Picture this: You’ve just bought yourself a bougie, vegan, cruelty-free, ‘natural’ face moisturizer and you’re about to slap it all over your face, when you take a closer look at the label. Methylparaben, propylparaben, isobutylparaben… You what mate?
Seems kind of worrying, right? That’s going on YOUR skin, – aka the biggest organ you have, and one of the most complicated too! Let’s take a closer look…
So first of all… What are Parabens?
Parabens are the preservatives used in cosmetics (and even some processed foods) to give them a longer shelf life. You will probably find them in your make-up bag, in your freezer, and we have come to grow more dependent on them than we may realise. Parabens are usually used for their ability to kill bacteria which would otherwise cause decay, preventing our products from becoming bacteria-ridden and mouldy.
So, Why the Stigma?
Over the years, parabens have been given a bad reputation (cue T-Swizzle’s new album). They supposedly ‘harm’ our reproductive system, cause breast cancer, premature ageing, accumulate in the body and mimic estrogen… All of which can make them sound pretty frightening, but how much of it is actually true?
The research in this field is surprisingly limited in scope. What we do know is that parabens can ‘potentially’ disrupt the function of the endocrine system. This system includes all of the glands in your body which make hormones and therefore play a major role in ensuring that your body functions the way it’s supposed to. In turn, any form of “alteration or disruption to the function of our body can alter growth, development, brain function and reproduction.”
Although there is research linking parabens to cancer, these studies should be read with a critical eye. The American Cancer Society (ACS) found that studies haven’t provided any direct links between parabens and health issues such as cancer. Speaking on the topic, the ACS stated that “Right now we have just enough data to elicit concern and undue speculation, and that’s not a good place to be”.
Some myths surrounding parabens have been exaggerated. Yes, as with anything that comes in contact with our body, it may have some form of effect. However, just because there are traces of parabens in cancer tissue doesn’t necessarily mean that they are the cause. There’s lots of things in cancer tissue – water included. What we CAN factually consider ourselves at present is looking into the claims made by organisations, and doing a little bit of extra digging. It’s important to stay inquisitive and make our own decisions amongst the slippery slope that is modern-day deceptive marketing.
You’d probably have to do the 100 layers of foundation challenge and then pack on a beauty guru’s entire makeup collection in order for the parabens to actually affect your estrogen levels.
At the moment our main concern should be sticking to the professionally trialled and tested concentration in our products…
What’s a safe concentration?
Alrighty, let’s get science-y again for a second. On a molecular level, parabens are esters of p-hydroxybenzoic acid. They’re a compound that is formed from an acid and an alcohol. And not the type you’d find on a night out in Fortitude Valley.
To be considered safe, only certain amounts of these preserving by products can be present in our cosmetics. According to EU’s Scientific Committee for Consumer Safety (SCCS), parabens are safe for use in cosmetics up to the following concentrations:
Butylparaben + propylparaben: 0.19%
Total paraben concentration (ie. a mix of them): 0.8%
The problem is that we rarely ever get told what concentrations of ingredients are in our products, which has lead us to the current dilemma… Labelling Laws.
So, now that we’re aware of these concentrations, Houston, we still have a slight problem. According to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, “the mandatory information standard does not require the listing of the quantity or percentage of each ingredient”. This means that we may not be as well informed as we’d like to be.
Why can’t we just use something else then?
Other preserving synthetics are actually a lot more harmful than parabens. A lot less research has gone into the chemical makeup of these alternatives and how they interact with the skin. Other than this, the obvious alternative would be a natural source; however, these only ever protect against bacteria OR fungi, never both. So, if you are on the hunt for more natural skincare products, you might just have to accept that far shorter shelf life.