Propylene Glycol is a humectant and humidifying agent. This ingredient is generally used in brake fluid, anti freeze, laundry detergents, paints and floor wax. It is also used in the cosmetic industry and in some foods to keep products from melting or freezing in extreme temperatures by maintaining a balanced moisture content. Propylene glycol is on the US Food and Drug Administration’s list of ingredients which are Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS) and is recognized by the World Health Organization as safe for use.

Despite its GRAS status there are a growing number of grass roots claims that propylene glycol is an inappropriate ingredient for cosmetics and food. This is largely due to the material safety data sheet (MSDS). An MSDS is a safety disclosure which instructs manufacturers and shippers on proper procedures for handling ingredients, for treating accidental exposure, and for cleaning up spills. An MSDS does not indicate how the ingredient will react when combined with other ingredients, and the effects of exposure to any hazardous substance depend on the dose, the duration, how you are exposed, personal traits and habits, and whether other chemicals are present. However the MSDS can be used as a guide of the ingredients potential for hazard.

The material safety data sheet for propylene glycol states that it is “implicated in contact dermatitis, kidney damage and liver abnormalities; can inhibit cell growth in human tests and can damage cell membranes causing rashes, dry skin and surface damage”. The concentrated form of the ingredient can cause temporary reddening, stinging or swelling when it comes in contact with the eyes or skin. Propylene glycol is a petroleum plastic that can easily penetrate into the deeper layers of the skin potentially weakening cellular structure.

These indications do not mean that a product formulated with the ingredient will have irritating properties but that it could. Due to the potential for Propylene glycol to weaken cellular structure it is likely that people with a propensity to sensitive, easily irritated or damaged skin are more likely to be affected. However, it is probably best to avoid any cosmetic ingredient that has these risk factors as there are always safe alternatives.

If there is any good news it is that the MSDS for the propylene glycol contains no indications of carcinogenicity or chronic exposure effects and

Babies & young children are most susceptible to chemical exposure

Babies & young children are most susceptible to chemical exposure

tests both in humans that have worked with this substance and animals have confirmed this. However, these tests don’t take into account exposure to babies, children or the effect on babes in utero all of which are more susceptible to toxic exposure than adults.

Fortunately there are good natural alternatives to propolene glycol and in this author’s opinion synthetic ingredients should always be avoided where possible. Look for natural skin care products that contain alternatives.

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This is an article that I wrote last year which following on from the “Natural Instinct” article I thought warranted another viewing. It addresses issues of greenwashing and looks at what it really means in the skin care industry.



Walk down the personal care isle of the supermarket isles and you might see 3 or 4 hair products with “organic” or “natural” ingredients or branded with an organic sounding name. Take a closer look at the label and you will soon realize that underneath the feel good name these products are still made of synthetic cleansers, include artificial fragrances and are chock full of preservatives. True to label claim there may be ½ a percent of an organic essential oil or herbal extract but is this what we really expect as consumers when we read “organic” or “natural” on the label of a product? Practices such as these are known as greenwashing. To be more specific, when a company or organization misleads consumers by claiming have green practices or sell green products without actually having any or limited basis for this claim, this is known as greenwashing.

From a consumer perspective, green is the new black. Companies are jumping on the green bandwagon in an effort to appear more ecologically sound and in many instances, those behind the marketing claims really are making an effort to minimize their impact on the environment. However, in other cases, it is all just a marketing ploy to get consumers on side. In skincare, the issue becomes even more blurred and there are many companies taking advantage of an industry-wide lack of clarity. In the skincare industry Greenwashing can occur in a number of different ways.

CFC Free?

CFC Free?

1. Using a single environmental claim suggesting that the product is greener than it actually is eg. A shampoo that claims to contain no Sodium Laurel Sulphate (SLS) but uses alternative foaming agents such as Ammonium Laurel Sulphate, which have the same risks associated with their use.

2. Having no proof – for example personal care products that claim to that they are “fair trade” without any certification or evidence. Whiel the certificatio nmay not necessarily be on the lable, upon request from the manufacturer or supplier you should receive evidence of fair trade status.

3. Lack of definition – using terms such as “green” or “natural” without actually outlining what that means. Australia has no set guidelines here, so there is alot of confusion as to what is considered “natural skin care”. Again if in doubt, ask the manufacturer or supplier what their guidelines are for making a “natural” label claim.

