German Concern about Potentially Carcinogenic Aromatic Hydrocarbons in Cosmetics

The German government established foundation, Stiftung Warentest, aims to provide impartial and objective information based on the results of comparative investigations of goods and services. The reports produced by this organisation are highly regarded by both consumers and the German press. Established in 1964, the foundation buys products anonymously from retailers or goes undercover to acquire services for its investigations. It enlists independent laboratories to test products and provide unbiased verdicts based on objective results.

Stiftung Warentest published an on-line report on May 26 (2015) under the heading:

Mineralöle in Kosmetika: Kritische Stoffe in Cremes, Lippenpflegeprodukten und Vaseline (translation: Mineral Oils in Cosmetics: Critical Materials in Creams, Lip Care Products and Vaseline).

This report has caused something of a stir amongst consumers and cosmetic’s suppliers because it identified the presence of mineral oil based aromatic hydrocarbons in 25 well known cosmetic products. The levels identified were much greater than those measured in foodstuffs despite some of the cosmetics being applied to lips. Very little is known about the potential for aromatic hydrocarbons to enter the body from skin creams, lotions, and oils. Some of aromatic hydrocarbons involved are thought to be potentially carcinogenic.

The 25 cosmetic products tested by the Warentest foundation were sold as body oils, lotions and creams, products for lips, baby care, and hair styling, and vaseline. The foundation used highly sensitive equipment developed for testing foodstuffs to find out the levels of mineral oil based aromatic hydrocarbons (MOAHs). Products found to contain MOAHs included those marketed under the trade names Bebe, Blistex, Dove, Labello, Nivea, Scholl and Penaten.

Solely on the basis of this research it was not possible to conclusively state that these products posed a risk to health. However according to the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) some components of the Mineral Oil Aromatic Hydrocarbon fraction could pose a carcinogenic risk (this ‘fraction’ like many oil products is a blend of many different aromatic hydrocarbons which pose varying levels of carcinogenic risk). This risk results from the ability of some MOAHs to cause genetic mutations by altering the structure of the DNA of the body’s cells. (DNA provides each cell in the body with an ‘instruction’ template from which it manufactures its proteins – mutations are changes to DNA which cause the cell to manufacture the wrong proteins). These mutations can create cancerous growths from otherwise perfectly healthy body cells. As a result the EFSA considers that the intake of MOAHs via foodstuffs to be a cause for concern.

Since lipsticks and lip care products are used in close proximity to the mouth and may be injested the same ’cause for concern’ should also apply when they contain MOAHs. As a result of their test results the Warentest foundation recommended against the use of lip products which are manufactured from mineral oils. Their lip product tests included:

  • Labello Lip Butter Vanilla & Macademia (0.6% Mineral Oil Aromatic Hydrocarbons)
  • Carmex Classic (0.7% MOAH)
  • Blistex MedPlus (1.4% MOAH)

Not all manufacturers clearly state that their products contain mineral oils. Warentest found that sometimes the following terms were used to describe mineral oil based ingredients: Cera Microcristallina (Microcristalline Wax), Ozokerite, Paraffin, Paraffinum Liquidum and Petrolatum.

Many cosmetic products do not contain mineral oil and therefore the results of this research do not apply to those products. However as the ingredient names above show it is important to understand that other terms can indicate the presence of ‘Mineral Oil’. Natural Cosmetics, by definition, should not contain any mineral oil components.

The report from the Warentest foundation goes on to consider the potential risks from the other skin products included in their study. All of these were selected because their ingredient list indicated they contained mineral oil (either explicitly or by using names like those mentioned above). All were found to contain MOAHs. This resulted in a debate between the foundation and some major cosmetic manufacturers about whether these substances could actually penetrate further into the body than the uppermost layers of the skin.

Actually some manufacturers have potentially weakened their argument through their own marketing claims that their products: ‘penetrate quickly and are effective into the deeper layers of the skin‘ or are ‘deep penetrating‘ (these are my translations from the original German texts: ‘drinkt rasch ein und wirkt bis in tiefe Hautschichten‘ and ‘tiefenwirksam‘).

Researchers in Switzerland have found that when breast feeding women applied mineral oil based vaseline or a breast salve around their nipples the level of mineral oil measured in their milk increased quickly and significantly. The authors of this research concluded from these findings that the mineral oil entered the milk by passing through the skin of the breast.

