Joe Mercola’s shampoo woo

Even after having been at this skeptical medical blogging game for nearly six years, every so often I still come across woo about which I had been previously unaware. It’s hard to believe, but it’s true. In fact, I’m beginning to think that, even if I were to keep blogging until I drop dead (hopefully at least thirty or forty years in the future), as I type out my last extra cantankerous bit of not-so-Respectful Insolence (my cantankerousness merely increasing with advancing age, of course), I would come across some new and spectacular form of woo that somehow had been missed during my forty-plus years of blogging, leading to a massive myocardial infarction. Either that, or it will amuse me so much that I’ll die laughing. Whatever the case, I never say never when it comes to the possibility that there’s bigger, badder, and more amusing woo out there that I haven’t found yet.

Sometimes this woo is surprisingly mundane. Yet in its very mundaneness it provides an abject lessons in the sorts of nonsensical arguments used by promoters of “alternative” medicine that are sufficiently amusing that they rise to the level of rating a little bit of not-so-Respectful Insolence fired their way. Few purveyors of such quackery are as adept at using such nonsensical arguments, all with a straight face to convince the marks, as “Dr.” Joe Mercola. Well, maybe Mike Adams, who, being number two in the online quack world, apparently tries harder, as you’ll see next week when I get around to examining his latest venture. In the meantime, did you know that shampoo is killing you? My wife mentioned that she had come across websites claiming that shampoo and cosmetics are horribly toxic. Apparently Dr. Mercola is on that particular bandwagon, as I discovered not too long ago. You see, I’m on the Mercola.com e-mail list, which allows me to monitor what he’s writing and from time to time provides me with blogging material.

Material like a post that arrived in my mailbox a week or two ago entitled “I Recommend You STOP Using Your Shampoo and Conditioner Until You Read This” Despite the potentially toxic ingredients in your shampoo and conditioner, the FDA doesn’t have the resources to stop them from flooding the market… It even has a happy smiley video of Dr. Mercola himself:

Oh, goody.

Mercola lists five “toxic” ingredients that many shampoos contain. He starts out with a particularly hilarious example, sodium lauryl sulfate, also known as sodium dodecyl sulfate or SDS:

Did you know the same ingredient which produces all that foam and lather when you shampoo your hair is also the ingredient used in car washes and garages as a degreasing agent?

Um, no, but so what? SDS is basically soap. It can help solubilize grease and suspend dirt on cars so that they can be more easily removed the same way it can solubilize grease on your skin to help remove it. That’s what soap does. In fact, if you consult the almight Wikipedia, you’ll find that SDS is usually made from cocunut or palm kernel oil, just as other forms of soap are made from fatty acids from animals. Normally, Mercola would consider that to be natural, except when he doesn’t. That’s because SDS has a nasty, chemical name, making it more conveniently demonized in front of all those devotees of all “natural” lifestyles. If SDS is an evil, vile chemical, then so is soap.

If you believe Mercola, SDS is pure evil:

It’s true. And not only does it act as a penetration enhancer (allowing other potentially toxic ingredients to slip into your bloodstream), but according to the Environmental Working Group’s “Skin Deep: Cosmetic Safety Reviews”, research studies on SLS have shown links to…

  • Irritation of skin and eyes
  • Organ toxicity
  • Development / reproductive toxicity
  • Neurotoxicity, endocrine disruption, ecotoxicological, and biochemical or cellular changes
  • Possible mutations and cancer

If you visit the SLS page on the Environmental Working Group’s (a non-profit public-interest research group known for making connections between chemical exposure and adverse health conditions) website, you will see a very long list of health concerns and associated research studies. In fact, you will also see their mention of nearly 16,000 studies in the PubMed science library (as well as their link to that list) about the toxicity of this chemical.

I went to the Environmental Working Group’s webpage on SDS. Notice one thing that Mercola leaves out:

Given the incomplete information made available by companies and the government, EWG provides additional information on personal care product ingredients from the published scientific literature. The chart below indicates that research studies have found that exposure to this ingredient — not the products containing it — caused the indicated health effect(s) in the studies reviewed by Skin Deep researchers. Actual health risks, if any, will vary based on the level of exposure to the ingredient and individual susceptibility — information not available in Skin Deep.

Now, how many of you work in a molecular biology lab? If you do, you come across SDS all the time, as it’s a detergent used for many purposes, from lysing cells to unwinding and solubilizing proteins to a use I made of it many times back when I was in graduate school, namely as part of a slimy buffer used to do Northern blots known as Church buffer, which contained 7% SDS. I’ll also point out that SDS in its powder form is indeed nasty stuff. It’s easily dispersed into the air in a fine powder, which can easily be breathed in or come to rest in the eyes, causing intense irritation and inflammation. That’s why I always wore a protective mask, glove, and goggles when mixing up my four liter batches of Church buffer. Let’s put it this way. I once spilled a bunch of SDS, which puffed up in a big plume of powdery nastiness, which I then proceeded to breathe in. It was several minutes before I stopped coughing. In any case, anyone who’s ever worked in a molecular biology lab knows how nasty SDS is.

