Do you know what's in your favourite lotions and potions? Ruth Brown meets a chemist who's read between the lines - and doesn't like what he's found
We all like a bit of pampering. "Smoothes out wrinkles" is a tempting promise when the lines start taking a little longer to settle in the morning. And few of us bother analysing the reality behind the beauty-speak that promises a "new you". After all, there's no harm in fantasising about a magic face-cream ingredient that will make us look like Liz Hurley. Or is there?
Stephen Antczak, a chemistry teacher from Surrey, says that behind the marketing veneer, the ugly truth is that for years we could well have been dousing ourselves with products containing everything from formaldehyde to caustic soda and "gender benders".
Dr Antczak has just published Cosmetics Unmasked, written with his wife, Gina, a former FE lecturer. What started off as a weekend project produced results that surprised even this cautious chemist. He kept finding chemicals in common bathroom products that would be marked with a skull and crossbones on his laboratory shelf.
Gina Antczak was incensed. She was using a specially medicated shampoo for her psoriasis. When she started deciphering the contents, she discovered at least four known skin irritants - surely odd ingredients for soothing a skin disease?
Dr Antczak, who teaches at the Priory school in Dorking, Surrey, bases his findings on a simple analysis of the contents of toiletries and cosmetics. It all started when a friend came to him complaining that a skin lotion made her face blotchy. A chemist for 30 years, he found he couldn't work out what was in the bottle because manufacturers now use a shorthand which the uninitiated cannot hope to follow.
So Dr Antczak set about demystifying these terms. His book contains an index and explanation of ingredients that can cause problems.
Of 7,000 chemicals available to the cosmetic and toiletries industry, he says that more than 1,000 are known to have harmful effects. Another 900 could be contaminated with carcinogens. They can turn up in any cosmetic, including nail polish and lipstick.
That splash of colour on your lips may also contain "gender bender" properties that interfere with hormones and have been linked to falling sperm levels, testicular cancer and cell mutation. "It's just a minefield. There hasn't been that much research done in this area, and we don't really know if they're safe or not," says Dr Antczak.
Formaldehyde - a suspected carcinogen, says Dr Antczak - is used in nail hardeners, as well as in some shampoos and other common products. Its use in cosmetics and toiletries is forbidden in Sweden and Japan.
Caustic soda can be found in everything from bubble bath to face cream. As one of the central ingredients in nail cuticle softeners and some hair removers, it can cause serious burns if not used correctly. But the real nasties are found in hair dyes. The allergies they cause have forced many hairdressers to abandon their profession.
If you do come up in a rash after using cosmetics, there's a good chance it's a reaction to the perfume, the colorants or the preservatives - three known troublemakers, say the Antczaks.
There are rules and codes of conduct to govern advertisers' claims. However, the Antczaks say they found many cases where "nonsense phrases" were used to sell products. The "science" terms could be broken down into made-up, meaningless phrases. Many of the claims are simply untrue.
For a start, products labelled as "unscented" may contain small quantities of fragrance chemicals to cover up the unpleasant natural odours of other ingredients. Other favourite terms, such as "dermatologically tested" and "allergy tested", have no legal definition. "Hypoallergenic" is scientifically meaningless, although consumers are led to believe such products are specially formulated to soothe sensitive skin. These claims are often reinforced by higher prices and smaller containers. But if you read the bottles, hypoallergenic ranges have the same ingredients as standard versions of a product, except with fewer known irritants such as perfumes and colours.
Many products marketed as "natural" are far from that. Dr Antczak found that one cucumber face cream in a prominent high street shop's "natural range" contained less than 1 per cent of real cucumber - too little for its properties to have any real effect. The other ingredients, apart from water, were the usual plethora of unpronounceable chemicals.
Don't believe the hype for the more expensive ranges either. "If you're spending more than pound;5 to pound;10 on moisturiser you're wasting your money," says Mrs Antczak. "It won't be the retinol or vitamins doing you good. It's just the moisturising effect of the cream."
Promises of stronger hair or smoother skin through the addition of various vitamins are "rubbish", according to Dr Antczak. They "add little to the quality of the product and have no discernible biological effect unless you eat them as part of a balanced healthy diet".
Mrs Antczak says: "All this is just preying on the ignorance of the public. That's made me a bit angry. So much money goes into the hands of these companies."
But surely there are people out there to prevent such cynical selling ploys? The Advertising Standards Authority covers marketing and advertising, except television and radio advertising. It is there to enforce codes requiring ads to be "legal, decent, honest and truthful" and "prepared with a sense of responsibility to consumers and to society".
The ASA says a survey of the health and beauty sector in 1997 showed that more than nine out of 10 advertisements complied with the code. But it admits that the industry is in the top three for attracting complaints, just behind leisure and computerstelecommunications. "The health and beauty market is extremely lucrative and competitive. And sometimes advertisers push the science too far, and push their claims too far," says a spokesman.
The Cosmetics, Toiletry and Perfume Association, mouthpiece for the industry, refuses to comment on the book, saying it is not worthy of a response. Debbie Hunter, spokeswoman for the association, says: "Some of the items they (the authors) have raised are really speculative and not accurate. Having seen clippings about it, it's not felt to be a reliable or comprehensive book at all. Cosmetics are extremely well-regulated throughout the European Union."
So, if you don't like the way the laws are enforced perhaps it's time to take personal action, says Mrs Antczak. "Since we started writing the book it seems almost everyone we talked to has had a reaction to something. But if everyone who had a problem with a cosmetic sent it back to the manufacturer, maybe they would start making products without these chemicals. The food industry took a long time before advertising some foods as free of preservatives - people have really started reading the labels.
"The best weapon is knowledge."
For further information visit the website: www.cosmeticsunmasked.comCosmetics Unmasked is published by Thorsons (pound;9.99)
WHAT'S IN LIPSTICK?
Ricinus communis* Castor oil to soften the waxes
Ozokerite Wax derived from petroleum
Cera alba* Beeswax
Aceylated lanolin alcohol Emulsifier to aid mixing of ingredients
Cetyl acetate Moisturiser and solvent
Cera microcristallina Petroleum-derived wax: stabiliser and binding agent
Stearalkonium bentonite Viscosity adjuster
Carnauba Plant-derived wax
Propylene glycol* Humectant to prevent drying out
Propyl gallate* Antioxidant
Citric acid Controls acidity
Benzophenone-3* UV absorber; stops discolouring
Typical ingredients *Ingredients that are subject to restrictions or have been linked to harmful or adverse effectsSource: Cosmetics Unmasked.