Consumer Council study of anti-stretch mark products for pregnant, postnatal women finds certain models have potentially harmful synthetic musks/phthalates, may risk foetal and infant exposure; group urges mothers to avoid exposure by checking ingredients

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August 15, 2022 (press release) –

One of the things pregnant women struggle with during pregnancy is the occurrence of stretch marks on their bellies that are difficult to disappear fully. This is why many pregnant women apply a wide range of anti-stretch mark products from the early stages of pregnancy until after giving birth. In this first-ever test of 30 anti-stretch mark products for pregnant and postnatal women, the Consumer Council found that more than 40% (14 of the models) were detected with fragrance allergens. In addition, 4 models were detected with potentially harmful substances i.e. synthetic musks and/or phthalates, which may increase the risk of foetal and infant exposure to potentially harmful substances through maternal transfer and breast milk. The Council reminds mothers who always have close contact with their newborn babies, particularly those who are breastfeeding, that if they need to use anti-stretch mark products on their breast areas, they should choose products that do not contain potentially harmful substances.

The Council stresses that safety is a fundamental right of consumers. Prolonged exposure to anti-stretch mark products containing musk compounds, phthalates and other potentially harmful substances may pose health risks to pregnant women, foetuses or newborns. As such, the Council advises product suppliers to reduce the content of potentially harmful substances in their products as much as possible or even eliminate the use of those ingredients altogether to strengthen the safeguard of the health of mothers, foetuses and infants.

The Council tested 30 models of anti-stretch mark products, including 12 anti-stretch mark oils and 18 anti-stretch mark creams, priced from around $90 to $570 per bottle/jar/tube. If we refer to the overseas risk assessment report of using an amount of 7.8g (or ml) per application, the cost per application ranges from $3.5 to $42.9.

6 Models Detected with 3 or More Types of Fragrance Allergens

The EU Cosmetics Regulation listed 26 fragrances as fragrance allergens. None of the 30 models tested was detected with any of the fragrance allergens prohibited for use in cosmetic products in the EU, including hydroxyisohexyl-3-cyclohexene carboxaldehyde (HICC) and butylphenyl methylpropional (BMHCA). However, more than 40% (14 of the models) were detected with different types and concentrations of fragrance allergens, ranging from about 0.001% to 1.43%, with 11 models containing higher total amounts of fragrance allergens, ranging from 0.11% to 1.43%. Among the 14 models, over 40% (6 models) were detected with 3 or more types of fragrance allergens, with 1 model having as many as 9 types, while 2 models were also detected with 5 and 7 types respectively.

Some tested models were detected with fragrance allergens such as limonene, linalool and geraniol. The Council reminds consumers that although these substances are not highly allergenic, when they come into contact with air, higher potency allergenic substances could be formed through oxidation, which may increase the risk for the development of skin allergy. Consumers should be aware that certain models with relatively high amounts of fragrance allergens were packed in jars, suggesting that consumers should tighten the lid as soon as possible after use to minimise oxidation due to exposure to air. Consumers should watch out for allergic reactions such as redness, itchiness and scaling after using the product for a certain period of time. As for serious cases, medical attention might be sought as soon as possible.

Avoid Exposure to Potentially Harmful Substances by Unborn Babies and Infants

Synthetic musks are used in a wide range of consumer products as they might help enhance the scent of other fragrances. However, studies have revealed that galaxolide (HHCB) and tonalide (AHTN) showed weakly estrogenic properties in human cellular assays. Animal studies have shown that high doses of AHTN might cause liver damage in experimental animals. In the test, 3 models were detected with various concentrations of HHCB, ranging from 6ppm to 374ppm and the model detected with the highest amount was also found to contain AHTN at 165ppm.

In addition, trace amounts of phthalates were detected in 2 models, namely diisononyl phthalate (DINP) and diethyl phthalate (DEP), at 8ppm and 20ppm respectively. The presence of phthalates in the products could be attributed to the release from the plastic materials that come into contact with them during manufacturing and storage. DEP can be used as a fragrance carrier, while DINP is a high molecular weight phthalate commonly added to polyvinyl chloride (PVC) to soften the plastic material. Animal studies have shown that repeated oral consumption of high doses of DINP might affect the liver and kidneys of rats.

There is currently no maximum allowable limit for the use of certain phthalates (DEP and DINP) and synthetic musk compounds (HHCB and AHTN) in cosmetic products in the Mainland and Europe, while their long-term effects also require further research to be confirmed. However, as unborn babies or infants are repeatedly exposed to these compounds since their early life stage via maternal transfers, added to the fact that their metabolism is not fully developed, parents should pay heed when choosing skincare products for themselves and their babies.

In addition, if pregnant women ingest excess vitamin A, it may increase the risk of congenital disabilities in the baby. Besides ingesting food and supplements, frequent application of vitamin A-based medications on the skin may also increase the overall intake. 1 model was detected with retinyl palmitate at a concentration of 84ppm. Although the detected amount complied with the maximum concentration recommended for body lotions (0.05%) by the European Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety (SCCS), which was unlikely to pose a health risk, the Council does not recommend applying products containing vitamin A or its derivatives on infants, and that care should be taken when using them to avoid incidental ingestion.

When the Council examined the ingredient list shown on product labels, 2 were found to contain mineral oil ingredients such as paraffinum liquidum or petrolatum. With reference to the previous test on lip balms of the Council, the mineral oil substances MOSH (mineral oil saturated hydrocarbons) and MOAH (mineral oil aromatic hydrocarbons) were commonly detected in products containing mineral oil ingredients. Some of these substances have the potential to be accumulated in the body if swallowed, and some are potentially carcinogenic. Therefore, consumers are advised to avoid using products containing mineral oil ingredients in the breast areas to avoid ingestion by infants through breastfeeding.

On the other hand, the Council found that some models had room for improvements in terms of the labelling of ingredients, display position and the expiry date information, including 2 models with the ingredient list on their inner packaging, 2 models detected with comparatively high amounts of fragrance allergens but not listed in the ingredient, and another 2 models with no information about their expiry date. Among the 26 models labelled with the usage period after opening, the expiry dates actually varied considerably, ranging from 2 months to 36 months.  Consumers should assess whether the product can be consumed within the specified period before purchase to avoid wastage.

When purchasing and using anti-stretch mark products, aside from reading the ingredients list and expiry dates, consumers should also be aware of the following:

  • Check if the product is applicable to wounds or scars after surgery, taking into account the product texture, skin condition and seasonal factors;
  • If using products of different brands, consumers should pay heed to the ingredients and safety level of different products;
  • Consumers prone to allergic reactions to fragrances are advised to use products free of perfume and fragrance allergens. If allergies arise, consumers should stop using them immediately and seek medical advice;
  • If mothers need to use the products on their breasts during lactation, they should choose products that are free of synthetic musks and phthalates to avoid possible consumption of potentially harmful substances by infants;

During pregnancy, as women may become more sensitive to odours due to hormonal changes, it is best to try the products before purchase to determine if they are suitable in terms of texture and smell.



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