Parabens - Cause for worry!
The word PARABENS invokes feelings of fear, confusion, and general cluelessness in most consumers. Many of us have heard that parabens are unsafe, paraben-free cosmetics are a good thing, and that you don't get enough of paraben-free cosmetics here in India. Here's a concise, action-oriented look - SO YOU KNOW WHAT TO DO NEXT!
We will take a systematic, simplified look at parabens, by answering the following questions:
1. What are parabens, why are they used?
2. Are parabens bad? Is the danger real?
3. Should I avoid parabens?
4. Are paraben-free cosmetics always safe?
5. How can I choose safer products?
What are parabens, why are they used?
Almost every cosmetic or personal care product you use has preservatives in it. And parabens are great preservatives - they keep cosmetics from going bad due to bacteria, yeast, and fungi. They give a good shelf life and thereby making cosmetics safer to use. Being extremely effective, and cost-effective, they have been loved by the industry for a long, long time.
The parabens used in cosmetics are (INCI names): methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben, isobutylparaben, and butylparaben. Parabens are typically used in levels of less than 0.5% each, and often a combination of parabens is used.
Are parabens bad? Is the danger real?
Some people insist that parabens are safe, hence continue to use them. Our philosophy is simple: better safe than sorry. If something is iffy, don't use it on people. That's OUR philosophy - no offense to anyone here.
What is the evidence against parabens? We present a few latest ones below, to help you decide (we've simplified the findings to keep things understandable, advanced readers would do well to read the full reports):
- The EU, in its latest findings, considers propylparaben and butylparaben safe, BUT at levels not exceeding 0.19%. Concerns: reproductive toxicity and endocrine disruption. In plain words, concerns that these chemicals can behave like hormones inside the human body and cause disruption.
- Denmark has banned the use of propylparaben and butylparaben in products used by children of less than 3 years of age.
- EWG, leading environmental health research and advocacy organization in the US, has given a hazard rating of 10 (highest hazard) to propylparaben and 7 to butylparaben
Is the danger real?
Scientifically, two key issues have prevented an all-out answer to this question:
- The difference between metabolism (how the body processes these chemicals) in rats (where the lab tests are conducted) and humans.
- The cumulative exposure of humans to parabens - we use no less than 5 to 20 cosmetics per day, so imagine the cumulative effect of the parabens. This has not been studied in detail yet, on human volunteers.
Are paraben-free cosmetics always safe?
Two quick points here:
- It's tough for cosmetics to be preservative-free unless you follow extremely restrictive formulations. So something's got to replace parabens. And chemists have been working overtime to find solutions.
- New preservatives have to be safe on two counts:
- They have to be safe chemicals
- They have to effectively kill microbes in the formulation, giving it the shelf-life that we desire.
Without getting too detailed, here's an illustrative list of what can go wrong while trying to be paraben-free:
- Formula restrictions: Some preservatives work only in specified pH ranges, some are ineffective beyond a certain temperature, some others are incompatible with other parts of the formula. If chemists choose the wrong preservative for the formulation, you have an unsafe product in your hands
- Toxic preservatives: Some paraben-substitutes are themselves quite toxic. Example: Iodopropynyl butylcarbamate is toxic by inhalation and should not be used in aerosols and sprays
In short, paraben-free does not automatically mean safe.
How can I choose safer products?
We have to admit it's not easy, but here are 3 quick tips:
- Choose brands that care about the safety and environmental impact of their products. Read the back-of-pack carefully to see what the brand has to say.
- Look for what's replacing the parabens, and use a dependable, objective service like Cosmetic Ingredient Review or EWG's Skin Deep to see if what's in your cosmetic is safe.
- You can ask us.