Updated: Feb 9, 2022
I have long been concerned about the synthetic ingredients in personal care and cleaning products. The number used has increased enormously over the past 80 years since they were first synthesized by scientists and utilised by the growing cosmetics industry. Today it is estimated that the average woman uses between 168 and as many as 500 synthetic ingredients in their personal care products every day.
While these individual ingredients and products have been classed as safe (when used as directed) by the Australian regulatory authorities, there are few studies on the cumulative effect they may be having on our bodies and the environment. But let's just focus on our bodies for now.
Our skin is more like a net rather than a barrier, so products we place on it may be absorbed into our bodies. And what are all these ingredients doing to us? While few studies have been done on this, we know the rates of cancer have increased over the past 40 years. While many factors can contribute to a person developing cancer, we at Bird Body Essentials are focused on the role synthetic ingredients may play.
And this is why:
Some of these synthetic ingredients such as silicones do not readily break down in our bodies or the environment and may only reveal their negative side-effects in years to come. Our bodies have taken thousands of years to evolve to become what we are today, so we believe it will take time to adjust to these new forms of highly processed ingredients. For these reasons, we have chosen to remove man-made materials from our personal care products and I thought I would share that journey with you.
I first became aware of the dangers of strong cleaning chemicals after developing a severe case of contact dermatitis while working as a dish washer in a Chinese restaurant as a high school student. While I was provided with rubber gloves, the industrial scale of cleaning required meant they easily broke and were rendered unless. Over time my fingers swelled and split to the point where I couldn't use my hands at all. By switching to waitressing and using cortisone cream my hands slowly healed.
Some years later, while working as a reporter, I did a story on a woman who was also affected by powerful cleaning products. Pat had worked as a cleaner at a hospital south east of Melbourne, Victoria, for many years. She was so severely affected by the products used that she could no longer function normally in society. Her body had become so sensitised to the products that if she went into a room that had been cleaned using them her body would react to it. She became quite reclusive as a result.
While these experiences made me carefully consider the cleaning products I used, and led me to clean using bicarbonate of soda and white vinegar with essential oils as a starting point, I had never considered the ingredients in my personal care products. I was never big on makeup, just a little mascara and blush on special occasions. I would wash and condition my hair in the shower every two days, and use my trusty roll on antiperspirant daily. It wasn't until I discovered how lovely handmade soap felt on my skin (covered in the blog How We Started), that my journey into developing other synthetic-free personal care products began.
One of my early batches of soap.
I would just like to take a moment to explain why I am avoiding the words 'natural', 'naturally derived' and 'organic' when referring to the products I make. According to the Australian Society of Cosmetic Chemists (ASCC), there are no guidelines to the application of these words in the cosmetics industry. Under the suggested definitions of the ASCC, the products I make at Bird Body Essentials are all 'natural' products, our soaps are 'made with organic ingredients' and while our other products contain organic ingredients, they may not meet the 70 percent threshold for the 'made with organic ingredients' description.
After making soaps, I turned my attention to the other personal care products I use. When one very good customer informed me that she only ever used my soap bars to wash her hair, I felt I could come up with a more targeted product. Through research I discovered Macadamia Nut oil is a very fine oil similar to the sebum produced by our scalp, so I use it as a key ingredient. Through researching I discovered that Rosemary essential oil performed as well as the leading hair growth medication for the treatment of alopecia (over a six-month trial) without the side effects. Rosemary oil can also improve memory, a useful side-effect for a product applied regularly to your head. I created my shampoo bar around these key ingredients. Since using my shampoo bar (and the conditioner bar I later developed), I no longer get an irritated scalp like I did when I was using commercial brands. I was not aware of this issue until I had switched to my solid haircare products.
A few years ago I started to notice my teeth were getting increasingly sensitive to ice cold foods like ice cream. The reaction got to be so annoying that I decided to go to the dentist convinced I needed some fillings. I was surprised to be told that I didn't need any fillings, but had developed sensitive gums so in future I would need to use a toothpaste specifically designed for sensitive teeth and gums. I read the ingredient list on the commercial toothpaste I used and discovered sodium laurel sulphate (SLS) was an ingredient in it. This chemical was also in the recommended brand.
