Saturday, February 27, 2010

A Handy Resource: The Skin Deep Cosmetic Safety Database

I recently came across this handy website called the Skin Deep Cosmetic Safety Database, which was created by the Environmental Working Group. The site is useful because it allows you to search for cosmetics and personal care products by product name, ingredient, or company/brand, and it shows you their safety rating, which is based on the potential health hazards (e.g., cancer, developmental/reproductive toxicity, allergies, etc.) linked to the individual ingredients in the product. You can also browse categories of products, such as makeup, skin care, hair care, etc., and try to find safer products to use.

You'd think that with the FDA's "strict" regulation of cosmetics and personal care products, all the products that you buy should be safe. Well, before these products can be sold to the public, the U.S. Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FD&C Act) requires that companies show that the products and their ingredients are safe and that they don't contain banned ingredients. But really, how do you prove that a certain chemical is "safe" before you try to market a product? A lot of these chemicals may not show any significant health effects until years down the road, and what company is willing to wait that long before marketing a product? You get the idea.

The Skin Deep Cosmetic Safety Database is neat in that it lists all the relevant information in an easy-to-use layout. The safety ratings are color coded -- green for "low hazard", yellow for "moderate hazard", and red for "high hazard" --so you can get an idea for how safe a product is at a glance. Of course, when I first discovered the site, I immediately started looking up all the products I use on a daily basis, and I was a little horrified at the results. There were a couple of things that I use that were in the high moderate to high hazard category. Yikes! As a result, I looked up some safer alternatives. You'll notice that a lot of the safest products will likely be hard to find in your average store, and that was something that annoyed me. I decided to look for products that you can find in the store with a decently safe rating instead.

HOWEVER -- this is a big HOWEVER... Just because the rating says a product is safe, it doesn't mean it actually is. What? You say. Well, it's important to look at the actual ingredient list. For example, a lot of the sunscreens that are rated the safest contain zinc oxide or titanium dioxide nanoparticles, and recent studies have shown that these particles can be absorbed through the skin. The Australian government has been looking into this and has published a review of the scientific literature on the safety of titanium dioxide or zinc oxide nanoparticles in sunscreens. A while ago, I had bought some California Baby Sunscreen thinking that it would be safer than other kids' sunscreens. Skin Deep rates it at "1" or "low hazard," but guess what. It uses titanium dioxide nanoparticles. So, is it really safer? Not sure...

Another ingredient that has been listed as hazardous is polyethylene, which I find rather puzzling. It is listed as a cancer risk (based on a study from 1955!) Huh? Polyethylene is one of the cleanest and safest plastics out there. So, for example, Maybelline's Lash Discovery mascara is dinged pretty heavily (score: 7, high hazard) partly because it contains polyethylene... Hmm. Well, my point is, look at the ingredient list carefully. Skin Deep is a useful tool, but don't take the ratings at face value.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Blood sugar sensing tattoos for diabetics

The thought of having to draw blood (even if it's just a tiny pin prick) to check for blood sugar levels several times a day is rather unpleasant... Perhaps here is some good news for diabetics. Researchers at Draper Laboratory in Cambridge, MA have developed a tiny color-changing sensor tattoo that can detect blood sugar levels. The tattoo ink consists of nanospheres containing a fluorescent dye and a molecule that can attract and bind glucose to produce a color change. The nanospheres are injected into the outermost layer of skin. [Apparently, when blood glucose levels increase, they also increase everywhere else in the body, including the outermost layer of skin.] The nanospheres turn purple when glucose is present -- otherwise, they're yellow. Of course, there will be a range of colors depending on how much glucose is present. With a healthy blood sugar level, the tattoo is an orangish color.

The tattoo has been successfully tested in healthy mice, and the next step will be to test it in diabetic mice. The tattoo may be ready for testing in people within the next 5 years.

Pregnant women beware -- Folic acid plus vitamin B12 increase cancer risk?

A recent study of patients with heart disease in Norway found that they had an increased risk of cancer and death if they were treated with folic acid and vitamin B12. Previous studies have typically shown that folic acid deficiency can promote the development of cancer, while high doses of folic acid can enhance cancer cell growth. Apparently this particular study showed that there was an increased incidence of lung cancer among patients who received both folic acid and vitamin B12. Food in Norway isn't fortified with folic acid like it is in North America. Since 1998, folic acid has been added to flour and grain products in order to reduce the risk of neural-tube birth defects, which can result in spina bifida or anencephaly in developing fetuses. Pregnant women are also encouraged to take prenatal vitamins which contain even more folic acid and vitamin B12. What does this mean for the general population and especially pregnant women? Pending further studies, the authors recommend that the safety of widespread folic acid consumption be monitored. Wonderful...