Allergy/Asthma Information Association

Cosmetic Allergies — Is Soap Really Good for You?

By Marthe Lefebvre, Montréal, QC

The following is the first of a series of articles designed to help AAIA members better understand cosmetic allergies. We start with basic information introducing the topic and with guidelines from Health Canada to minimize potential risks.

In this country, cosmetics represent a $5.4 billion retail industry. According to Health Canada, cosmetics are made up of some 10,000 different ingredients (excluding flavours and fragrances) and it has been estimated that North American adults use, on average, seven different cosmetic products every day.

In their 2006 article titled "The great cosmetics debate", The Ottawa Citizen’s Shelley Page and Susan Allan provide their own vivid statistics based on Canadian women: "By the time the average woman grabs her morning coffee, she has spritzed, sprayed and lathered with 126 different chemicals in nine different products, everything from shampoo and hair gel to skin toner, foundation and perfume. Tweens and teenagers, just beginning a lifelong regimen, might use fewer products, while heavy-handed glamour queens will have lacquered themselves with even more chemicals."

Multiple studies, testing and reported incidents have shown that some of the chemical ingredients used in cosmetics contribute to allergic disease, including asthma. As a result, some of these products can provoke eye and skin irritations. They can also be a lung irritant and trigger asthma.

Among common cosmetics used regularly and repeatedly by a vast majority of our population, side-effects have been attributed to the following: soap, bath/shower foam, shampoo, aftershave, deodorant, facial cream, facial make-up, eye shadow, mascara, perfumes, depilatory cream, hair lacquer and nail polish.

Most people will, at one time or another, experience a mild reaction and simply switch to another product. But highly sensitive individuals may have more severe symptoms and need diagnosis to avoid life-threatening reactions.

Allergic contact dermatitis

By nature, cosmetics come in contact with the skin. Creams, shampoos, deodorants and the like, are normally designed to be absorbed by the skin, and thus can carry harmful substances into a sensitive body. Chemical allergens and irritants can then cause adverse reactions that mostly fall under what is known as allergic contact dermatitis.

Primary symptoms are eczema (dermatitis) at the areas of contact, e.g, face, lips, eyes or other parts of the body. Depending on the potency of the allergen or irritant (strong perfumes vs. mild soap) and one's sensitivity, symptoms can be triggered within minutes or hours of exposure. It may also take days, weeks or years of repeated exposure for a person to develop sensitivity and a specific allergy.

The patch test is used to confirm the diagnosis regarding a person's sensitivity to cosmetics. Some of the product is applied on a small area of skin behind the ear or on the forearm and left to dry. After 24 hours, the area is rinsed with soap and water. Redness, burning, itching or eruptions will indicate a positive reaction and confirm the diagnosis. Use of the product should be discontinued and exposure should be avoided.

The law : Mandatory ingredient labelling applies to all cosmetics, including samples.

On December 1, 2004, Health Canada published the new Cosmetic Regulations in Part II of the Canada Gazette, requiring mandatory ingredient labelling on all cosmetic products sold in Canada. As with foods, ingredient labelling should allow the Canadian public to avoid cosmetic products containing ingredients to which they may have sensitivities.

According to the Canadian Cosmetic, Toiletry and Fragrance Association (CCTFA), the leading Canadian trade association for the personal care products industry, the new requirements came into effect at the manufacturing level on November 16, 2006. Health Canada provided retailers with an additional one year period to deplete their existing inventory. This one year sell-through period ended on November 16, 2007. Therefore, consumers should now be able to see a complete list of ingredients on the packaging of all cosmetic products currently sold in Canada.

Realistically though, this is relatively new. Therefore, we can expect that it will take some time before everyone is well informed, including government officers, manufacturers and consumers, so that incidents can be prevented and everything runs properly.

Minimizing Your Risk

The following list provides Health Canada's guidelines to help minimize the risks associated with using cosmetics.

from Allergy & Asthma News, Issue 3 2008

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