SLS is a skin irritant. According to the Healthline summary, SLS is an ingredient in household cleaners, cosmetics and many personal grooming products including hair products such as shampoo, conditioner and dyes; dental care products toothpastes, mouth washes and teeth whitening agents; creams and lotions including hand creams, anti-itch creams and even sunscreens; bath oils, salts, body wash and bubble bath. It is also used as an emulsifier and thickener in foods. In its final report on the Safety Assessment of Sodium Laurel Sulphate and Ammonium Laurel Sulphate, the International Journal of Toxicology stated that: In absorption, metabolism, and excretion studies, Sodium Lauryl Sulfate had a degenerative effect on the cell membranes because of its protein denaturing properties. However the concentration of the ingredient was very important. The study concluded: Both Sodium and Ammonium Lauryl Sulfate appear to be safe in formulations designed for discontinuous, brief use followed by thorough rinsing from the surface of the skin. In products intended for prolonged contact with skin, concentrations should not exceed 1%. I have found no studies on the cumulative effect of using multiple products containing SLS daily.
So while all products in the Australian market meet the safety guidelines of the regulatory authorities, at Bird Body Essentials we take a more cautious approach. We choose to avoid SLS along with all other synthetic ingredients. (The one exception is adding BTMS 50 to my conditioner bar - this highly processed ingredient based on Rapeseed oil is essential to achieve that slip that is so necessary in a conditioner.)
One study of all relevant research papers comparing dentifrices (toothpastes) containing SLS and SLS-free toothpaste, found that just changing to a SLS-free toothpaste fixed problem mouth ulcers that had not been caused by the herpes simplex virus.
So when I was advised to switch to using another brand of commercial toothpaste to fix my sensitive gums, I decided to make my own. Starting with bicarbonate of soda (a natural abrasive and deodoriser), I researched and slowly built the product incorporating organic coconut oil, calcium carbonate and other natural ingredients which have properties beneficial for teeth and gums. Within a week of using the final product, the sensitivity of my gums was significantly reduced.
This journey has made me an ingredient-list reader. I could often be found standing in the supermarket aisle with my reading glasses on and magnifying glass in hand reading the tiny ingredient list on the product I was considering purchasing.
At Bird Body Essentials I have slowly made my way through the essential body products required as part of a daily personal care regimen until all the bases were covered. The range uses ingredients you can find in a health food store and most are safe to eat (but I wouldn't recommend it).
While it is a big ask to suggest people go synthetic free in their personal care products, here are a few of the more common ones which you may like to try and avoid.
Silicone, made from silica (derived from sand), can be manipulated by chemists to produce anything from hard resins to light-feeling creams. It goes by many names, but the more common ones include: dimethicone, amodimethicone, cyclomethicone, methicone, trimethicone, nylon, trimethylsilylamodimethicone and dimethiconol. Silicone is a cheap product that adds gloss to hair and reduces frizz. It also adds slip and improves texture of skin care products. However silicone is an occlusive ingredient meaning it creates a barrier that prevents penetration. I think of it as liquid plastic wrap. Nothing gets through. Although not toxic, the over-use of silicone-based products can result in a build-up on hair follicles and the skin. This can prevent the absorption of nutrients and natural oils. Silicone is also found in lake sediment near urban areas, is not biodegradable and often not properly removed by waste water treatment plants. The environmental effects of silicone pollution are still being researched.
Aluminium, the most abundant metal found in the earth's crust. Although aluminium ore is mined, aluminium metal requires an energy-intensive, toxic by-product producing process to refine. Since its exponential industrial use in the mid 20th century, it has made its way into everything from drinking cans, paint pigments and antacids to fuel, food and even our water. But with the dramatic growth in breast cancer over the past 40 years, its use as the active ingredient in most anti-perspirants, where it blocks sweat glands, interrupting a natural process that cools the body and removes toxins, is where it has raised our concerns. Studies show that using an antiperspirant containing aluminium after shaving the underarm (just as I did for so many years), provides a pathway for aluminium to enter the breast cells. Research on the available studies done, have recommended reducing the level of Aluminium in antiperspirants to reduce the risk of developing breast cancer, however more studies are required. Also, while increased levels of aluminium have been found in the brains of people who had Alzheimer's disease, whether it contributes to the disease, and its pathway to the brain both require further studies.
Derived from fossil fuels, petroleum jelly has been around since 1859. It is used in moisturisers, inhalations and as an industrial lubricant. Although non-toxic itself, cheaply produced Petroleum jelly can contain carcinogenic by-products. It can also block pores and harbour bacteria. Petroleum jelly shouldn’t be applied to the face or used as a vaginal lubricant for these reasons.
