The skin is the body’s largest organ and one that performs an incredible number of functions, some of which are quite contradictory. While skin may be an organ itself, it is like the glue that holds all the other organs together and protects them from the external environment. Skin is sometimes called the ‘second kidney’ as it helps expel both heat and dirt via perspiration while being water-resistant itself. The skin has several interconnected circulation systems such as blood, sebum, sweat, lymph and nerve systems that can easily be harmed by chemical absorption.
Ancient cultures never had any doubts about the importance of skin absorption. They knew that entire medicinal systems were concerned with effectively applying natural medicines directly onto the skin. In China, the benefits of combining acupuncture with moxibustion i.e. applying burning herbs to certain points of skin were well understood. Native American tribes put herbal poultices onto injured body parts after heating the former to improve permeability and circulation. Western medicine strangely thought of skin as being impervious to absorption until as recently as the mid-20th century. Now however, absorption is taken for granted and many drugs including oestrogen, nicotine and nitro-glycerine are administered through skin patches. Unfortunately, the selectively permeable nature of skin has only been brought to light because of the damage that has been caused by manmade, harmful chemicals.
A tragic, well-known example is that of 40 men employed in a chemical factory in California in the year 1960. Dibromochloropropane i.e. a dangerous nematocide was produced by the plant. The men exposed to dibromochloropropane were rendered infertile and this was mainly due to skin exposure, as airborne chemical levels were kept well under control. Another chemical by the name of hexachlorophene was a popular ingredient in soap in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Hexachlorophene caused brain damage and even death in babies who used the soap. Pesticides, herbicides, solvents and disinfectants are some chemicals that can also be absorbed through skin exposure. This is primarily because these chemicals show a tendency to dissolve into fats that can penetrate the skin.
There is an increased awareness in recent times of chemical dermal exposure, particularly when it comes to occupational illnesses. A number of governmental agencies must be credited for taking worker safety extremely seriously. The absorption of chemicals used in daily skin and hair care products has not been sufficiently studied, though. According to the Worldwatch Institute, approximately 75,000 chemicals can come into contact with the skin. A good portion of these chemicals are man-made and the long-term exposure effects are still unknown. Even a very low level of exposure that is certainly present in a modern day scenario could potentially cause either intermediate or long-term health problems. It is impossible to say with absolute certainty that there is no danger, and anyone who does so is merely speculating.
When the Cosmetic Labelling Act was passed in 1977 and manufacturers were mandated to list ingredients, only synthetic chemicals were mentioned. There were very few herbs listed. In the 40 years since that time, the dictionary has massively expanded and many new listings are herbal in nature. However, the old-fashioned notion that skin can be polished with any material as the latter will not be absorbed is still quite strong. This means that the colour cosmetics market is still rife with synthetic material, the effects of which have not been studied enough. The good news is that highly beneficial herbs can also be absorbed by the skin. Chemicals used in commonly used products function as thickeners, foam-builders, sequestering agents and synthetic colours. These chemicals hardly better the health and beauty of skin or hair. Their main purpose is to make the products look or feel good enough to sell. That is why it would be better to go green as what one does not know could certainly hurt.