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April 15, 2008
What the Heck is a Phthalate?

Phthalate-free is the latest claim-of-the-moment from lots of skin care brands. But what is a phthalate anyway, and does it matter?

Well, phthalates are chemicals that are used in lots of plastic products to increase flexibility of the plastic, and also in some skin care products - primarily to stabilize fragrances. There is some evidence to suggest that high levels of phthalate exposure can cause hormonal changes in rodents. There are varying studies that have been done to determine whether there are any effects in humans. Wikipedia has a decent rundown of what has been studied.

The most recent flood of attention to phthalates is stemming from a study in the journal of Pediatrics that showed that these chemicals were found in higher levels in the urine of babies whose parents reported using baby care products on them. The recommendation from the folks running the study was that parents abstain from using baby care products. Sounds like kind of an extreme reaction, huh?

We established the last few months my thoughts on the alarmist nature of the backlash of these sorts of reports, driven by a media reaction that seems determined to make a huge deal out of every piece of information released. And of course, there are several issues that I, as a non-scientist, see with the study they conducted:

1. They determined exposure to baby care products based on the parent's recall of what products they used on the baby in the preceding 24 hours. I don't know about you, but when I had an infant I could barely remember what I did that morning much less all of the care and products provided in a full 24-hour period. Did we bathe the baby yesterday? Or was that today?

2. They didn't ask anything about specifically which products were used on the babies - or even whether those product contained phthalates in the first place. I think it would be safe to assume that some proportion of the parents in the study were using products that did not contain phthalates. I mean, lots of products are now coming forward saying they don't have phthalates, someone had to be using those.

There have been a number of interesting articles posted that refute the conclusions of the study. Here is one by Paula Begoun (The Cosmetics Cop).

Ultimately, I have reached the conclusion after reading up on the different sides of this issue, that there is no conclusive evidence that a) phthalates have any negative health effects in humans and b) that topical application of skin care products is responsible for high levels of phthalates.

Now, of course, if people are looking to avoid specific ingredients in their skin care products, that is certainly OK. This is where things get more a little more complicated because of the fact that products that do contain phthalates don’t necessarily disclose this fact in the ingredient label. This is not because the manufacturers are evil and sneaky, but because phthalates are often part of the fragrances that are included in the products and are listed only as “fragrance” on the label.

And if you are a new-to-the-scene brand, like Stuff for Sprouts, you might not have even known that this was a potential issue.

So, as much as I am not sure this is a big deal, we have checked with all of our fragrance suppliers (some of whom didn’t initially know themselves if the fragrances contained phthalates, that’s how off the radar this issue was). We have determined that all but one of our products was already phthalate-free. And have already taken steps so that the line will be completely phthalate-free within the next few months.

However, the point here is that just because a product is fragranced (and don’t we all want to use something that smells good?!?) doesn’t necessarily mean that hidden phthalates are lurking in that “fragrance” on the label. We will be changing our labels to explicitly state that our fragrances are phthalate-free. But until then, don’t throw away the sweet-smelling babies and kids with the scented products. You can always contact the manufacturers and ask if this is of great concern to you. Or seek out products that are specifically labeled phthalate-free.

Or do a little research and determine that you aren’t all that worried about this.

Do I use products with unspecified fragrances in them? Sure, of course I do. I am admittedly a product junkie and a great fragrance is one of the aspects sure to lure me in. Would I use them on my kids? Yes. I have. I would. These days I generally use Stuff for Sprouts on them (not just a plug, I really do think it works the best for them!) but they use and enjoy fragranced body wash and shampoo.

The moral of the story here is – do some of your own research before you react to what you see in the press. It is the nature of the media to sensationalize medical findings. You owe it to yourself and your kids to make your own, well-informed, decisions.

All the best!

*Just for full disclosure, all of Stuff for Sprouts products are phthalate-free with the exception of our Blueberry Muffin Cream for Extra Crunchy Kids - in which the fragrance (which is about 1.5% of the volume of the product) contains some small percentage of a phthalate. We are in the process of replacing that fragrance with another version (equally yummy-smelling!) which doesn't contain phthalates and I think you can expect many other brands to do the same.


March 4, 2008
Parabens - Are they really so bad?


Last month I started to talk a little bit about an informed approach to assessing the health risks and benefits of various ingredients in skin care products. As a quick recap, I made reference to the recommendations from RealAge.com, which were:
  1. Seek out the original source--is it a credible publication, person, or organization?
  2. Determine the original publication date--if it's old, new information that disproves the original claim may be available.
  3. See if there is any research to back up the claims.
  4. Put things in perspective. Compare the claim to other associated risks.
So, this month I'd like to discuss the issue of paraben preservatives (which would be on an ingredient list as methylparaben, propylparaben, or butylparaben).

For the record, Stuff for Sprouts is formulated without paraben preservatives, because there is a well-publicized concern about the safety of parabens. I have nothing to gain here by debunking the concerns over parabens, but I do think that the information that is available has created a not-particularly-justified sense of alarm and it does offer a nice opportunity to discuss both sides of the issue.

Where the Concerns come from – the original source
In January of 2004, there was a 20 person study of breast cancer tumors which showed that 18 of tumors tested had parabens in them. The conclusion of the scientists conducting the study was that these parabens came from underarm deodorant. The researchers admitted that it was impossible to tell from the research whether the parabens had anything to do with the cancer itself, or whether the deodorant was actually the source of the parabens in the tumors In the first place. They also did not assess paraben levels in healthy tissue, so the cancer link is pretty weak.

