Dan Thompson: Beauty Busted


Ingredient Watch: Sodium Hydroxymethylglycinate

Cosmetic Preservatives Can Be Confusing

Over the last few years, consumers have become more and more aware of the ingredients used in their personal care products. There has been a lot of conversation, tweeting, blogging, discussion, and general confusion about what constitutes a safe ingredient and what constitutes a "toxic" one.

I have always said that savvy consumers should read the labels carefully and be aware of what they are actually buying. When it comes to active ingredients, cosmetics companies like to overhype the abilities of the ingredients to imply some miracle-in-a-jar. Of course, this is often just marketing hype, with little or no truth behind the claims.

But what about inactive ingredients?

The most maligned category of inactive ingredients is that of preservativesthere is a lot of misinformation about them and a lot of media hype around the possibility of preservatives causing really terrible health problems. Aside from the fact that there has never been a single case of anyone being diagnosed with any type of cancer or genotoxic reaction from using a finished cosmetic product, the misinformation continues. So much so, that even industry professionals are so confused that they do not know what will be the next ingredient that will be the "toxic" killer!

This week, I was asked by Terra20a new concept department store opening in Ottawa, on Saturdayto explain an ingredient in a cosmetic that had some people in their office concerned about the safety risks for their customers. This is a legitimate concern, of course, and one that I was happy to help with.

Since parabens have become a preservative ingredient that consumers no longer want to see in their cosmetics, there have been a great many alternatives that have been getting a lot of attention. One such group is the formaldehyde-releasing preservativesalso not very popular with consumers. Urea is a prime example of this type of ingredient, and it has been getting some bad press, because of the potential risks of formaldehyde on the skin. As such, a lot of people are now asking if there is a formaldehyde-releasing ingredient in their cosmetics, and Terra20 has a mandate to not sell any cosmetics containing these types of ingredients.

Which brings me to Sodium Hydroxymethylglycinate.

This preservative has become popular with cosmetics manufacturers, because it is regarded as a very safe alternative to many objectionable preservative ingredients. It does, however, have some degree of confusion surrounding its safety.

The question I was asked is why some people say it is a formadehyde-releasing preservative and some people say it is not. Also, I was asked what my opinion is regarding this ingredient.

Here is my reply to Terra20:

1. Sodium Hydroxymethylglycinate is a naturally derived preservative that is effective in both hydrophobic and hydrophilic solutions to prevent the growth of bacteria and microbes.  
2. It is an inert salt that has one of the lowest reaction rates of any preservative used in cosmetics. It is distilled from pure glycine, which is one of the 20 amino acids found in the human body, and precursor to human protein development.  
3. Unlike other preservatives, Sodium Hydroxymethylglycinate remains stable across a wide range of pH levels and temperatures, making it an ideal ingredient for cosmetics.
4. While it is true, it can break down into formaldehyde, it does not mean it will. There is the possibility, but unlike Ureawhich will always break down into formaldehydeSodium Hydroxymethylglycinate does not.  
Let me explain:
1. Sodium Hydroxymethylglycinate will break down when it is used at concentrations of 1% or higher in a cosmetic formula (98% of the time, or basically 1 in 1 application). The risk of reaction is real at this concentration.  
2. The legal limit for use in cosmetics is a 0.5% concentration, and as the concentration drops, the reaction of formaldehyde release drops exponentially. At a 0.5% concentration, the compound will break down into formaldehyde 0.04% of the time (1 in 2,500 applications).  A consumer would need to use a finished formula every day for 7 years before risk of reaction would be a concern.  
3. Comparatively, Urea will release formaldehyde regardless of concentration.  
4. Here is the next interesting thing: used in concentrations of 0.2-0.4%, the risk drops even further, to 0.005% of the time (or, basically, 1 in 20, 000 applications). The most common concentration used in the industry falls within this range.
Let me be clear as to what this means in real world application: a consumer would have to use the finished product, containing Sodium Hydroxymethylglycinate, every day for 57 years before there was a statistical risk of formaldehyde release reaction.
This is considered a statistical 0% chance of reaction.
In my opinion, Sodium Hydroxymethylglycinate does not meet the requirement to be included on a formaldehyde release reaction list.