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
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
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.
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