PICTURE YOUR early-morning routine. Most likely you get out of bed and head for the bathroom. You might start by cleaning your teeth with mint-flavoured toothpaste, then jump in the shower where you'll probably use foaming shampoo and maybe conditioner on your hair, pleasantly scented soap or shower gel on your skin. Afterwards, you will hopefully use deodorant. Men might lather on shaving foam, perhaps dab on a bit of moisturiser and probably splash on some aftershave; women might call into play an army of lotions and potions from cleanser, toner and moisturiser to butt-firming gel, cellulite-zapping cream, eau de toilette and any number of cosmetics. You look good. You smell nice. But you have unwittingly covered yourself with dozens of chemicals - maybe more if you are female, according to Ophelia Chan, author, part-time lecturer in holistic beauty at the Baptist University and the Chinese University of Hong Kong and owner of herbal beauty shop Ophelia Herbal Bliss in Central. Most months some new beauty product hits the shelves, claiming to perform miracles such as staving off the ageing process or turning lifeless hair into lustrous locks. Cult cream Creme de la Mer has a waiting list of consumers eager to pay the price for a miniscule jar of its cosmetic wonder, and there are countless others that claim to give you such aesthetically pleasing charms as gleaming white teeth, cellulite-free limbs and that much-coveted bloom of youth. But would you be so keen to part with your hard-earned cash for something that was the equivalent of slapping a bit of industrial anti-freeze on your face and body in the morning? Propylene glycol, a moisturising agent used in anti-freeze for cars, is found in nine out of 10 beauty products, says Chan. Supposedly helping your skin to rehydrate, it can do the opposite by coating your skin with a clingfilm-like layer and drying it out. It can stop skin from breathing, can cause contact dermatitis and other surface damage and, in the extreme, lead to kidney damage and liver abnormalities. 'We're all so aware of what we're ingesting but most of us haven't a clue what we're really putting on our skin and hair on a regular basis,' Chan says. 'We believe in brands and we think something must be especially good if it's expensive and comes in a shiny box. The labels on the majority of beauty products are an inventory of chemical ingredients - that is the only way to list them because that is what they are. But how many of us are chemists? You'd need a science degree to understand them.' Chan doesn't have a science degree. A former secretary in a corporate law firm 15 years ago, she became interested in herbal beauty after she developed a skin allergy to a 'famous branded cream'. Her hobby eventually became her life's passion so she gave up her job to pursue courses in skin-care ingredients at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), and hasn't stopped researching and talking about the subject since. 'I want to increase people's awareness of health and beauty, and teach them to become informed consumers,' she says. She gives regular lectures to the public about the benefits of 'green' products which consist of the natural extracts of herbs, plants and flowers. Although real nasties are prohibited, says Chan, 884 of the chemicals widely available for use in cosmetics were found to be toxic by the National Institute of Health in the United States in the 1980s; now there are more. These common ingredients such as talc (used in eyeshadows and baby products among others) can cause hair and skin allergies and, at worse, respiratory-tract irritation and various types of cancer. And at the top of her list of worst offenders when it comes to allergens is fragrance. Derived from more than 600 types of synthetic products, it apparently can trigger asthma and poison the nervous system. 'There might be only a small quantity of a particular noxious ingredient in a jar of moisturiser or a perfume, for example,' she says. 'But you might find this same ingredient in several different products you use regularly. That negligible component suddenly becomes a much more significant amount.' However, Chan is quick to point out that beauty products won't give you cancer per se - it is the cumulative effect of cosmetics' chemical ingredients, pollution and food additives over a sustained and lengthy period that could affect the immune system and lower resistance to disease. 'No one knows what the long-term effects of most of these products are,' says Chan. 'In 1959, for instance, more than 100 artificial colours were approved worldwide as being safe for use in beauty products. By 1989, this number dropped to 35 because, with time and more sophisticated technology, it was found that all the others were toxic. So things being used now that are supposedly 'safe' might not be in a few years.' Although ingredients in American beauty products have to be listed in the International Cosmetic Ingredient Dictionary published by the Cosmetics, Toiletries and Fragrances Association, and made public on the products themselves, they and the end product are not required to be approved by US regulatory body the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) before being sold to the public. The FDA does not have the authority to make manufacturers register their establishments, file data on ingredients and report cosmetic-related injuries; it can only exercise its powers of regulation once the product has hit the shelves. The responsibility for marketing safe, properly labelled products, for not using prohibited ingredients, and adhering to limits on restricted ingredients, lies with each cosmetic firm. 