However, pure SDS in a powder is a very different thing than a dilute solution of SDS in a shampoo or soap. Yet those attacking it as an ingredient in soap and cosmetics often disingenuously conflate the two uses. Does this mean that there isn’t a potential health risk? No. However, SDS is a detergent that’s been used for a very long time. Its potential problems are fairly well known, problems such as skin irritation and irritation of mucus membranes. In any case, the almighty Snopes.com has an excellent discussion of SDS, pointing out that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the National Toxicology Program (NTP), and the International Agency for Research on Cancer all have rated SDS as non-carcinogenic. It also points out that cinnamon oil could burn your mouth something awful if swallowed undiluted but tthat doesn’t mean that dilute concentrations are unsafe. Particularly amusing is the part where it is pointed out that the reason there are health warnings on SDS-containing toothpastes not to swallow too much is because it can cause diarrhea.

I spent a lot of time on the SDS example because I have personal experience with it and it’s a ubiquitous detergent used in virtually every molecular biology laboratory, found in many soaps and shampoos, and other products. It also lays bare the usual forms of crap arguments used by promoters of quackery when attacking ingredients in various products. What irritates me about such idiotic arguments is that morons like Mercola don’t differentiate between chemicals that might actually pose a legitimate concern and chemicals that don’t, like SDS.

Another example is the dreaded “Toxic ingredient #5: Propylene glycol”:

This active ingredient is found in engine coolants and antifreeze, airplane de-icers, tire sealants, rubber cleaners, polyurethane cushions, paints, adhesives, enamels and varnishes, and in many products as a solvent or surfactant.

And guess what? Despite the fact the material safety data sheet warns users to avoid skin contact with propylene glycol as it is a strong skin irritant and can also cause liver abnormalities and kidney damage, it’s more than likely in your shampoo!

Oh, no! And there’s formaldehyde in vaccines, too!

The same principles that apply to SDS apply to this example too, but even more so. In fact, concentrated propylene glycol or even pure propylene glycol is actually not even all that irritating to the skin. It also takes a lot of ingested propylene glycol to cause liver and kidney damage, although when it’s injected intravenously as a carrier for some drugs propylene glycol can cause severe reactions in some individuals. I’ve heard of such reactions in chemotherapy patients because polypropylene glycol is used as a stabilizer and carrier for some chemotherapeutic drugs. Do I really have to point out that a direct intravenous bolus of polypropylene is a lot different than skin contact with a dilute solution? Why, yes. Yes, I do believe that I do. Mercola makes it necessary.

Given that this is Joe Mercola, there are also multiple other examples of burning stupid:

But did you know MSG, short for monosodium glutamate, is also more than likely in your shampoo, often secretly hidden and referred to as amino acids, yeast extract, nayad, glutamic acid, or glutamates?

Um, yes, but that’s because monosodium glutamate is the sodium salt of an amino acid, glutamic acid. It’s also impossible not to point out to Dr. Mercola that MSG is totally natural. As a nonessential amino acid, it’s used to make every protein in your–yes, your!–body! It’s also very important in normal metabolism, particularly mitochondrial metabolism. Funny how Mercola demonizes natural substances, isn’t it? Why is he doing that? After all, by Mercola’s usual arguments, glutamine should be just fine for everyone, even if it isn’t. After all, it’s natural! In fact, it’s a hell of a lot more natural than a lot of the supplements he hawks on his website.

One of other two toxic substances that Mercola includes in his Gang of Five is dioxane. Conveniently enough, the myth of people being poisoned by dioxane in shampoo was ably dealt with in the same Snopes.com article that dealt with SDS. As for diethanolamine, the FDA says this:

The National Toxicology Program (NTP) completed a study in 1998 that found an association between the topical application of diethanolamine (DEA) and certain DEA-related ingredients and cancer in laboratory animals. For the DEA-related ingredients, the NTP study suggests that the carcinogenic response is linked to possible residual levels of DEA. The NTP study did not establish a link between DEA and the risk of cancer in humans.

Finally, it occurs to me that Mercola ought to change the number of allegedly toxic ingredients in shampoos to six, because he spends an entire sidebar going after parabens, lambasting them as potential endocrine disruptors. He even strongly implies that these compounds can cause problems with fertility, fluid retention, and depression because that’s what too much estrogen can cause. There’s just one problem. There’s no convincing evidence that parabens, used in the concentrations in such products, contribute significant estrogenic activity. In fact, a review in Critical Reviews in Toxicology by Golden et al from 2005 concluded:

Based on these comparisons using worst-case assumptions pertaining to total daily exposures to parabens and dose/potency comparisons with both human and animal no-observed-effect levels (NOELs) and lowest-observed-effect levels (LOELs) for estrogen or DES, it is biologically implausible that parabens could increase the risk of any estrogen-mediated endpoint, including effects on the male reproductive tract or breast cancer. Additional analysis based on the concept of a hygiene-based margin of safety (HBMOS), a comparative approach for assessing the estrogen activities of weakly active EACs, demonstrates that worst-case daily exposure to parabens would present substantially less risk relative to exposure to naturally occurring EACs in the diet such as the phytoestrogen daidzein.

