Thursday, December 5, 2013

How To Protect Yourself In A Purple Chemical World

Chemicals, Chemicals! Everywhere!

My sister, the biochemist, told me one day ‘Chemistry isn’t poetry.’

Back in the day, I never used Dippity Do.  I used the purple hair setting lotion that’s been ubiquitous in salons and sold at drugstores all over Chicago for years.  I used it often at home and every hair stylist I ever went to used the purple stuff.

I used the purple stuff from my teenage years until about 10 years ago – many, many decades.

I Like Reading Labels

Funny, every time I picked-up the bottle of purple stuff I was drawn to read the ingredients list and one word in particular ALWAYS stuck-out to  me.  It’s such a pleasant sounding word, so melodious – not frightening at all.

 I love words, I love English.

But the purple lotion ingredient sounded like Japanese Haiku - futuristic Haiku.

The purple stuff made my scalp itch horribly. I regularly yanked-out hairs from inflamed follicles. But my relaxed hair had firm curls no matter the weather or how high the humidity climbed.

My sister told me that chemical and scientific words have to be treated differently-every suffix and prefix has to be carefully considered to completely understand the chemical’s function. And so I looked-up the lovely sounding chemical term on the purple lotion’s bottle. 

The term is “q-u-a-t-e-r-n-i-u-m 15”

 Cosmetic Ingredient Research

I discovered that Quaternium-15 is a preservative that releases formaldehyde. Apparently, I had been having an allergic reaction to it for years.

The resource I used is “Don’t Go To The Cosmetics Counter Without Me” by Paula Begoun. Paula first published this book in 1991.  I used the 2000 edition.

I stopped using the purple stuff immediately.  (Note-it’s still sold in stores and still has the formaldehyde forming ingredient Quaternium-15).

Nowadays, I use Paula’s book and  internet resources to look up each and every unfamiliar chemical that I come across on cosmetics’ labels.

Cosmetic Ingredient Research Case Study

I had to do this recently for a hair coloring product.

I have 10% gray hair, but it ALL seems to be at my temples and along my front hairline. I was so tired of wearing headbands all the time.

I used some lightweight color products without ammonia or peroxide with great success for a few years.  But after a time, the color treatments just didn’t seem to cover or even “camouflage” the gray.

I knew that it was time for stronger coloring products.  But just having gotten on the highway to leave relaxers behind and go ‘au natural’, I just couldn’t pull the trigger. I figured I might mess-up the natural texture of my hair with stronger coloring products before I could really appreciate my true hair type.

Then the girl at the hair products store told me I could buy a product to make the temporary color stronger and last longer. It was the tiniest little packet of chemicals, the size and thickness of a sticky note. And it only cost $5.

 I looked at the ingredients list and one word in particular dredged-up something in my distant memory – something about severe allergic reactions and deaths.  I declined to buy the little chemical packet!

Phenylenediamine or Paraphenylenediamine or PPD are the terms for this particular chemical.

Who’s Responsible for Your Safety?

I decided to use a gray-covering hair powder that I saw on a TV shopping network.

When it was delivered, I noticed many chemical terms on the label that I had never seen before.  I pondered whether ‘the shopping channel would sell something with dangerous chemicals.’ And, ‘Surely their quality department has examined the chemical list for dangerous stuff.’


I looked-up each and every long, complex chemical word on the hair powder’s ingredients list.  All the chemicals seem OK for cosmetic use. I used Paula Begoun’s "Cosmetic Cop" website at to check-out the terms.

Today, there are many, many internet websites that are available for use by ordinary women not just biochemists, to research cosmetic chemical terms. But Paula Begoun was a pioneer with her book 25 years ago.

 I am responsible for taking steps to keep myself safe. What about you and your children?

Thank you Paula Begoun for keeping me informed and for helping me to protect myself all these years.


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