Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Chemicals: Killers in your bathroom

Before picking up a shampoo, face-wash or hand soap, have you ever looked at what ingredients it contains? If you haven’t, then it is strongly advised that you do so. And while you are skimming, be on the lookout for a chemical called ‘Sodium Lauryl Sulphate’ (SLS). If you spot it, or its cousin ‘Ammonium Lauryl Sulphate’ (ALS) then proceed to use the product at your own risk.

Here’s why. 

SLS and ALS are cleaning agents which are found in products which we expect to ‘foam up’. This includes, in addition to the products listed above, bubble-baths, tooth pastes, washing-up liquids/dish soaps, laundry detergents, children’s soaps/shampoos, stain removers, carpet cleaners, body washes, shaving creams, mascaras, mouthwashes, skin cleansers or make up removers, moisturisers and sun screens. In short, if you want to stay clean using an off the counter product, the chances are that you will be bringing an SLS-rich item into your home. 

The problem arises when we read what many scientists and researchers are saying about this ester. The American College of Toxicology published a report in 1983 which deemed this substance as a skin irritant and recommended that products containing this cleansing agent be used only for a brief, discontinuous time followed by a thorough rinse. For products which were meant for daily use, SLS and ALS were proclaimed unsafe and even carcinogenic in the long run.

Now here lies the problem. Shampoos are used at least thrice a week. We brush our teeth every day, multiple times a day. We use soap all the time. Our clothes are washed with detergents that contain SLS on a daily basis. We are walking, talking infusions of this substance that is meant to be used very sparingly. 

Skin specialists are the first to note the increased instance of skin problems in men and women. The main reason for this increase might not just be the polluted times we live in. Take, for example, the shampoo that you use. The SLS in that shampoo acts as a de-greasing agent, binding to the dirt on the hair and scalp and removing it when you rinse your hair. Yet, even after a thorough wash, SLS residue remains lodged in your scalp. Over a course of time, more and more of this residue is absorbed by your skin and acts as a drying agent, which causes hair loss and fall. It also causes acne as your hair comes in contact with your face, as does the foam of the shampoo. 

Most shampoos and cleansers contain 20 per cent of SLS and ALS, while research has indicated that a mere five per cent concentration of the substance used over a period of time can do significant damage.

However, the damage is not just limited to skin conditions. Baby shampoos contain SLS and the foam goes into your child’s eyes. Animal studies showed that 10 per cent SLS was enough to cause acute corneal damage. Moreover, many researchers have theorised, but not proved, that gradual absorption of this substance through the skin causes hormonal imbalances. SLS is also a mutagen i.e. it contains the ability to corrode genetic material in every cell in our body and therefore has been accused of being a carcinogenic substance.

Armed with this knowledge, what do we do? Do we stop washing ourselves and throw away all soaps? Well, no. One can keep clean and toxin free. Ever since big supermarkets have started mushrooming all over the country, it is not difficult getting your hands on a variety of herbal products, but the trick is that you have to search for the right one, for they are not all that easily available and are quite expensive.

However, if you’re not up for herb searching, you can go back and see what your elders used when all these ‘fancy products’ were not in vogue: gram flour was used with milk and lemon as a face wash. Miswak was used to clean one’s teeth. Many people still make their own shampoos from herbs. In a nutshell, if ever there was a time to go natural and replace chemicals with home ingredients, it is now.

But that is not all. The availability of safe products is determined by the demand you create for them. If you as a consumer can raise your voice and ask for a safe, toxin free product, the store catering to your needs will be made aware for the demand for this product. If enough consumers raise their voice against unsafe products and refrain from buying them, manufacturers and suppliers will be forced to cater to a more informed and conscious market and provide SLS and other toxin free goods. It all comes down to simple economics. 

So go ahead and make a more informed choice. It will pay off in the long run.

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