Parabens, Fragrances and Dyes…Oh My!

When it comes to personal care products, the word “natural” seems to be finding its way on to many labels of consumer products. The consumer has an arduous task of sorting through the many products on the market to find hidden gems that are truly deserving of the term ‘all-natural’. The approach to moving from everyday personal care products to those that contain only Earth inspired ingredients may be as simple as reading the ingredient label. Products that claim to be natural may contain ingredients that are complicated to read or are unfamiliar to the average consumer. Though ingredients such as parabens, sulfates, dyes, fragrance and phthalates have been around for quite some time, they are not necessarily welcomed by those that strive to live a healthy-organic lifestyle.

Parabens are used extensively in personal care products because they prevent bacterial growth. They are an inexpensive preservative and generally effective. Parabens have been around since the 1950’s and have a long track record of safety, which is why newer preservatives are used less often. Common names of parabens can be found under the guise of butyl paraben, methyl paraben and propyl paraben. Within the last few years parabens were a hot topic of debate. Many consumers asked manufacturers to remove the ingredient from the products they purchased; most of these complaints came from female consumers.

Parabens were given a bad rap in the mid-90’s when they were categorized as xenoestrogens; they mimic the estrogen hormone in the body. This finding stated that parabens were estrogen disruptors and were being linked to breast cancer and reproductive issues. Though the findings were not conclusive as to whether parabens had actually caused these issues, limiting the body to exposure of parabens was recommended by many health care experts, especially those from outside the US. As un-surprising as one would expect, the CDC stated that “finding a measurable amount of parabens…does not imply that they cause an adverse health effect”.

Walk down many of the personal care aisles in the store and you are welcomed with the aroma of these products. The aromatic qualities of these products can come from two sources; natural or synthetic. For the most part, personal care products that are less expensive derive their aroma from synthetically produced fragrance oils. Unlike essential oils, which are highly concentrated extracts from raw plant materials, fragrance oils are cheaper to produce and are made to mimic the smell of the botanical for which they are created. Some fragrance oils may contain a cheaper form of a plant extract, but more than likely they are manufactured using a petro-chemical base.

Fragrance oils can be overwhelming to many, especially pets. Side effects may be different from one person to another and can include congestion, skin sensitivity, over-stimulation of the limbic system in the brain as well as mimic the symptoms of seasonal allergies. Using fragrance oils with pets is not recommended. An animal’s sense of smell is much greater than that of a human, and too much fragrance can overstimulate your pet, possibly causing some of the same sensitivity issues as in humans.

Essential oils are a more costly way to incorporate aroma into a product and are safe and effective for both humans and pets. Within each essential oil drop are minute chemical constituents which work with the body. Essential oils have been clinically studied many years for their therapeutic properties and their interaction within the body. They can be used in smaller quantities for dogs and in limited amounts for children. Lavender is considered the golden botanical of essential oil therapy and has been proven to be effective in reducing anxiety, stress and is an excellent facilitator for healing minor cuts, scrapes and bruises and sunburn.

When reading the ingredient label of any product, if the word fragrance is listed, the aroma is a fragrance oil base. When it comes to natural essential oils, the genus and species along with the common name should be listed; lavender would be listed as Lavandula angustifolia (Lavender).

Manufacturers have taken an additional step by blending both essential oils and fragrance together. When scanning labels, you will find the word fragrance as well as one or several genus and species of plant extracts. This method is less expensive than just using essential oils and is considered a blended product. As with fragrance oil based products, the “fragrance” portion of the aroma is the most prevalent, not the essential oils.

Dyes in products have been used for decades to create eye appeal in both consumable and non-consumable products. Though external exposure to dyes causes less of a health risk than internal consumption, these synthetic colorants are now being called into question as to their contribution to health issues such as hyperactivity in children, toxicity, learning impairment or irritability.

As of July 2010, the European Union has mandated that food manufacturers place a warning label on products containing dyes with a statement “may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children.” Stepping back to 2009, the British Government asked food manufacturers to remove most of the artificial colors used in their products. Currently, the United States does not require warnings for products containing dyes and the FDA must regulate these additives for safety.

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