4. Make “green” claims that are irrelevant. The claim might be truthful, but is also unimportant, eg CFC-free shaving creams. Given that the use of CFC (cholorflurocarbons) has been banned for some time, this claims is considered irrelevant.

Greenwashing Sins

Greenwashing Sins

5. Outright fibbing about a “green” claim, eg. A product that claims to be “certified organic” when there is no such certification. In many cases the claim isn’t so blatant. eg. A certain well known company offers ‘a truly organic experience’, but also uses SLS, propylene glycol and D&C red dyes in their products, which are not organic. This in not to say that the product doesn’t include some organic ingredients but to the consumer, the assumption is that the product is truly organic.

As a consumer how do work your way through the fog of marketing greenwash? Firstly, read the labels and full ingredient listing of the products you choose to determine the products full worth. If you are unsure about an ingredient, ask the supplier or seller. Once you know you can make an informed choice about the products you use.

Logos such as this indicated organic certification

Logos such as this indicated organic certification

Secondly look for evidence of certification. In Australia, unlike “natural” status we have strict guidelines about “organic” status. If a product claims to be “certified organic” ensure the appropriate certification logo is on the label eg products bearing the logos of Australian Certified Organic (ACO) or the The National Association for Sustainable Agriculture of Australia (NASAA).

Many skin care manufacturers claim that a product is organic or natural without certification but you want to know that the claim is made with integrity. For example, a manufacturer including water when claiming a product is 99% organic when in fact this is a misleading claim. Water does not contribute to the organic status of a skin care product and so should not be included in the percentage claim. If a product claims to be organic, as opposed to certified organic, ask the supplier or manufacture what this means.

Green marketing is a powerful tool of communication for both buyers and sellers. More and more consumers expect to see evidence of a commitment to the environment from manufacturers and the green dollar spend is increasing as a result. If a product isn’t green, natural or organic, that’s ok but truth in advertising is fundamental to the ongoing growth of the green industry. Without it, consumer cynicism and apathy creep in and we will lose the potential for not just greener products but also a greener earth.

Greenwashing is an issue we now commonly face as consumers however, a little curiosity and some well asked questions will help you to work your way through the marketing maze. Another useful resource is

1. Darbre, P. D., Aljarrah, A., Miller, W. R., Coldham, N. G., Sauer, M. J., and Pope, G. S., “Concentrations of parabens in human breast tumors,” Journal of Applied Toxicology, Jan 2004: (24): 5-13.

Related Articles:

Natural Instinct – Leader in Misleading Claims

Fluoride Toothpaste – is it any good?

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Sensitive skin is something I have had to manage since my teenage years, very-dry-sensitive-skinand while I manage it well now, for a long time it was with varying degrees of success. I am not alone though, with up to 40% of people describing themselves as having sensitive skin and many more reporting an adverse response to a personal care product at some stage. From a dermatologist perspective, the term “sensitive” refers to those with skin that reacts or is intolerant to the use of some or many cosmetics. Sensitive skin can occur in all skin types however, it is more commonly found in women than men and often those with delicate or dry skin and a tendency to flushing. As well as reacting to cosmetics, sensitive skin can also react to environmental factors such as cold or hot temperatures and wind or sun exposure.

While there is no sign of inflammation, sensitive skin is commonly associated with burning, itching, stinging, dryness and redness or feelings of tightness. These reactions can be intermittent or permanent and vary in intensity. Where inflammation is present (welts, hives, raised red skin or lasting redness) it is important to consider an existing underlying skin condition such as dermatitis, rosacea or a contact allergy in which case cosmetic ingredients need to be assessed. Usually a challenge using the suspected product will pinpoint the cause. In the case of a skin disorder, managing the condition is a priority as well as removing suspected cosmetics.

Avoid irritating & toxic ingredients

Avoid irritating & toxic ingredients

As an advocate of natural and organic skin care, I am not surprised by the number of skin irritations that occur when using cosmetics with synthetic and in some cases potentially toxic ingredients. I will go into ingredient details later however it is important to be aware that natural skin care ingredients can also cause skin irritations for those with sensitive skin. Essential oils, particularly low-grade essential oils are also a common culprit. If you have sensitive skin it is important to find out what the triggers are and to avoid them.

