SKINCARE

The truth about parabens (it's more than meets the eye)

"Paraben-free" has become an über popular marketing feature for clean skincare and beauty products, and if you ever buy beauty products (which we're assuming that you do given you're here) parabens may be something that you've learned to avoid.So parabens are bad, right? End of story. Not quite...

The paraben debate is actually quite interesting, and the more we read, the more the plot thickens. One thing we really dislike is misleading marketing so in the interest of informed choices here's a wee overview of what you really need to know about parabens.

Firstly, what even are parabens?

Parabens are a family of related chemicals that are commonly used as preservatives in cosmetic products.

The parabens you may see most commonly on labels are methylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben, and ethylparaben.We're being taught to think of preservatives as bad things, but in fact they are necessary ingredients in any cosmetic or skincare formulation to limit the growth of harmful bacteria and mould, to stop the product from going off.

As with food, when you mix chemical ingredients (such as the ones in skincare) together, they react with each other and with oxygen and start to gradually degrade. Preservatives slow this down so that the product can get to you, and you have time to use it before it goes off.

Bacteria and the skin's barrier

Gone off skincare is bad your the skin’s barrier.

The skin’s barrier is essentially the skin’s biome. Barrier = biome. This is millions (or even trillions) of tiny bacteria that are protecting and looking after your skin. Go team!

When products go off they grow harmful microbes that act like thugs towards your barrier bacteria and make a bit of a mess. This is why we need preservatives, whether it’s a natural product or not.

The clean beauty movement vs dermatologists and chemists

The clean beauty movement believes that parabens are bad due to their disruption of the endocrine (hormonal) system. They do this by being chemically similar to estrogen, enough so that they can mimic estrogen's role in the body.

This stance is still being investigated and largely comes from a study where parabens were found in breast cancer tissue of women diagnosed with the disease. Not a great look for parabens at all.

The clean beauty movement markets ‘paraben free’ products and as a result we've all become quite wary of parabens (whether we really know what they are or not).The clean beauty movement has taught us to fear parabens, but are they something we should truly be afraid of?

Dermatologist and most chemist product formulators say no. They point out that literally thousands of studies have been performed to assess the safety of parabens, making them one of the best researched groups of preservatives, and these studies have concluded no danger from parabens. Hmm 🧐

There's actually a bit of drama in this debate, as the derms are kind of pissed that the clean beauty movement has made most skincare shoppers today afraid of parabens, as this shopper preference now prevents them from being able to use parabens in their formulations.

This forces them to use different preservatives that are often less well-researched, or have even been shown to be more likely to irritate the skin.

So what the hell are we supposed to believe? Natural feels better to us? But what if in this case synthetic was safer?

The clean beauty movement believes that parabens are bad due to their disruption of the endocrine (hormonal) system. They do this by being chemically similar to estrogen, enough so that they can mimic estrogen's role in the body.

This stance is still being investigated and largely comes from a study where parabens were found in breast cancer tissue of women diagnosed with the disease. Not a great look for parabens at all.

The clean beauty movement markets ‘paraben free’ products and as a result we've all become quite wary of parabens (whether we really know what they are or not).

The clean beauty movement has taught us to fear parabens, but are they something we should truly be afraid of?

Dermatologist and most chemist product formulators say no. They point out that literally thousands of studies have been performed to assess the safety of parabens, making them one of the best researched groups of preservatives, and these studies have concluded no danger from parabens. Hmm 🧐There's actually a bit of drama in this debate, as the derms are kind of pissed that the clean beauty movement has made most skincare shoppers today afraid of parabens, as this shopper preference now prevents them from being able to use parabens in their formulations.

This forces them to use different preservatives that are often less well-researched, or have even been shown to be more likely to irritate the skin.

This wouldn’t be the first time that something lab-made was better fit for purpose than something nature-made. Take vitamin C supplements as an example. Naturally occurring vitamin C that you’d find in food sources oxidises and degrades quickly, meaning that most natural vitamin C supplements can’t actually be used by the body. However l-ascorbic acid; the lab-made form of vitamin C; has great stability, bioavailability and is totally safe. Winning!

But what do we do when the scientific and moral juries are out on a topic?

Our honest view is that the evidence around parabens is inconclusive. There is science on both sides, and convincing arguments from both sides.

What we don’t like about the clean beauty movement is it’s tendency to use fear as a marketing tactic: telling you to be worried about things you didn’t even realise existed. We don’t need brands to be giving us more stuff to worry about. That’s what the news is for, and there’s more than enough to worry about already thank you very much!

But what we don’t love about the derm side of the coin is that there is often more than meets the eye when it comes to ingredient ‘safety’. An ingredient can be classed as safe, and still be an irritant to many. And although thousands of studies have been done on parabens, who has funded those studies? - Large cosmetic companies? Have they been human studies or petri dish studies?

In our honest opinion, while the jury’s out it’s up to you to make a decision that feels right for you.

You get to evaluate the evidence and make your own informed decision. It’s good practice to question your beliefs from time to time (it helps your ability to practice empathy and compassion with yourself and others which, by the way, is good for your skin) so if you automatically fall on one side of this argument we challenge you to consider the other side of the coin. Just for a moment 😊

 

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