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We might not all agree on what’s best when it comes to skincare, after all, we all have very different skin types and needs. But we can probably all agree that the ingredients used in our beauty products should at least be safe.
Some of us think that we need chemical ingredients such as salicylic acid in our skincare products, whilst others believe that all natural products derived from nature are the way forward. Others among us believe that somewhere in between is best.
(And when we refer to chemical ingredients such as salicylic acid, we mean naturally occuring, non hazardous chemicals, rather than harsh, unnecessary chemical ingredients such as certain preservatives.)
Putting all those beliefs and skincare needs aside, the belief that the products we can readily buy to put on our skin are safe, is common among all of us.
But what if there were products, very common products, that contained an ingredient that at best, has a large question mark hovering above its safety record, yet that is allowed in skincare products?
We’re talking about skincare products with parabens. Parabens are a group of ingredients found in everything from facial moisturisers and antiperspirants to shampoos and body washes. Over the years there have been many studies into the safety of parabens, with mixed results (hence the big question mark).
So what exactly are parabens, are skincare products with parabens safe and how can we avoid them if we’d like to? Does paraben free skincare exist? Here’s our lowdown…
What Are Parabens and Why Are They Used in Skincare Products?
Parabens are a type of chemical preservative that are added to many skin care formulations to lengthen their shelf life. They’ve been in regular use in beauty products since the 1920s.
They help to inhibit the growth of bacteria and fungi that can spoil toiletries and beauty products, causing them to go ‘off’ or become no longer effective. Parabens also help to keep the ingredients in our bathroom products stable, which also helps to prolong how long they’re effective for.
They’re usually only found in water based products, rather than oil based products such as body oils or hair oils. This is because water based products tend to be both less stable overall and stable for shorter lengths of time than oil based products where the oil acts as a natural preservative.
Some products contain one type of paraben, whilst others contain two or three. They can be hard to spot because of their complicated, chemical names, but we have more advice on spotting parabens in skincare products below.
Incidentally, some food products also contain parabens. In food, they do the same job of protecting against food spoilage organisms such as certain bacteria, yeasts and moulds.
Why Are Parabens Considered Unsafe in Skincare?
Here’s the thing - parabens are actually considered safe for use in all kinds of skincare products.
But studies have cast doubt over their actual safety, because the long term effects of being exposed to parabens on a regular basis are only just being understood.
Even less well understood is the so-called “cocktail effect” of being exposed to multiple different types of parabens, as well as other chemicals and pollutants in our food, skincare and in the environment, on a daily basis.
The problem with parabens is thought to stem from the ability of these artificial chemicals to mimic the female hormone, oestrogen. Oestrogen is mainly found in female bodies, but males do still have a certain level of oestrogen.
The fact that they can mimic this hormone means that it’s possible that they can affect the natural hormone balance of the body, a phenomenon called endocrine disruption. Therefore it’s possible that parabens could interfere with hormone related biological functions and processes such as puberty, menstruation and fertility.
There are also concerns that parabens could be linked with breast cancer and child development issues. Studies have found the presence of parabens in breast cancer cells, meaning that there could be a link between the use of parabens and breast cancer, although it is not yet conclusively proven.
At the very least, it’s been proven that parabens can be absorbed into the skin and enter the bloodstream.
The well respected Environmental Working Group conducted a study on teenage girls, testing their urine for the presence of parabens. Although the cohort was small, only 20 participants, 100% of them tested positive for the presence of two types of parabens.
So it’s clear that using skincare products that contain parabens on a regular basis can cause them to accumulate in our body. The bad news is, the research at the moment is inconclusive as to how harmful this actually may be.
The good news is, we can avoid them if we wish to wait until the evidence proves conclusive one way or the other. Also, in the study of the 20 teenage girls, their levels of parabens significantly reduced, by almost a half, after three days of avoiding parabens.
The Environmental Effects of Parabens in Skincare
What’s more, parabens are also linked to environmental harm. For example, one study concluded that one type of paraben found in sunscreens called butylparaben can kill live coral, potentially leading to the destruction of coral reefs.
Parabens such as butylparaben enter the world’s water systems when they get washed off our faces and bodies when we shower, bathe or swim.
Presumably, because they’re also found in human urine, they enter the waterways via our waste, too.
In fact, studies have detected the presence of parabens in both surface waters and ground sediments, as well as in the bodies of fish.
Even more problematic, is the fact that when parabens are combined with chlorine from tap water, they form by products called chlorinated parabens. Not much is yet known about these chemicals and further studies are needed. But it’s probably safe to assume that they’re not super friendly.
What Are the Common Parabens in Skincare Products?
If you’d like to avoid using parabens and opt for paraben free skincare products, you’ll need to become a label reading pro!
Some brands do make things easy, by labelling their products “paraben free”. For others, you’ll have to do some digging.
Most of the time, if an item really is a paraben free skincare product, then the brand will want their discerning and informed customers to know. So they’ll shout it from their product packaging and website (like we do). Organic brands often go hand in hand with paraben free skincare.
So you can nearly always assume that if a product isn’t labelled as being free from parabens, it’ll more than likely contain them. And that’s when you need your chemistry lesson hat on, as parabens have lots of different, and often unpronounceable, names.
Here‘s a list of parabens in skincare, in particular, the top four most commonly used parabens found in skincare products - methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben and butylparaben.
There are more, less common parabens, but most helpfully, they all end in the word “paraben”, making them fairly easy to spot. So if you see “sometheingelseparaben” listed on a skincare ingredient list, you can bet your bottom dollar it's a paraben.
Scanning the back labels of products for their ingredients list might feel like you’re shopping for food and trying to spot milk powder sneaking in there (if you're dairy intolerant, vegan or plant based, you’ll know). But you’ll soon get used to it, although you might need a magnifying glass as the print is often very small!
All of our cleansers, moisturisers, serums and masks are free from parabens. We designed them to be suitable for all skin types, especially stressed out, non conformist skin that’s prone to acne, rosace, and psoriasis, or is particularly oily or dry.
Our hero ingredient is silica salt, an alkalising agent ideal for nourishing and supporting the skin. So if you’re looking for your ideal paraben free skin care, why not check out our range?
This article is not meant to treat or diagnose. Please visit your doctor for advice about any health concerns you may have.