Preservatives: Food, Cosmetics and Personal Care Products
I See Preservatives.... Everywhere!
From processed food to lotion and shampoo, preservatives are a staple in the products we consume and use on a daily basis. For the most part, anything that has water in it also has a preservative since using a water-based substance can expose it to bacteria and possibly lead to contamination in fairly short order. However, as testing and awareness of the multitude of chemicals contained in our food and personal care products grows, so do questions regarding the long term health consequences of these preservatives. These questions highlight the complex and sometimes adversarial relationship between the products we consume, the companies who produce them, how they are tested, and what impact they have on our health.
In Preservatives We Trust
If you inspect the ingredient list on most processed foods, you are likely to come across sorbic acid, benzoic acid, sodium nitrate or calcium propionate, among others. All of these preservatives act in a similar fashion. They act as one group of common preservatives, antimicrobial agents
in foods to prevent spoilage. Without these, many of the foods we consume on a daily basis would spoil much sooner than they currently do.
Other foods may contain the second group of common preservatives, antioxidants, which are meant to slow the oxidation process (spoilage & decay) of foods. Common antioxidants include BHA (Butylated hydroxyanisole), BHT (Butylated hydroxytoluene), and TBHQ (tertiary butylhydroquinone). Neither of these types of preservatives are limited to processed foods. Many can actually be found in the packaging of foods to help retain freshness for longer periods on the shelf or in your pantry.
Body Wash? Lotion? Shampoo? Skin Cream?
In addition to preservatives in our food and food packaging, many modern personal care products have preservatives. Body wash, lotion, shampoo and conditioner are just a few of the everyday products that we consume which all contain preservatives. Three of the most common cosmetic/personal care preservatives are parabens, methylcholoroisothiasolinone (MCI) and methylisothiasolinone (MI). Paraben is a broad category name given to preservatives that are most commonly used in the cosmetic or personal care industry. While parabens have a longer history of use and greater public awareness, it is the last two that have been making more frequent appearances in the news.
MCI and MI have often been used together in personal care products, but recently concerns over MCI and its link to allergies have lead some manufacturers to begin using MI by itself and in higher concentrations. While the European Union (EU) increased the maximum amount of MI that can be used in cosmetics and personal care products in 2005, it is this recent shift by manufacturers that is stirring debate amongst dermatologists and other health care professionals.
A Concern on Two Continents
At the annual meeting of the British Association of Dermatologists, doctors expressed concern of the sharp rise in cases of contact dermatitis over the last few years and believe there is a link to this and the increased amounts of MI in personal care products and cosmetics. The President of the European Society of Contact Dermatitis, in mid 2013, wrote to the European Commission asking for an investigation to determine safe levels for the preservative, calling the increase of allergic contact dermatitis a "new epidemic". Things from baby wipes and shampoo to body wash and make-up all can contain MI, but what is at issue is the safety of the preservative at elevated concentrations.
Stateside, the FDA establishes safe limits for preservatives and other chemicals and additives in food and personal care products. As in the EU, some here have raised concern over not only the concentration of some preservatives but their use in general. Despite testing for safety, larger quantities of some of the most common food preservatives have been shown to cause problems in lab animals. In a study performed by the Bureau Chemical Safety in Canada, TBHQ was tested at higher than approved concentrations and was shown to cause genetic mutations and aberrations in lab animals. TBHQ is not alone in this regard. Similar tests with BHT showed carcinogenic properties at higher than approved levels, and the debate over BHA's safety continues. While the FDA approves the use of BHA at certain levels, the state of California lists it as a carcinogen.
Testing for Safety - Not As Clear Cut As It Should Be
As consumers, we rely on testing and the government agencies to ensure the products we consume are safe. Yet for their measures, things sometimes slip by, and concerns over reliability and potential conflicts of interest cloud what should be a very cut and dry process. Consider a 2013 lawsuit by plastic maker Eastman Chemical.
Eastman has been producing "BPA free" plastics for some time but brought suit against a testing agency and another company that helps manufacturers produce plastic. The suit has come about because of a study published by these two companies that claims products currently marketed as "BPA free" still have estrogenic activity, which means it could potential interfere with the normal function of the endocrine system. In some instances, substances like these can adversely effect the endocrine system by binding to receptors. Ironically, these are the same properties that have caused BPA to fall out of favor with many consumers and a growing number of manufacturers.
Regardless of where you stand on this suit, there is a key point that highlights a very common problem when it comes to chemicals in the foods we eat and products we consume. The study, that Eastman Chemical points to as independent proof that their products do not demonstrate estrogenic activity, was paid for by Eastman. This does NOT mean the research/study is not valid, but it raises very serious concerns over a conflict of interest was never disclosed when the research was published. This, unfortunately, is not an all together uncommon occurrence when it comes to research. From pharmaceutical companies testing new drugs to energy companies paying for environmental studies, the fact that those who have such a vested interest pay for research is troubling for consumers.
A Complicated Path Forward
In general, preservatives are just one type of chemical we consume and use each day. Long term health consequences of consumption and safe use are things that change as our knowledge of these products grows. As more times passes, the interaction and effect of these chemicals with the human body often becomes more complex and nuanced. Further complicating this health issue are the material factors than can influence not only the use of preservatives but, as is the case with Eastman, the research that is supposed to demonstrate product claims as valid. Approval of new chemical additives can mean a huge financial windfall for producers, but long term health consequences of new chemicals often trails far behind their introduction and consumption.
Author: Kevin Gilmore