'Product safety has always been a priority at the Estee Lauder companies and is ensured through state-of-the-art testing methods,' says a Hong Kong spokesperson for Estee Lauder, one of the world's largest cosmetic houses, which includes Aveda, Clinique and Creme de la Mer in its stable. 'It [the Estee Lauder line] doesn't use propylene glycol or sodium laureth sulphate [SLS] in its products.' The company says its raw materials are tested on human skin cells to establish non-toxicity, and three proven in-vitro analyses are carried out for eye safety. Testing only begins on human volunteers (for the potential for irritation, stinging and allergic reactions) if initial tests are passed. Prior to being released on to the market, the end product undergoes test protocols to determine if any combination of ingredients causes untoward reactions, and is given to a large panel of consumers to verify its safety. In Hong Kong there are fewer safety nets. 'The Department of Health controls beauty products in Hong Kong, but nobody here stipulates that detailed ingredient labels have to be on cosmetics and fragrances,' says dermatologist Dr Lai Cham-fai. 'As far as I know, the Government doesn't test beauty ingredients or require products to substantiate performance claims. Products can be released without going through proper tests, and keep being sold unless there is proof they aren't safe. There have been incidents in the past in which huge amounts of mercury compounds were found to have been used in skin-lightening products made in Third World countries with few regulatory laws. Mercury compounds [included in a handful of ingredients whose use in cosmetics is prohibited or restricted] are easily absorbed through the skin and may cause allergic reactions and neurotoxicity. The products were on the shelves before their content was revealed.' But, in Lai's opinion, if you stick to products from reputable companies which impose their own rigorous safety controls, you shouldn't worry. 'I personally have never come across a patient who has contracted cancer from long-term cosmetic use although I suppose it is possible,' he says. 'Substances such as propylene glycol and SLS can cause skin irritation, dryness, allergies and organ malfunction if used in very high concentrations, but the concentration in mainstream beauty products is minimal. You might be unlucky and be allergic to such ingredients, but otherwise I don't think they 'destroy' your skin.' Cosmetic ingredients derive from four main sources: animals, plants, minerals and petroleum. Plant-based ingredients are the most expensive because they require cultivation and a costly extraction process; petroleum by-products are the cheapest and give instant results. According to Chan, they are also the worst for you. 'More than 95 per cent of products in the market contain petroleum ingredients, which seem to do us good while we use them,' she says. 'They cause the skin to deteriorate slowly because they disrupt the normal function and balance of the skin and dry it out.' Mineral oil, for example, used in eye gels, baby products, moisturisers and lawnmowers alike, is a good barrier, and like propylene glycol prevents moisture loss by forming a film on the skin. On the downside, it blocks pores, prohibits the skin's ability to breathe normally and release toxins - a process that slows down skin function and normal cell development causing the skin to prematurely age. And while soft suds feel nice, anything that foams will probably contain petrochemicals such as SLS. This detergent, used in carwash soaps and engine degreasers, is considered by many to be the most harmful ingredient in beauty products, but it is used widely in soaps and shampoos. Manufacturers like it because it's cheap and a small amount produces a lot of creamy foam, giving the illusion that the product is luxurious and beneficial when it strips the skin of its natural oils and proteins, and can commonly cause skin irritation and sensitivity. In extreme cases, it is said to bring about hair loss and eye, liver, lung and brain damage. In Chan's opinion, only botanical products heal and increase the skin's immunity in the long term but they aren't a quick fix. 'It's like health food. You can't eat healthily for only one day and expect to be in prime condition the next - it takes time for your body to readjust to these new habits. Similarly, a sugar boost will make you feel good for a short amount of time but isn't really giving you any health benefits.' Lai, however, isn't convinced. 'There has been no scientific proof that organic products are more beneficial,' he says. 