Does that mean parabens are perfectly safe? No. As the FDA concedes, there is a still lot unknown about them. However, based on current evidence it is highly unlikely that parabens are dangerous endocrine disruptors that will shrivel men’s penises and render women infertile, as Mercola seems to be implying through scare language without actually saying it. Whatever risk there is, if any, appears to be very low. Mercola, as many such fear mongers do, is afraid of the nasty, evil sounding chemical names.

The rest of the piece is a Mike Adams-worthy rant beginning thusly:

You might think that because your skin is about one tenth of an inch thick, it protects your body from absorbing the many things you come into contact with.

But the truth is, when you consume toxins in foods, such as pesticides in fruit and vegetables, the enzymes in your saliva and stomach often break them down and flush them out of your body. Food also passes through your liver and kidneys. The toxins which make it through are detoxified to varying degrees by enzymes before they reach the remainder of your body.

However when toxins are absorbed through your skin, they bypass your liver and enter your bloodstream and tissues – with absolutely no protection whatsoever.

Think of it like this: when you put shampoo or conditioner into your hair, the twenty blood vessels, 650 sweat glands, and 1,000 nerve endings soak in the toxins.

Which, of course, if you believe people like Joe Mercola must be “detoxified” forthwith, preferably with some of his expensive supplements and nostrums.

This is, of course, silly. While it’s true that ingested substances do go to a subset of the circulation where they pass through the liver before going out to the rest of the body, the liver doesn’t just detoxify substances. Sometimes it activates them. For instance, the chemotherapeutic agent cyclophosphamide is converted into active metabolites, chief among them 4-hydroxycyclophosphamide, in the liver. The same is true for many orally administered drugs, which are inactive unless they undergo “detoxification” in the liver. Pharmacologists and physicians know that the detoxification activities of the liver aren’t always benign. Apparently Mercola skipped those lectures in medical school or his brain’s been so warped by the woo that the liver, being an organ and all, can never, ever harm you.

So why does Mercola have his tighty-whiteys in such a bunch over shampoo? Is it because he so cares about your health that he doesn’t want you to use the evil, chemical-laden products of the cosmetics industry? Certainly he’d like his readers to think that. Is it because he hates the cosmetics industry and doesn’t trust it. That’s probably one reason. Don’t get me wrong, though. Like the case for the pharmaceutical industry, being distrustful of the cosmetics industry is a good thing as long as you don’t take it to a paranoid extreme; true to form, Mercola takes it to a paranoid extreme. Maybe not quite Mike Adams-level paranoid (I can’t help but think that if Adams had written this screed, he would have added typical flourishes in which he accused the cosmetics industry of chemical warfare and thrown in a couple of gratuitous Nazi allusions in the form of comparing the cosmetics industry to IG Farben, the German chemical company one of whose subsidiaries, Degesch, manufactured Zyklon B, the poison gas used at the extermination camps), but paranoid enough. When it comes to paranoia, Mercola is clearly number two, but maybe he’ll try harder.

No, the reason Mercola is trashing the cosmetics industry is a time-dishonored one: He’s selling a competing product, and an effective strategy to increase sales of one’s product is to cast doubt on the competition, to make it sound as though it’s dangerous, and then present the alternative product:

Take a moment to check out the chart above and then compare the ingredients with the veritable witch’s brew of potentially carcinogenic ingredients and contaminants found in those you’ll find at your local salon and supermarket shelves. You’ll see that my Volumizing Shampoo and Revitalizing Conditioner gives you all the goodness without the potentially negative effects.

You won’t find any of the nasty toxins commonly found in shampoos such as Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, parabens, Ethylene oxide, DEA, MSG, or propylene glycol.

When you can’t find a reasonable rationale for irrational-seeming behavior, look for the financial motivation. Mercola may demonize big pharma for being about making money über alles, but in fact he’s just as much about making money as the biggest pharmaceutical company. The difference is that, for all ethical lapses of big pharma and shortcomings in the laws regulating pharmaceutical companies and drug development, pharmaceutical companies are heavily regulated, and their products are stringently tested before being approved. In constrast, Mercola’s products, particularly his supplements, do not appear to be. One wonders if, for all his ranting against how the cosmetics industry supposedly gets away with minimal testing, Mercola subjects his shampoo woo to the same level of testing to which the cosmetics industry subjects its products.

Somehow I doubt it.

ADDENDUM: Oh, no! Not a fellow ScienceBlogger falling for this stuff! Here’s a hint, Christina: The über-crank, über-quack Mike Adams likes the video you posted:

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That is not a ringing endorsement. As I said before, Mike Adams runs the number two quackery promotion site on the Internet, as far as I know, right behind Joe Mercola’s website.

Oh, and the badmouthing of Estee Lauder that occurs in that video is not cool, at least not based on anything having to do with breast cancer. The Lauder family’s Breast Cancer Research Foundation has done amazing work in funding innovative research in breast cancer. Geez. I should have taken apart this video as well as Joe Mercola’s deceptive article. (Disclosure: I have received funding from the BCRF.)