Phosphate, commonly called sodium phosphate in its various forms is a powerful detergent that is used in many cleaning products,. as well as in cosmetics and personal care items. This chemical is one of the best ways to reduce the build-up of other synthetic substances, including Silicones and Petroleum jelly. Unfortunately phosphates also make great plant fertilizer, high phosphate concentrations in wastewater can cause environmentally damaging algal blooms.
Parabens are made using para-hydroxybenzoic acid, which can be found in many fruits and vegetables. They have been used as a preservative in cosmetic and personal care products for more than 100 years and can be found in everything from conditioner to toothpaste. Unfortunately parabens are readily absorbed into the body where they can disrupt hormone levels, reduce fertility and speed up the growth of breast cancer.
Widely used as an additive in may personal care products due to their ability to increase the flexibility of plastic polymers, phthalates are used in a wide range of personal care, cosmetic, nail polish and deodorants and other products. Due to their extensive use in products, exposure from many products can be high. Phthalates have been linked to several serious and widespread illnesses such as Type II diabetes, asthma, infertility, neurodevelopmental issues and behavioural disorders. Fortunately the use of Phthalates, particularly in products designed for pregnant women and children, is reducing.
Formaldehyde and formaldehyde releasing preservatives:
This group of preservatives is mostly found in nail and hair products but can also be found in body wash. Formaldehyde can be absorbed into the body through the skin, it is carcinogenic and can cause allergic reactions. The use of Formaldehyde in cosmetics and self-care products is banned in Sweden and Japan but not Australia.
Alcohol is readily available and cheap to produce, making it an unsurprising inclusion in many quick-drying and de-greasing skin products. Although alcohol does remove the oil on the surface of the skin, it also damages the protective layer and microbiome of the places where it is applied. This can lead to oiler and less healthy skin in the long term. Fatty alcohols such as cetyl stearyl alcohol don’t have the same damaging effect.
Sodium Laurel Sulphate (SLS) and Sodium Laureth Sulphate (SLES)
SLES is a surfactant that binds oil based and water based ingredients together in many self-care, cosmetic and cleaning products. It can be derived from petroleum or plant oils. This chemical is a known irritant that can cause reactions including rash, dryness, itching and pain in up to 42% of users. SLES is also Alkaline and can damage your skin, particularly the sensitive skin on your face, by increasing it’s PH.
Beads of Cetearyl Alcohol.
Surfactants such as Ceteryl alcohol or Emulsifying wax
The growth in cosmetics and personal care products in recent years has seen the development of synthetic or semi-synthetic excipients - inactive substances that serve as a vehicle or medium for drugs or other active substances in a given product. These bulking agents assist in creating the texture, stability, stop ingredients from separating and control how thick or runny a product is. You will never see a company promote a product for containing these ingredients, they are more the work horse of the product. They are in hundreds of products from personal care items, cosmetics such as lotions, lipsticks and moisturisers, hair care products, shaving creams, detergents and other household products.
They are usually derived from a natural source such as palm oil, olive oil or coconut oil from which the fatty acids are extracted and processed with metallic sodium and alcohol or under acidic conditions with lithium aluminum hydride as a catalyst. This forms a hard almost plastic-like product at room temperature which, once melted and mixed into the formula can add stability, emulsion and slip to the final product. While these ingredients are considered safe, they are used more for the stability of the product than for the benefit they bring to the consumer. At Bird Body Essentials we prefer to avoid these ingredients. Our concern is not only what they may be doing to our bodies over time, but their impact on the environment in terms of cost of production and disposal as well.
If you would like to feel the difference synthetic-free personal care products* can make to your hair and skin, we are offering a Bird Basic Box for you to try. This box valued at $188 includes shampoo, conditioner, toothpaste, deodorant, face cleanser bar, skin toner and moisturiser which should last between two and four months (depending on usage rate) is being offered at an introductory price of $150 (excludes shipping). We are so confident you will love the products, that we are also offering a full 14-day money back guarantee. Just send the box of products back (at your cost) and we will refund the purchase cost of the box ($150).
If you would like to learn more about these products and would like to try a sample before purchasing the box, in you live in Melbourne I am offering the opportunity for a limited time to book a party with 10 friends and I will show you the range in your home. Message me to arrange a presentation.
*except our conditioner bar which contains BTMS 50.