I’m sure you’ve all heard of them. You can’t even step foot in Space NK with seeing a “Paraben-free” somewhere! Even Sephora, the Walmart of all beauty stores, has a clean beauty range which is specifically without parabens.
But what are they? Why do we hate them? If they’re so bad for you, why do some brands still use them? Is it all a load of bullshit, like when the early 2000’s banned food fats? (Avocadoes – fatty, but good for you. Five Guys – also fatty, not that good for you).
Well lucky for you, I’ve done my research, and honestly… it’s still hard to tell.
Parabens to put it plainly are a type of preservative. Beauty products have to stay shelf-stable for what could be a long time until sale, and then have to stay stable after you open it at home and use it regularly. It can’t just be growing mould like that jar of tomato pasta sauce you opened 3 days ago which is now growing a thin fluffy sheen of green germs – no! Especially when you pay upwards of 30 pounds to slather it on your face, it needs to last a long time.
Parabens can be found in moisturizers, shampoos, conditioners, mascaras, foundations, body lotion, toner… most skin care products you use will use parabens of some sort (unless you’re making your own DIY avocado face mask.)
The thing with parabens – like most chemicals – is that when you apply it on your skin, it sinks into your skin and enters your blood stream. Remember, your skin is an organ, in fact the largest organ we have, and whatever you put on your skin is likely to sink in at one point or another. That’s why when you slather yourself in night cream and look akin to someone entering a pie throwing competition (as the target), you wake up looking glowy and fresh, without the slathered-on night cream. It’s been absorbed, my babe.
But the thing that spooked the horse was a study done in 2004, where they found traces of parabens in breast tissue in 19 out of the 20 women tested. What does this mean? Well, it means that once it’s absorbed, it really can move anywhere around your body – but that’s pretty much all it means. Once the study came out, the media and the public incorrectly linked it to breast cancer, especially since the parabens act as a very weak form of oestrogen, and too much oestrogen can trigger cell division which can turn into tumours and cancer. Does this mean that parabens cause breast cancer? No, it does not.
The Cancer Research UK, the NHS, and the American Cancer Society have all stated that there is no link between parabens and cancer. There is absolutely no proof that parabens cause cancer in any form just from using your daily moisturizer, but skin care brands have jumped on the anti-paraben train and banned parabens from a lot of their products.
Tiffany Masterson, the founder of Drunk Elephant, a cult skin care brand, only omits parabens from her skin care because that’s what the public is comfortable with.
“Parabens, by the way, I think are fine. I think they’re demonised in the industry. There’s not a whole lot of evidence because you use it in such small amounts. They’re actually a good ingredient. But the industry has sort of decided that they’re toxic and so the consumer wants to avoid them. So I avoid ingredients like that just because the consumer doesn’t want them.”
So if products are paraben-free, what do they use to make them shelf-stable and anti-bacterial? Surely we can’t have fungus growing in our skincare and on our face?
Well there are natural options, however they aren’t as fool proof as their chemical infamous counterparts, so they usually have to be doubled up with something else. For example, Glossier’s Priming Moisturizer uses the most common paraben alternative, Phenoxyethanol, but since it’s not 100% effective warring against fungus, it’s backed up by Potassium Sorbate. It also has another natural paraben called Sodium Benzoate to really make it 99.9999% safe against gross mould.
Natural parabens and man-made parabens are essentially the same, and our body deals with them in the same way. Our bodies can even make our own PHBA (the acid that parabens are derived from) by breaking down amino acids, so they already occur in the body before you even start using beauty products.
It’s up to you whether you want to use products with parabens, and although there’s a lot of noise whether parabens are good for you or not, it’s literally just that – noise. There’s no proof whether parabens are harmful to you, or the environment, even if your favourite beauty influencer tells you so (sorry, unless she reads medical papers none of us know about, it’s bullshit). Clean beauty is a farce, and one that’s meant to pull you in, and spit you out several dollars poorer, but then again, that’s a story for another day.
Image via Vogue Italia