Blind Faith Is Misguided

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Loyalty is a wonderful thing. However, blind loyalty is dangerous. This involves forming an opinion without knowing all the facts. We’ve seen this happen when it comes to the word ”natural.”

We’re in favor of natural, of course. We’ve brought you useful herbal products and steered you away from harmful ones. We used facts in making our recommendations. During our shampoo trial, however, we noticed that the concept of ”natural” is being used inappropriately to shape buying habits.

The Internet is a wonderful tool for disseminating information. Unfortunately, it’s not always accurate. Specifically, there’s a great deal of propaganda circulating about dangers to health or the environment posed by a host of shampoo ingredients.

One is that sodium laureth (or lauryl, its cousin) sulfate causes cancer. We found one study that used it together with another compound and found potentially precancerous changes in cells growing in a dish in the laboratory. These were skin cells that had been aged by sun exposure and were being constantly exposed to the chemical. In real life, shampoos are rinsed off after a few minutes.

The truth of the matter is that we know of no shampoo ingredients that have been adequately studied for environmental toxicity. All surfactants, detergents and soaps have a potential for skin irritation or allergic reactions, as do herbal ingredients.

It’s even more upsetting that many products claiming to offer nontoxic, gentle, environmentally safe, natural ingredients contain the very things that are suspect. They may not contain the one chemical du jour people are talking about, but they all contain others just as suspect — or worse.

The Environmental Working Group (EWG; see www.ewg.org) is a nonprofit organization that maintains an extensive database of toxicological information, including one on ingredients in cosmetics and shampoos at www.cosmeticsdatabase.com. They rank chemicals numerically regarding evidence of various potential risks.

One shampoo in our trial that made strong natural claims and highlighted one ”suspect” ingredient not in its formula actually contained eight other chemicals on the EWG list. And one of those ingredients was rated in the highly toxic category.

Why are we more alarmed at the misleading claims than we are at the ingredients in the products' First, there’s no such thing as a natural shampoo. Even plain old soap contains one of the most toxic substances on the planet — lye.

Second, we put the toxicity rating in perspective. The EWG score is heavily based on things like the potential for allergy/irritation and on experiments that use the ingredient in question in a way it would never be used or in very high concentrations. In short, it’s speculative.

What grinds us most, though, is that consumers might pay a premium price for a shampoo because of a blind loyalty toward ”natural.” If you make a purchase only based on claims in ads, you may be misled.

-Eleanor Kellon, VMD