Paraben Palaver

25th March 2016

With so much choice in the beauty aisles of your local pharmacy or supermarket, Lisa Botwright explores the benefits of making more informed decisions about the health properties of your favourite beauty products...

No longer is it enough for beauty products to be labelled ‘natural’ or ‘cruelty-free’, although the latter is very important in my book. More and more beauty product blurbs are proudly declaring themselves to be ‘paraben and sulphate free’.

But what exactly are these supposedly sinister entities? Should we be avoiding them like the plague or taking a more measured and cynical view of the organic-hype?

Parabens are artificially produced chemicals that have been used widely as preservatives in all sorts of beauty products since the 1950s. They are highly effective at combatting the bacteria and fungus that can so easily grow in our water-based toiletries, plus they are very cheap to mass produce, which naturally makes them irresistible to almost all the big market-leading producers of everything we buy for our bathrooms, from toothpaste to shower gel, to shampoo.

Just as cheap to produce are the parabens’ friends: the sulphates that you will also find sprinkled prodigiously on the labels of our most popular beauty products. (You might also recognise lots of varieties of sulfates, but ‘ph’ is the suggested English spelling.) Sulphates are made from the salts of sulphuric acid, which already make them sound worryingly toxic, but, in reality, more than 90% of shampoos and body washes are made from these synthetic ingredients, most commonly used for their surfactant or ‘foaming’ properties. The sulphates make a little bit of product go a long way; which I quickly found out when I tried my first sulphate-free shampoo – I initially really struggled with the fact that it wouldn’t lather in the same way that I was used to.

The biggest sticking point with parabens is the alarming fact that they could potentially be carcinogenic. The controversy stems from studies in the 1990s which argued that parabens could be considered ‘xenoestrogens’, or agents that mimic oestrogen. Oestrogen disruption has been linked to breast cancer, and also reproductive issues such as early-onset puberty.

In 2004, British cancer researcher Philippa Darbre found parabens in malignant breast tumours, which naturally caused a big outcry, with many people lobbying to ban them in cosmetics or at least limit levels. However, critics pointed out that non-cancerous tissue from healthy breasts wasn’t examined to see if parabens were also present there, and that the presence of parabens in tumors doesn’t prove that they caused the cancer. Studies since then have failed to support this early finding, and actually generally show parabens to have a very weak oestrogenic effect.

Dr Jenny Goodare, Senior Policy Officer at Breast Cancer Now, tells me that “there is currently no good scientific evidence to suggest that cosmetics containing parabens increase breast cancer risk. It’s also worth remembering that the manufacturing of cosmetics is very closely regulated in the UK and EU to ensure their safety.”

This is reassuringly true. The European Union appear to be very stringent and are known to have banned over 1,300 chemicals found in cosmetics. In the United States, on the other hand, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has only banned eight and restricted three, which is why we may often hear prominent celebrities, such as peachy-health-fiend Gwyneth Paltrow, expressing concern. With the recent launch of her new organic cosmetics range, Paltrow recently remarked that “(In the US) the whole cosmetics industry is totally unregulated. They’re using chemicals that are potentially carcinogenic and endocrine-disrupting, that are really not good for you. Obviously, we’re living in an age where we’re all becoming more and more aware of the link between what we’re ingesting and adverse effects on our health.”

Dr Goodare argues that we should be focusing on other factors that we can be doing to reduce our risk of developing cancer: specifically, making healthy lifestyle choices, “such as maintaining a healthy weight, increasing exercise and limiting your alcohol intake.”

Whether or not we remain concerned that parabens and sulphates may cause potential health issues, it is still worth bearing in mind that 60 to 80% of what we put on our skin is absorbed right into our bloodstream. With this in mind, organic fans point out that when making a choice, it’s worth considering a more natural option for those products that stay longest on the skin, or cover the largest area of the body. Choose organic make up, which will stay on for more than eight hours a day, over a cleanser which rinses it all off in seconds. Or choose the best quality night cream and body lotion, for the same reasons.

But, if you do decide to choose a more natural option, don’t be ‘greenwashed’, point out Green People, who are very proud of their meticulously researched and developed organic range. They worry that the way paraben-free cosmetics are often marketed is to portray them as a natural alternative, when in fact they often contain other chemical nasties that may be damaging to the skin.
It’s fair to say that going organic may also suit people with more sensitive skin, as parabens and sulphates can sometimes irritate more delicate skin. Eczema sufferers, especially, may find relief in more natural products.

Organic versus off-the-shelf is a lifestyle choice that affects all of us on a daily basis, from the milk we choose to drink, to the fabric of our jeans. Often cost is a considerable factor when making these choices, and beauty products can often take a huge chunk of our monthly budget. Nonetheless, organic products not only minimise our exposure to chemicals, but often have more ethical benefits too, such as a commitment to cruelty-free ingredients and an impeccable supply chain.

As beauty blogger Lucy Vincent writes (for “Organic farming is the root of organic products – lowering environmental impact by working with nature. Minimising chemicals just seems like a no-brainer.”

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