there than Diprobase for eczema?’ someone asked. Well, the short answer is, ‘Yes, there are.’ But I thought you might be interested in why, and what you could try instead.

Let’s begin with a few numbers. It’s estimated that almost 10% of adults and a fifth of all children in the UK currently suffer some form of eczema. That’s almost five million adults and over 12 million children slapping emollient and steroid creams on their skin to try to control the raw itchiness.

We should think about that. What exactly is in these creams, and will they help long-term? And what about all the other creams and potions we are using?

Skin sponge
Skin will absorb around 60% of anything you put on it. That’s a huge amount. It is estimated to take just 26 seconds for some of the chemicals in toiletries to reach our organs.

Consider why we use hormone and nicotine patches; because they are absorbed direct via the skin, bypass the liver and go straight into the blood stream without being broken down. The average British woman will absorb around 2kg of cosmetic ingredients every year according to studies. Makes you think, doesn’t it?

Recent research suggests that allergic skin conditions like eczema and urticaria result from failure of the skin’s barrier – a sort of leaky skin. Knowing how much of what we put on it even healthy skin absorbs, we need to think carefully about what we put on problem skin that may be even more absorbant.

Across the world, we spend a staggering £200 billion on general toiletries every year; £5 billion in the UK alone. There is very little regulation on what actually goes into the lotions and potions we buy, and very little safety data, especially about how the various products interact when inside the body. Just try counting how many products you have already used today as you read this feature: shower gel, toothpaste, face cream, deodorant, lipstick, hair mousse. It’s a lot, isn’t it? And they all add up.

It’s controversial, since, when questioned, many manufacturers say they only use a tiny bit, but research is beginning to show that many everyday chemicals can be pretty harmful. Some can affect our hormones, others our nervous system and some can even change genetic information in the cell. See the box below for a full list of toxic chemicals that are best avoided but here are a couple you should know about.

Mineral oil
Most emollients (or moisturising lotions and creams), including Diprobase and probably the vast majority of other creams you are using, are made from by-products of the crude oil industry. Diprobase is just soft paraffin. Other names might be paraffinum, mineral oil, Vaseline, petrolatum and baby oil, and most moisturisers on the market contain them – even ones you think would be ‘natural’.

They work by putting a layer of mineral-oil based cream on the skin to stop it drying out. This will help for a short time, but eventually as the mineral oil is itself drying, it starts to draw moisture from the skin and makes the problem worse.

Think about any time you’ve used a lip balm or Vaseline to help moisturise your chapped lips. It’s great at first, then after a while you start having to use more and more of it.

Remember too that because mineral oil is not absorbable by the skin (hence it forms the barrier), it will clog the skin and not allow it oxygen to breathe.

It might feel less dry for a time, but it can’t heal. In fact, some researchers suggest that it traps chemicals and sweat which remain in contact with the skin and this can start to degrade the skin’s natural barrier. I wouldn’t be surprised if it turned out that the use of all these crude oil products has been a major cause of the increase in allergic skin disorders and, possibly, leaky skin.

Methyl, butyl, propyl and ethyl parabens are some of the most common preservatives used in toiletries. They are known to cause rashes and allergic reactions, so not good if you have sensitive, leaky skin. Alarmingly, one study showed they were found in every breast tumour tested. The jury’s out whether they were just collecting in body tissues (as all these chemicals do), or whether they were invovled in causing the tumours in the first place.

DEA, TEA and MEA (see table) come from ammonia and although, in themselves, they are considered relatively safe, they can form very harmful compounds called nitrosamines in the body, as well as triggering allergic reactions in sensitive skin. They are used a great deal and have already been banned , in Germany. Formaldehyde-forming ingredients such as 2-Bromo-2-Nitropropane (or Bronopol) can create similar problems and are found as preservatives in many shampoos and bubble baths.

‘Natural’ alternatives
Why would you want to put a petroleum-based product on your skin anyway? In fact, many of you choose not to, opting for other body and face creams, some of them much more natural. Out of our £5 billion annual toiletries spend, £800 million of that is on so-called ‘natural’ toiletries. Does this help? Not in most cases because many of the supposed ‘natural’ products we buy are not natural at all and contain many of the chemicals listed as toxic.

To be labelled ‘natural’ by law, a product need only contain 1% natural ingredients! To be called ‘organic’, it can have had organic stuff added to it, but the rest could be just as unnatural and toxic as any others!

In both ‘natural’ and ‘organic’ products, the ingredients are usually simply added to a normal, toxic base of chemicals. It’s just marketing. They may contain natural and organic goodies, but that doesn’t make them non-toxic, which is what we’re aiming for.

So don’t be fooled by a product with a pretty picture of flowers and an ‘organic’ label – it may contain some of the chemicals you’re trying to avoid.

Natural alternatives
Where can you find truly natural products then? There are some great ones if you know what to look for. Companies such as The Green People, Weleda and NHR all make good 'free from' toiletries. For my patients, I tend to recommend Green People’s Organic Base range, the Weleda Baby Calendula range, or their Almond face products as emollients. NHR’s moisture lotions are also superb. To make any of them richer, I add would add some almond or evening primrose oil.

For treatment, I have found the best approach is a mix of two parts Higher Nature’s Aloe Gold Gel and one part organic evening primrose oil applied a couple of times a day to itchy, red, raw and cracking skin. These can be used for any skin problem and at any age. All of these are non-toxic, nutrient-rich, fully-absorbable and, most importantly, won’t damage the skin’s barrier further.

The Green People
Higher Nature

Undesirable Toiletries: ingredients to avoid

Alpha Hydroxy Acids
Ammonium laureth sulphate / ammonium lauryl sulphate
Animal fats ie tallow
BHT (butylated hydroxtoulene)
Bronopol (or 2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-dio)
Butyl, Ethyl, Methyl or Propyl Paraben
Cocamidopropyl betaine
DEA olet-3 phosphate
DEA-cetyl phosphate
Diethanolamine (DEA) or anything ending DEA
DMDM Hydantoin
Disodium EDTA
FD&C or D&C (followed by number) Watch hair dyes and makeup!
Glyceryl Lauride
Imidazolidinyl Urea
Kathon CG
Mineral Oil
Monoethanolamine (MEA) or anything ending MEA
Padimate – O or Octyl dimethyl PABA
Perfumes or aroma
Petrolatum (mineral oil, paraffinum, baby oil, Vaseline)
Phenyl Ethyl Alcohol
Propylene Glycol (PEG)
Quaternium 15
Salicylic Acid
Sodium Benzoate
Sodium Laurel / Laureth Sulphate
Sorbic Acid
Talc (in large amounts especially near genitals/inhaled)
Triethanolamine (TEA) or anything ending TEA

First published 2009


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