A while back, I was talking with a friend of mine (we’ll call her Jane to preserve her privacy) who was experiencing a strange and troublesome face rash. She had been suffering with a painful, burning, and unsightly red rash for many weeks, and was at her wit’s end trying to find a solution to her problem. Her doctor was perplexed as to the cause and prescribed typical symptom-focused medication—in this case a strong topical steroid cream that only worsened the rash.
Knowing that most health conditions have an environmental (external) cause, we sat down and decided to analyze the problem to see if we could uncover the offending source. She had been experiencing the problem fairly consistently for an indeterminate period of time, which she estimated to be ‘many weeks’. She couldn’t remember or have any record of the first occurrence, but she did remember it came on fairly suddenly. Prior to this incident, she had clear and unblemished skin.
The rash was mostly located on her face, slightly worse on her forehead and beside her eyes. She also complained of an itchy scalp, but exhibited no signs of any other symptoms such as flaking skin and dandruff. The problem seemed to follow her wherever she went, including occasional short trips to visit friends and family. Nobody else that she knew of was experiencing similar problems, including her adult son who was boarding with her. The rash was fairly severe and wasn’t getting worse, but seemed to be more severe in the mornings.
The trick to identifying the cause of most rapid-onset health problems is to uncover the unique characteristics pertaining to either the habits of the affected person, the location of the problem, or the timing of presentation. In this case, we did not have many closely related individuals in her sphere of influence to compare her to other than the son who lived with her. Although they shared a common diet and living arrangements, there were too many other differences to list (work, age, lifestyle, activities, social network, etc.) Also, because the timing of first occurrence of the outbreak was also unclear, we couldn’t use this as an easy method to see what changed around that time that might have caused or contributed to the problem.
But we did have pretty good IS/IS NOT data pertaining to the location on her body where the rash was observed: primarily on her face, worsening nearer her scalp line. Cosmetics was an obvious suspect, but the itchiness and proximity of the rash to her scalp brought up a more relevant question. What was she putting on or in her hair that might be causing her to have this kind of reaction? She indicated that she didn’t color her hair or undergo any harsh hair treatment such as perms—she just used regular shampoo and conditioner to wash her hair like everybody else.
I then asked if she had made any changes to the brand she normally used to wash and condition her hair. She couldn’t remember, but did mention that she occasionally changes the brand she uses since she’d read somewhere this helps to keep her hair vibrant and ‘on its toes’. Wondering if we might be able to narrow the cause further, I asked if she knew if her son used the same shampoo and conditioner, since they lived in the same house. She wasn’t sure but thought it unlikely since they had separate bathrooms and her son shopped separately for his own toiletries.
We seemed to be at an impasse, but the evidence pointed to something about her hair products (she showered and washed her hair daily in the morning) as a likely cause or contributor to her problem. I asked her to fetch a bottle of her shampoo and conditioner from her washroom, and we both read the list of ingredients together. There was a long list of chemical-sounding terms, including sodium lauryl sulfate, sodium chloride, polysorbate, citric acid, quaternium-15, amodimethicone, any many others. Any one of these sounded sinister enough to cause a skin reaction, but which one was the troublemaker—or could it be that some of these ingredients were working together to create some kind of caustic cocktail?
We decided to take a quick trip to the local shopping mall and compare her product ingredients with those of other brands to see if we could narrow down to any particular ingredient that she was using. This turned out to not be much help, since there were literally hundreds of brands and versions of shampoo and conditioner, and most of these products contained many similar ingredients. (In retrospect, it might have been more productive to have gone to a health food or organic store to compare the list of ingredients, where presumably the number and toxicity of the ingredients would be lower.)
Once again we seemed to be stuck, so we decided to go on the Internet to research the ingredients in her particular products and see if any connection could be found with a similar skin rash. We found many health boards alight with complaints pertaining to the toxicity of many similar beauty product ingredients, but one ingredient in particular seemed to garner the most attention: quaternium. Quaternium is a formaldehyde-releasing preservative produced from baby placenta. I suppose the thinking of the geniuses working in the labs of the personal beauty products companies is that if the stuff comes out of babies or is used in the creation of babies, that if you slather it all over your skin it will make your skin and hair look younger and more baby-like? But as you may recognize, formaldehyde is also an embalming chemical used in funeral homes to help preserve the skin of recently deceased people! So I guess it works both ways. What is known for sure is that formaldehyde is a recognized carcinogen, declared cancer-causing almost twenty years ago by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Upon further investigation, we found many studies demonstrating a clear link between formaldehyde exposure and contact allergic dermatitis.
But we couldn’t yet be sure if this or one of the many other toxic-sounding chemical ingredients was the real smoking gun causing her trouble, so Jane booked an appointment with a dermatologist to have some tests taken. Sure enough, the dermatologist ran the standard skin allergen tests including quaternium in the sample set, and discovered an extreme skin reaction by Jane to this one ingredient!
So it looked like we had found the clear cause of Jane’s problem, but finding a workable solution wasn’t going to be so easy. Jane went back to the beauty products store looking for a shampoo/conditioner that didn’t include this ingredient, only to find that 99% of the products contained it! She had to search long and far, visiting many stores, before finally finding a shampoo/conditioner that didn’t include this apparently ‘essential’ ingredient. She threw out the old shampoo/conditioner, replaced it with the new product, and her rash subsequently quickly resolved over the next few days.
In the years since Jane and I analyzed this case, environmental and consumer groups have raised the profile of this and other caustic chemicals. Recently, the giant consumer products company Johnson & Johnson removed formaldehyde and and another caustic chemical, dioxane, from its famously popular ‘No More Tears’ baby shampoo. Other large beauty products companies are beginning to similarly purge dangerous chemicals from their products, and last year Walmart announced it would require its suppliers to reduce or eliminate 10 specified chemicals from its personal care products. But buyer beware: quaternium is still an extremely widespread ingredient in hundreds of products, and not just beauty products. Also recognize that formaldehyde per se won’t be listed on many packages since it isn’t technically an ingredient, rather a substance that is released over time from other compounds. (Here is a partial list of compounds known to release formaldehyde.)
As always, the best protected consumer is an educated consumer. Be aware of carcinogenic and skin-irritating materials, as well as the FDA-listed substances containing these compounds. As a general rule, the fewer the ingredients and the more organic the ingredients used to make a product, the safer you will be. Remember, our bodies have evolved to their current state based on our cumulative exposure to and consumption of ‘natural’ materials found in nature—we still haven’t adapted to the relatively recent and extreme modifications introduced by modern technology. Live long and live naturally!
By Reid Jenner