This is the study that is consistently referenced as the source of concern. Really?

What the FDA Says
In 1984 the FDA’s Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) reviewed the safety of parabens and concluded they were safe for use in cosmetic products at levels up to 25%. Typically parabens are used at levels ranging from 0.01 to 0.3%.

These assessments were reopened in 2005 and they determined that there was no need to change the original conclusions.

The CIR is an industry-sponsored organization that reviews cosmetic ingredient safety and publishes its results in open, peer-reviewed literature. FDA participates in the CIR in a non-voting capacity.

The FDA also addressed the theory that parabens have an estrogen-like effect in the body and concluded that…”the most potent paraben tested in the study, butylparaben, showed from 10,000- to 100,000-fold less activity than naturally occurring estradiol (a form of estrogen).” They also concluded that the levels used in cosmetics make it “implausible that parabens could increase the risk associated with exposure to estrogenic chemicals.”

Ultimately, the FDA believes that “at the present time there is no reason for consumers to be concerned about the use of cosmetics containing parabens.”

Now, certainly we shouldn’t completely accept what the FDA says (no disrespect, but we’d like a second opinion, right?) How about the American Cancer Society?

What the American Cancer Society Says

The American Cancer Society addresses the paraben issue in tandem with a question about whether underarm shaving causes breast cancer, which I am strongly inclined to not believe.

They question the findings of the original study saying:
  • The study did not show that parabens caused or contributed to breast cancer development in these cases -- it only showed that they were there. The significance of this is not yet clear.
  • While parabens have weak estrogen-like properties, the estrogens that occur naturally in the body are hundreds to thousands of times more potent. Therefore, these natural estrogens (or those taken as hormone replacement) are much more likely to play a role in breast cancer development.
  • Parabens are widely used as preservatives in shampoo, lotions, and other cosmetics. This study did not contain any information useful in determining the source of parabens found in breast tissue.
They conclude that, “Ongoing studies to date have not shown any direct link between parabens and breast cancer risk. What has been found is that there are many other compounds in the environment that also mimic naturally produced estrogen.”

To Freak or Not to Freak?
All that the folks at RealAge.com say on the subject is: “Parabens are preservatives found in some skin care products; they may be among the least irritating preservatives for people who have sensitive skin.”

So, as a not-so-easily freaked out consumer, would I use things with parabens in them? I would. I do. Would I use them on my kids? I would. I do. However, I am aware of what they are in (I am an avid label reader)and I am happy to see when other preservatives are used instead.

I do think that there could be a concern with layering product after product after product (I use a lot of products) with the same ingredients in them. Things that are OK in the low levels that you would find in any one product could turn into trouble if they are in all 25 products you use on a daily basis (as I mentally count, do I really use that many daily???) This would be similar to my concerns with drinking 10 Diet Coke *Plus cans, taking a multi-vitamin, and eating a Luna Bar all in one day, vitamins are good – but that many of them? Trouble. Remind me to tell you some time about when I over-supplemented on B6 and felt like my feet were on fire...but I digress.

The moral of the story here is moderation my friends. And don’t freak out. Just read the labels and think about what you are putting on and in your body and the bodies of those little people that you love.

Again, Stuff for Sprouts doesn’t use parabens. But I don’t know that it would be all that bad if we did.

Next month…Phthalates…fun to say, but scary??

February 8, 2008

Sorting Through Health Scares
How Freaked Out Should We Get?

It seems like every day there is some new announcement on the news telling you some new health concern about some random ingredient you've never heard of that is doing something awful to you.

In light of this, I thought that it might be helpful to share some of the information that I have collected about skincare products over the past few years as I have been working on developing the Stuff for Sprouts products.

In addition to buying and trying every interesting product I see (and I am VERY susceptible to the lure of the new product) I have read a lot about different ingredients in order to make what I think are the best choices to bring you products that balance fun and effectiveness while leaning strongly toward natural ingredients.

Just as a preface, I tend to be pretty moderate in terms of my freak-out factor associated with the various health issues related to different ingredients that are reported on what seems like a daily basis. Not so freaked in general, but I do attempt to be informed about what is being reported and try to make a rational judgement about how much of what is being reported is media hype and how much seems to be based on solid science.

I found this helpful recommendation on RealAge.com, the website of Dr. Mehmet Oz and Dr. Michael Roizen (AKA the “You” Docs and friends of Oprah).

4-Step Filter to Evaluate Health Warnings
To decide whether a message warrants action, apply this filter the next time you receive an urgent health warning…
  1. Seek out the original source--is it a credible publication, person, or organization?
  2. Determine the original publication date--if it's old, new information that disproves the original claim may be available
  3. See if there is any research to back up the claims
  4. Put things in perspective. Compare the claim to other associated risks.
And, by the way, the RealAge calculation says that I am physically 31 years old – which makes me insanely, irrationally happy!

Next Month: Parabens – Are they really so bad??

All Stuff for Sprouts products are for external use only. Keep out of reach of young children. Information on this site is provided for informational purposes and is not meant to substitute for professional medical advice. If condition persists, please consult your doctor.

Hybrid Mom


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