How Antifreeze Wound Up in Your Cosmetics

Between the cosmetics giants, the FDA and our hunger for youth, millions of women apply antifreeze to their faces each day.

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In July, L’Oreal launched its latest weapon in the War on Age: Revitalift Triple Power, which promises to declaw your crows feet, hoist up your sags, and replenish your diminishing facial volume, all without going under the needle or knife. Even the Oprah-approved Dr. Oz recently featured a plastic surgeon – Dr. Stuart “Titan of Tightening Skin” Linder – who claims the amazing Revitalift can give you a “fake facelift” in two minutes.

What L’Oreal and Dr Linder fail to mention, however, is that one of Revitalift’s key ingredients is also the main ingredient in antifreeze. Say it isn’t so, Andie McDowell!

Of course L’Oreal isn’t alone in this. Olay, Neutrogena, Khiels, Shu Uemura, Chanel, La Prairie, and Crème de la Mer – to name a few companies in a $2.3 billion industry – have also deployed antifreeze in their skin products. But this doesn’t mean that you can get your youth serum at your local Autozone.

Propylene Glycol

The offending ingredient is propylene glycol (PG), which falls under a “family of chemicals” that has the Duggars beat by dozens – other eye-glazing aliases are methylethyl glycol, propane-1,2-diol, and 1,2-dihydroxypropane. PG is responsible for the plumping action we all love because it helps retain moisture, and it also has a lower freezing point than water (hence, its use in antifreeze). And while there are different grades of PG – industrial (the antifreeze kind), and pharmaceutical (the cosmetics kind), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considers the industrial grade so poisonous that workers are required to don protective wear over their hands, bodies and eyes. Exposure has been linked to kidney and liver damage. The pharmaceutical grade is obviously less concentrated, but is it 100% safe?

In 1991, the American Academy of Dermatologists deemed propylene glycol a “skin irritant,” even in small amounts. According to Lisa Archer, the National Director with Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, PG is permitted in personal care products in concentrations up to 50%, but has tested as an allergen and skin irritant in concentrations as small as 2%. The more serious problem is that our skin is highly permeable and PG functions as a penetration enhancer.

“It alters the structure of the skin by allowing chemicals to reach deep beneath the layers where it can enter the bloodstream,” Archer says. “That’s why it’s crucial to pay attention to the other ingredients that are known carcinogens in your skin cream when propylene glycol is present because it allows those toxic chemicals to get into your system more easily.”

Judi Vance, author of Beauty to Die For: The Cosmetics Consequence writes: “Propylene glycol has the ability to get into the skin, into the blood stream and into the body where it is stored for days and weeks at a time…. It is a humectant and holds in the moisture. It is used in practically every single lipstick on the market, so has clear access to the limbic system of the brain.”

The FDA Loophole

So, how did PG get by the Food and Drug Administration? It turns out the FDA doesn’t have jurisdiction over cosmetics – the industry remains virtually unregulated. According to the “Personal Care Products Myths and Facts” sheet that accompanies the 2010 web film The Story of Cosmetics from Annie Leonard, the creator of the Story of Stuff Project, “the Food and Drug Administration has no authority to require companies to assess ingredients or products for safety. FDA does not review or approve the vast majority of cosmetic products or ingredients before they go on the market.”  Tamara Ward from the FDA’s Office of Public Affairs indeed verified that statement, adding that the “manufacturers are responsible for marketing a safe product.”

We contacted several cosmetic manufacturers including L’Oreal, Olay, and Kiehl’s, but none responded except for Samantha Lucas, who heads Communications for the Consumer Family of Companies at Johnson & Johnson, the parent company of Neutrogena. The company issued a statement in August that promises the removal of toxic ingredients in personal care products such as formaldehyde, parabens, phthalates, triclosan and fragrances by 2015.

As for the FDA, it actually proposed a ban on PG in insecticides two decades ago due to safety concerns, but the chemical manufacturers proved to be mighty adversaries. “Chemical companies lobby hard to keep bans from happening because they can put their product in the market without having to prove it’s safe,” says Archer. Currently, the burden of proof rests with the government and the public. “The chemical industry makes hefty campaign contributions and Congress hasn’t had the courage to overhaul the law yet.”

The longstanding issue is that the Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act was written in 1938, the year that Judy Garland scored the role of “Dorothy” in The Wizard of Oz. While the food and drug aspects have been amended, the list of chemicals that received the “Generally Regarded As Safe” (GRAS) stamp remains unchanged and outdated. In the 1970s, a law was passed to give the EPA the power to identify harmful substances in products, but instead, it actually grandfathered in over 60,000 chemicals without any testing, including asbestos, which remains legal to this day.

“It’s like the Wild West in terms of companies and policies,” says Archer.

Buyer Beware

Ultimately, all you can do is read labels and research your products. If propylene glycol is in your favorite skin cream, the main chemicals to look out for are parabens, triclosan phthalates and BHA, which are hormone (endocrine) disrupters that account for infertility, early menstruation and breast development, as well as increased risk of cancer. Words like “fragrance,” or the deceptively elegant “parfum,” can mean hundreds of unlabeled toxic chemicals. And anything that bears PEG or ends with the letters “eth,” such as sodium laureth sulfate. This indicates the ingredient was treated to make it foamier, but also more carcinogenic.

While the idea of incurring additional hormonal disruption on top of your regular monthly flux probably doesn’t give you the warm fuzzies, you needn’t summon your inner Annie Oakley to find toxin-free face creams. Increased consumer awareness has already created a greater demand for transparency in chemical safety and labeling.

Even L’Oreal released a report back in 2009 stating its efforts to begin removing harmful substances from their products, though we were unable to determine a concrete deadline for the process. There are now plenty of effective, natural, anti-aging creams that will keep your skin hydrated without any unanticipated, long-term Dorian Gray side effects. Knowledge is power.

Katherine Fleming is a freelance writer and health and wellness educator on topics ranging from the therapeutic applications of essential oils to how to make high quality, natural face and body products with items in your pantry. You can follow her on her blog or Twitter.


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