Regardless of the ability of mineral oil constituents to enter into the body by passing through healthy skin a more significant risk is likely to exist where the skin is damaged. Some of the products investigated were claimed to ‘help with small burns, grazes, skin irritations, rough or cracked skin‘ (translated from a vaseline product) or ‘be applied to stressed, dry, rough and cracked skin (translated from a skin milk product). Therefore it is quite likely that these products will be applied where the skin’s natural protective barrier is already damaged. The authors were unaware of any research into the passage of mineral oil products into the body in such circumstances.

In its defence some major cosmetics manufacturers pointed out to the Warentest foundation that they only used ingredients that comply with the requirements of the European Pharmacopoeia (EP). The EP defines the quality of raw materials that are used in medical products and describes the test methods which should be used to confirm purity. An important test method recommended by the EP is Ultra-Violet (UV) Spectroscopy. The problem here is that this approach is not suitable for demonstrating the presence of MOAHs (it is generally used for polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons – a different family of chemical products). As a result the foundation claims that testing for mineral oil based aromatic hydrocarbons using the European Pharmacopoeia methodology is inadequate – it does not adequately identify all types of aromatic hydrocarbons.

Skip this paragraph if you are not interested in the technology! In its own testing the Warentest foundation used a testing approach developed for the food industry. This used the online HPLC GC (FID) method (High Performance Liquid Chromatography/Gas Chromatography Flame Ionization technology). This approach allows the researcher to distinguish between the amounts of the main groups of hydrocarbons (separating out the saturated hydrocarbons chains and aromatic based hydrocarbons). They then used a further approach referred to as GCxGC TOF MS (multidimensional gas chromatography using time-of-flight mass spectrometry). This multidimensional approach provided additional information about the structure of the mineral oil complexes found. As a result they were able to group the mineral oil hydrocarbons according to their number of aromatic rings and their level of alkylation and hydrogenation).

In addition to the lip care products mentioned above the following skin care products were also included in the testing:

Vaseline: Abtei Weiße, dm-Balea, Caelo Wießes, Bombastus, Rossmann

Special Creams: Scholl Hirschtalg, Penaten, TeeProSyn Melkfett mit Teebaumöl

Hairstyling: Schwarzkopf 3 Wetter taft Ultra Wax, Rossmann/Isana Haar Wax Extra starker Halt, Swiss O-Par Kokus Haarwachs mit reinem kokosöl

Baby care: Penaten Baby Sanft-Öl, Kaufmann’s Haut- und Kinder-Creme

General purpose creams: Florene, Nivea, Satina, Bebe Zartpflege, Dove Reichhaltige Pflege Feuchtigkeitscreme

Body Oils: Dove Verwöhnendes Körperöl mit Sheabutter und Vanilleduft, Nivea Hautstraffendes Körperpflege-Öl, Bi-Oil Hautpflege-Spezialist

(Link for actual test results given below)

As a result of this research it was recommended that the cosmetic manufacturers need to take seriously the presence of MOAHs in their skin and lip care products. Research should also be undertaken to help to identify how and in what quantities these products enter into the body through the skin or when applied to the lips. This research should also consider ingress through damaged as well as healthy skin and determine the potential carcinogenic effects of the individual types of MOAH in humans.

Many of us use skin care products to either protect our bodies from the harmful effects of the sun or to sooth and help the skin recover after we have been overexposed. Skin cancer is sadly on the increase due to our love affair with the sun and it would certainly be very unfortunate if the products we use to protect ourselves from the sun actually introduce potentially carcinogenic chemicals through their application.

Chris Duggleby

If you are interested in reading my other health focused articles try the following

Torture In The Shower – Face and Body Soap Allergies – Main Suspect: Pears Transparent Soap

Poison in your Washing Machine: Allergic Contact Dermatitis from Laundry Detergents, Softeners, Conditioners and Whiteners

Is Alzheimer’s caused by the Gum Disease Bacterium P. Gingivalis – A Dementia Prevention/Treatment Breakthrough?

Toxic Chemicals in Sex Toys – 18 Vibrators, Cock Rings, Love Balls Tested – Only 3 Get All Clear

My T-shirt Made Me Sick – Textile Allergies – Sinusitis From Your Underwear

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