'Like regular cosmetics, if an organic product isn't registered as a pharmaceutical, no proof is needed of its claims. Manufacturers can say anything.' Even the term 'natural' is misused. There are no legal guidelines as to what can and can't be inside a natural product, and many still contain preservatives, colouring agents and other unnatural-sounding things. 'Natural doesn't mean it's safe,' says Chan. 'Some people are allergic to aloe vera.' And don't be fooled by the word 'organic'. Says Chan: 'The description 'organic' is a great marketing tool. Most people don't realise that a product might contain only the merest hint of an organic ingredient combined with synthetics.' True, organic products have a limited shelf life of 18 months at most, compared to the three-year duration of 'artificial' products. Without all the preservatives of the latter, the various ingredients go off more quickly, particularly in warm climates. Chan admits that preservatives aren't always a bad thing - it's the type and number of them that are. 'We all use our fingertips to take cream out of a jar to put on our face,' she says. 'But no matter how clean you are, fingernails in particular are a hotbed of germs so you are effectively creating a breeding ground for bacteria in a jar. If many, or strong, preservatives are used, the less bacteria will be able to grow. 'But the disadvantage is these preservatives can be bad for your skin because they react with each other and other ingredients and release trace amounts of formaldehyde into the skin.' Defined as a colourless, poisonous gas, formal-dehyde can trigger skin reactions, heart palpitations, joint pain, allergies, depression, headaches, chest pains, ear infections and chronic fatigue. Chan suggests using a clean spatula to remove organic cream from a jar to avoid contamination. The water used in products is another contentious issue. 'Obviously the purer the water the better,' Chan says. 'If a company has used purified or mineral water in its products, it will say so on the label because these kinds of water are more expensive.' Chan acknowledges that many of us will find it nigh on impossible to give up the beauty products we use, particularly in Hong Kong where convenience is everything and holistic beauty outlets are thin on the ground. 'Stick to a basic beauty regime and don't use superfluous items such as serums and night creams,' she says. 'Try to avoid toners with alcohol, propylene glycol and artificial colours, and where possible use plant-based products that have been organically grown without pesticides and fertilisers. If a company has gone to all that trouble, believe me, it will tell you about it.' You don't have to go cold turkey, but even by substituting one 'green' beauty product for a more mainstream one you will be doing yourself a favour, according to Chan. 'Most importantly, read the product label before you buy,' she says. 'If it sounds like a grocery list, you're on the right track.' firstname.lastname@example.org Call Ophelia Chan on 2676 2885 for further information or details of her next lecture on decoding beauty labels. DECODING THE LABELS A random reading of beauty labels revealed that even the most expensive and 'natural' products on the market contain unsavoury chemicals Creme de la Mer: the caviar of cosmetics. Ingredients include mineral oil (used in lawnmowers, it can form a film on the skin, block pores, prohibits the skin's ability to breathe normally and release toxins, and accelerate ageing); paraffinum liquid (aka mineral oil); lanolin alcohol (lanolin is often contaminated with pesticides and can cause skin allergies); and paraffin. Eve Lom Cleansing Cream: a favourite with Hollywood A-listers and beauty editors. Ingredients include paraffinum liquid; PEG20 lanolin; methyl-, butyl-, ethyl- and propyl-parabens (anti-bacterial preservatives that can react with other ingredients to give off formaldehyde, a poisonous gas that can trigger skin reactions, and in extreme cases heart palpitations, joint pain, allergies, depression, headaches, chest pains, ear infections and chronic fatigue). Virgin Vie Hydrating Body Oil: says it will give your body a hydrating boost with algae-derived vitamins. Ingredients include SLS; propylene glycol (used in vehicle anti-freeze, it can have the same effect on your skin as mineral oil, dehydrating instead of rehydrating); parfum (aka fragrance, which contains more than 600 chemicals and can trigger asthma and poison the nervous system); algae is in the last 50 per cent of ingredients and therefore of minimal content. Naturals Shower Cream with Milk and Honey: claims to make your skin feel softer and more moist 'naturally'. Ingredients include SLS and DMDM hydantoin (a formaldehyde-releasing preservative); milk protein and honey are in the last 50 per cent of ingredients. Clairol's Herbal Essences Dandruff Shampoo: sounds herbal but is it? Ingredients include SLS; fragrance; D and C colours (derived from petrolatum and known to cause tumours in mice, as well as skin sensitivity and a depletion of oxygen in the body); salicylic acid (can cause skin burning); mulberry, orris and chrysanthemum extracts are in the last 50 per cent.