Understanding the causes of sensitive skin

1. Reduced barrier function – if the barrier of lipids (acid mantle) is compromised the skin is less protected against chemicals, irritants and microorganisms and there is chance of greater Trans Epidermal Water Loss (TEWL), increasing the likelihood of dehydration. Skin that is dry, dehydrated or injured has less nerve end protection which continues the cycle of sensitivity reactions. Once this cycle is in place many cosmetic ingredients can cause irritation. Listed at the end of the article are the common cosmetic triggers.

A number of natural base oils help to reduce TEWL and improve the barrier



function. Rosehip, sweet almond, tamanu, jojoba and evening primrose oil are all rich in essential fatty acids (EFAs) which help repair skin cell membranes and as such water holding capacity. While not specific to all people with sensitive skin, EFAs will also dampen down skin cell inflammatory responses.

Avoiding products such as cleansers and shampoos that contain sodium laurel sulphate and like foaming agents is also crucial as they will aggravate skin dryness and further reduce barrier function. In one clinical trial, participants with reduced barrier function avoided all foaming agents (surfactants) and minimised preservative use. After 8 weeks their skin returned to normal barrier function.

2. Skin Trauma – skin traumas, such as sunburn and skin treatments like chemical peels and abrasion can cause ongoing sensitivity. Strong acids such as those found in glycolic acid peels have been known to cause lasting skin sensitivity issues. If the skin barrier function can be repaired, then sensitivity may be reduced however it is likely that cosmetic ingredients with a stronger acid pH will have to be avoided or used with caution. These can include further glycolic acid treatments, lactic and malic acid, vitamin C serums with concentrations over 10%, alpha and beta hydroxy acids.

3. Environmental factors – extremes of cold, heat (including heaters in winter), air conditioning, alcohol & spicy foods can be triggers and should be monitored and avoided if relevant.

4. Stress increases the likelihood of heightened neuro-sensory reaction in the skin. In situations such as this wind, touch and cosmetic brushes can cause irritation or redness. Managing stress can be quite individual and often required internal nervous system support as well as de-stressing practices such as yoga, breathing exercises or meditation.

5. Allergies – true skin allergies arise from immune system dysfunction. These include eczema, hives, rosacea and contact dermatitis. Patch testing can help confirm these conditions to establish if these conditions are contributing to sensitive skin reactions.

Hypoallergenic and “unscented” products are often recommend as a solution to sensitive skin however, just because you can’t smell the scent doesn’t mean that fragrances weren’t added or that fragrance-like substances weren’t used. Often subtle fragrances are used to cover up the scent of the base ingredients, so you don’t smell anything you would identify as a scent but it is still there and is likely to cause irritation regardless.

Other common skin irritants include:
•    Balsam of Peru – perfume and skin lotion
•    Formaldehyde – a preservative found in nail polish

Use SLS-free shampoo

Use SLS-free shampoo

•    Quaternium 15 – a preservative in shampoo
•    Sodium lauryl sulphate (SLS) – a detergent found in shampoo, toothpaste, body wash and bubble bath
•    Propylene glycol – found in cosmetic products
•    Methyl, propyl, butyl, and ethyl parabens – used as preservatives, they are found in many cosmetic products
•    DEA (diethanolamine) and MEA (monoethanolamine) – foaming agents in products that “bubble”
•    Artificial Colours – FD&C and D&C are used in make up
•    Phthalates – found in plastic containers and some cosmetics

Below are some guidelines you can follow to manage sensitive skin:

1.    Avoid artificial fragrances and products that contain high concentrations of essential oils or natural fragrances
2.    Avoid the most common irritant in your skin and hair care as listed above
3.    Avoid “acids” such as glycolic, lactic and malic acid products without the advice of a specialist
4.   Avoid products that contain artificial dyes
5.    Use non-soap cleansers for at least 2 months. Soapwort based products and cream cleansers are ideal to give the skin a break.
6.    Use tepid water to wash your face and avoid hard scrubs and they may increase irritation.
7.    Introduce one new skin care product at a time and use for at least 3 days to evaluate how your skin reacts. Ideally ask for a tester before you buy. When you find something that works, continue to use it.

View products suitable for sensitive skin.

Ananda Mahony ND is a naturopath and holistic skin specialist. Her practice focuses on the treatment of skin conditions and Food As Medicine. Ananda also owns Vitale Natural Skin & Body Care, a natural & organic skin care store in Paddington.

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