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Weighing The Benefits Of Using Cosmetics With Natural Preservatives vs. Synthetic Parabens

Image courtesy of beautiful-solutions.co.uk.

We hear a lot about parabens today, but what are they, and why are people making such a big deal about them?

Parabens are among the most commonly used preservatives in cosmetics and personal care products, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Parabens are used in things like makeup, moisturizers, hair care products, and shaving products. These preservatives are used in cosmetics products to prevent bacterial and fungal growth.

Chemists Corner explains how contamination can occur, saying that, “Cosmetics are often stored in the bathroom, where the environment is warm and moist,” adding that skin also carries an abundance of microorganisms which can contribute to contamination.

Chemists Corner adds that cosmetics, which contain water, oils, peptides, and carbohydrates are “a very good medium for microbes,” and all these factors can contribute to product spoilage and potential skin infection.

Chemists Corner also gives its comparative view (from an industry perspective) on some of the differences between natural and synthetic preservatives, saying:

Among the most effective natural preservatives are essential oils and various herbs such as rosemary, clove, thyme, cinnamon, tea tree, lavender, neem, grape seed, etc., which are more organism specific than their synthetic counterparts.

This means they (natural preservatives) may be effective against one organism, but not another. They must be carefully blended to create a synergistic effect against a range of organisms.

The subject of natural preservatives is one that probably has more academic interest than practical or economic virtue because cosmetic preservatives have to fight a broad range of microbes. However, natural preservatives do give a wonderful marketing angle.

There’s definitely industry bias here, but a lot of truth too. Cosmetic Test Labs also did a comparative study, again finding more benefits to synthetic over natural preservatives.

The lab listed among the benefits of synthetic preservatives as: having a broad-spectrum of activity against bacteria and fungi; being consistent from batch to batch; having relatively low cost; requiring low concentrations to effectively preserve products; and generally not interfering with fragrances, lather, color, or other aspects of a given formulation.

The lab listed drawbacks of synthetic preservatives including that they are often petroleum-based; some consumers find them irritating to the skin; and they may require a narrow pH range to be effective.

For the benefits of natural preservatives, the lab only listed their ability to “function over a broad pH range to be effective.”

On the negative side, the lab had plenty to say about natural preservatives, including that they:

  • Often do not inhibit microbial growth as well as synthetic counterparts.
  • Often lack broad-spectrum activity. For example, a natural preservative may inhibit the growth of Staphylococcus aureus or ‘Staph’ in a formulation, but may have no mold-inhibiting effect.
  • Often have an undesirable impact to the other aspects of formulations, such as color, fragrance, or lather.
  • May require relatively high concentrations in formulations to be effective.
  • May result in skin sensitization (immunological reaction to the natural preservative that increases over time).
  • Consistency and potency may vary considerably from batch to batch.

The lab also addressed its view on the current appeal of natural preservatives, saying, “Lately, the market has been driven toward natural preservatives by evidence of toxicity of certain traditional synthetic preservatives.”

A major reason so many consumers today oppose the use of synthetic preservatives is the growing correlation between parabens and health issues.

Parabens can be “absorbed through skin, blood, and the digestive system,” says The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, which adds that, “Of greatest concern is that parabens are known to disrupt hormone function, an effect that is linked to increased risk of breast cancer and reproductive toxicity.”

The campaign also cites research, saying, “Parabens mimic estrogen by binding to estrogen receptors on cells. They also increase the expression of genes usually regulated by estradiol (a natural form of estrogen); these genes cause human breast cancer cells to grow and multiply in cellular studies.

“Parabens are linked to cancer, endocrine disruption, reproductive toxicity, neurotoxicity, and skin irritation. Since parabens are used to kill bacteria in water-based solutions, they inherently have some toxicity to cells.”

The FDA says that it is “aware that estrogenic activity in the body is associated with certain forms of breast cancer.” The agency cites a study published in the Journal of Applied Toxicology that detected parabens in breast tumors, but says, “the study did not show that parabens cause cancer.”

The FDA adds that, “Although parabens can act similarly to estrogen, they have been shown to have much less estrogenic activity than the body’s natural occurring estrogen,” and the agency  currently believes that “there is no reason for consumers to be concerned about the use of cosmetics with parabens.”

Image courtesy of justlifeshop.com.

The FDA says, “The most common parabens used in cosmetics products are methylparaben, propylparaben, and butylparaben.”

The FDA further notes that, “Typically, more than one paraben is used in a product, and they are often used in combination with other types of preservatives to provide preservation against a broad range of microorganisms.”

Health concerns over parabens are causing many countries and the European Union as a whole to start looking at either requiring the reduction or banning altogether of some or all parabens in cosmetics and personal care products.

Denmark has banned two parabens (propylparaben and butylparaben) in lotions and other cosmetics for children under three. It’s the first European country to ban parabens.

Following Denmark’s lead, last month Government Chemist reported that the European Union has notified the World Trade Organization that it intends to ban five parabens: isopropylparaben, isobutylparaben, pentylparaben, as well as benzylparaben esters of 4-hydroxybenzoic and their salts.

Government Chemist added that, “Although these five substances are not used to any great extent today, the proposed ban marks a change in the way the EU regards the subject of parabens and their safety.”

Government Chemist also said that the EU intends to reduce the levels of two more commonly used parabens (butylparaben and propylparaben) as well as completely prohibit their use in leave-on cosmetics and personal care products intended for children under three.

Rebecca Sutton, a scientist with the Environmental Working Group, told the Los Angeles Times that her group is also most concerned about butylparaben and propylparaben.

But, on a different twist, she told them that even though parabens may disrupt hormones or mimic estrogen, which is thought to promote breast cancer in some women, “You certainly don’t want parabens to be pulled out and a more dangerous preservative to be put in.

“Sometimes cosmetic companies might jump on the paraben-free bandwagon without really doing a proper assessment of [finding] the safer preservative that they ought to be adding.”

Author’s Notes: From a consumer’s perspective, I am personally more comfortable using natural products (avoiding toxins) when possible, and expect that those manufacturers, as any others, to thoroughly test their products for effectiveness, proper preservation, and safety.

Additional Resource

 Reader comments and input are always welcomed!

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Reader Comments (2)

Paraben's efficacy as preservatives, in combination with their low cost, the long history of their use probably explains why parabens are so commonplace. They are becoming increasingly controversial, however, because they have been found in breast cancer tumors.

January 5, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterYong Hardin

Hi Yong,

Thank you for your insightful comments!

January 5, 2014 | Registered Commenter Kyriaki (Sandy) Venetis

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