Parabens. The first ingredient to be put under the spotlight in our new blog series; ‘Suspects in Your Skincare’.
Parabens have been given a bad rep in the last 20 odd years with links to developmental and reproductive toxicity, endocrine disruption, and cancer. But what’s behind these claims and actually…what the heck are parabens to begin with……and do you really need to go paraben free????????
What are Parabens Anyway..??
You’ve probably heard of them and seen ‘Free of Parabens’ or “Paraben Free” written on beauty and skincare products but honestly…why is this important….??
Parabens have been around since the 1930’s and are used in a wide variety of cosmetics and beauty products including but not limited to makeup, moisturisers and facial cleansers, shampoos and conditioners, shaving products and toothpaste.
They are also an ingredient in some fragrances or ‘parfum’ but in these cases, you won’t see them listed on your bottle as an ingredient because manufacturers are allowed to keep what they put in their ‘parfum’ a secret…!! This is just one reason why we have previously suggested you avoid products containing fragrance and ‘parfum’.
‘Parabens’ refers to a group of several distinct chemicals with a similar molecular structure. The most common ones are methylparaben and propylparaben but you might also come across ethylparaben and butylparaben.
Parabens are essentially a preservative and protect you and your makeup against harmful microorganisms and bacteria. They are added into your products to prevent them going mouldy and to prolong their shelf life. Parabens are relatively inexpensive and very effective which is perhaps why they were one of the most widely used preservatives in cosmetics and skincare products. A study back in 2009 estimated that 75-90% of cosmetics contained parabens….!!
I do believe and am hopeful that these numbers will be much smaller now. A quick check of the supermarket isles showed me that there are many products available today which do not contain parabens and I think, on the face of it, this is a good thing.
The Problem with Parabens
If they are cheap and effective then what’s the problem…??
The safety of parabens was brought into question back in 2004. Dr Philippa Darbre and her team from the University of Reading in the UK found traces of parabens in the tissue taken from women with breast cancer.
Samples of tissue were taken from 20 different human breast tumours and parabens were found to be present in every sample at levels high enough to cause concern. Although the tests implied that parabens were somehow linked to breast cancer, there was not enough evidence to support this. But the study showed for the first time that parabens can enter the body and remain intact. These findings have since been substantiated by other research groups who have found parabens in human urine, blood and breast milk.
The study was widely criticised. Experts suggested that the sample of only 20 tumours was too small to produce conclusive results and with such a long history and clean safety record, experts and beauty industry professionals were reluctant to admit that parabens presented any risk at all. But women everywhere were worried and, understandably started looking for paraben free products.
It was already known that parabens mimic the action of the female hormone, oestrogen and that oestrogen can drive the growth of human breast tumours so these new findings really added fuel to the debate.
The Paraben Controversy Continues
Scientists and big beauty companies have long argued that the trace levels of parabens found in beauty products pose no risk. And there are regulations in place which limit the concentration of parabens which are allowed to be used in a single product.
But as parabens are still around and found in so many different products, regular and repeated application to the skin after using multiple products could mean a much higher level of exposure. So now the question is being asked… can the levels of parabens in the body build up and if they do, what additional risk does this present…??
A further study by the same group from the University of Reading was carried out in 2012. 40 women who had undergone mastectomies participated in the study. 160 samples were taken (4 from each woman) and parabens were found in 99% of the samples. The overall median level of total parabens found in the tissue was four times higher than that found in the 2004 study.
Better to be on the Safe Side…???
Although more research is required before an absolute link to parabens and cancer is established, responsible companies and individuals have adopted what is called the precautionary principle. It’s pretty straightforward and just means that although absolute scientific evidence might be lacking, there is enough doubt or suggestion of risk that means it could be safer to err on the side of caution.
For us as consumers, it’s good news because we can now choose products free from parabens, to be on the safe side. A word of caution here though. Some of the alternatives that are used by some companies labelling their products “Paraben Free” or ‘Free from Parabens’ aren’t always that great.
From a science point of view, it seems it’s been quite a challenge for companies and their chemists to find a replacement for parabens that is as effective against the full spectrum of moulds and bacteria. For that reason, many have chosen to use a ‘cocktail’ of preservatives which can make it hard for us as consumers to work out what’s what.
Phenoxyethanol is often advertised as a natural alternative to parabens because it occurs in green tea, but if it’s in your product, then it’s probably been made on a commercial scale from phenol, a derivative of petroleum. It’s been linked to allergic responses like eczema and hives and carries a risk rating of 4 (moderate risk) on the EWG Skin Deep database.
Interestingly one of the top ‘natural’ beauty companies in the UK still uses parabens. They are very open about it and present their position on the matter very clearly on their website. More than 65% of their products are ‘self preserving’ i.e. they use a mixture of salt, honey and clay to keep them fresh but products with a higher water content need an added preservative. They believe that parabens, used in minimal amounts, are preferable to the alternatives that have yet to be tested and researched for safety. Now that’s food for thought.
Choose Natural & Paraben Free
If you are worried or concerned at all that parabens might be detrimental to your health, it makes total sense to choose products that use natural preservatives instead. As always, we advise that you stay informed. Do your own research and find brands that you trust. It is a hard slog reading the ingredients list on most supermarket type products and if you’re anything like me, you’ll feel a lot more comfortable buying products that list ingredients like honey, coconut oil and shea butter!!
Of course, if you are choosing a natural product without parabens, it will either have a short shelf life or contain an alternative form of preservative. Indeed, many of the products you’ll see on Green Elephant DO have a short shelf life for this very reason and some Vendors even advise that their products should be kept in the fridge.
If you’re not swayed on the whole ‘natural beauty’ thing then maybe you’d like to check out our earlier blog post about why natural beauty is better for you. The Health and Beauty category on the Green Elephant marketplace is packed full of natural goodies for your hair and skin. I’m confident you won’t find any parabens!! Most of our Vendors provide a full list of ingredients for their products but if you are in any doubt or not sure about what you’re reading, then please reach out to them, or us, and ask!!
On each product you’ll see a button under the ‘Product Information’ tab that says ASK THIS VENDOR A QUESTION. Just click on it, and ask away. Our Vendors are passionate about what they do and are only too happy to answer your questions and put your mind at ease.
So whilst there is still no proven link between parabens and different types of cancer, the seed of doubt has been sown. And for me, this is enough. I am always wary of things I don’t fully understand and that’s why going “Paraben Free” isn’t the solution for me….I mostly choose very natural beauty and skincare products with an ingredients list that sounds like food!!