Saturday, May 5, 2012

Parabens: A Commentary on Safety,
Science and Marketing

Today I ran across this article on Beauty Stat on a familiar topic: parabens. The body of the post expresses the general scientific consensus that parabens are safe. Yet even as Beauty Stat clarifies the virtues of this widely used preservative (it's in everything from shampoo to toothpaste to breakfast cereal), it continues to promote cosmetic lines that have latched on to the attack on parabens.

I found this disquieting, especially after reading the subsequent comments from other readers (many of which seemed more interested in the paraben-free beauty lines the article mentions rather than the actual conclusion of the article). I had to add my point of view on the debate, which mostly started for me 4 years ago when began researching skincare products for my newborn daughter. With this being such a misunderstood "hot button" issue, I wanted to share my thoughts with you here as well. The following is the text from the comment I added to the Beauty Stat discussion, though I have added some supportive details to this post.

I find it a little odd that Beautystat would publish an article whose primary point is that parabens are safe, but then cap it off at the end with mentions of all of the companies that are still pursuing paraben-free formulation. It seems a little contrary to the spirit of the article, and I do think that it's confused some of your readers.

Parabens have been the unjust target of a well-executed smear campaign, at the hands of an alarmist lobbyist group (the Environmental Working Group) and marketing think tanks. Companies have not gone paraben-free because they think it's better skin care, they've gone paraben-free because they know there's a large segment of the market that's looking for paraben-free cosmetics and are willing to pay a premium for them.

This smear campaign has been so well executed that even after reading an article like this, an article that references the consensus of scientifically sound, peer-reviewed research and support of world-wide governing bodies, people are still inclined to ignore the facts (parabens are safe) in favor of the marketing.

In fact, the reason parabens are used as widely as they are is that they have a low incidence of irritation compared to many alternatives. According to Fisher's Contact Dermatitis (Rietschel, Fowler, Fisher. PMPH-USA, 2008) "Considering their volume of use, incidence of allergy to the parabens is relatively low compared to the other common preservatives."

Yes, there are people out there that are allergic to parabens, just as there are people that are allergic to sunlight and water. Such allergies are rare, however, so unless you have been diagnosed by an immunologist, the greater body of knowledge insists that parabens are among the best options for preserving and keeping your cosmetics safe and effective.

Common replacements for parabens, on the other hand, may be unstable and even ineffective in small quantities. Many, like tea-tree and grapefruit seed oils, can be potent skin irritants at the levels needed to be effective as a preservative. I understand that many people avoiding parabens simply prefer to take the "better safe than sorry" route, but I also think it's important that people understand that the idea that paraben-free products are safer or better for your skin is not a foregone conclusion.


Amy said...

This is a great post, and I wish more people were aware of the "danger" of parabens. Just goes to show how important it is to try and be an informed consumer. Thanks for sharing!

Voxy said...

"Companies have not gone paraben-free because they think it's better skin care, they've gone paraben-free because they know there's a large segment of the market that's looking for paraben-free cosmetics and are willing to pay a premium for them."

Yes. This.

I also get irritated when I see other beauty bloggers lauding a product as being paraben-free. In their case I don't think it's because they are cognizant of the market segment you mention -- I think it's because they haven't done their research and have believed the EWG and other scaremongering groups. This automatically makes me less confident in their analysis of skincare products in general or in their analyses of product formulations and cosmetic chemistry in general. Thank you for this post!

Unknown said...

Amy & Voxy,
Marketing can be a powerful machine, even the best informed consumer can fall prey to it occasionally (who among us haven't purchased something way overpriced because of a cute package or famous brand name?)

I kind of feel like in the past people were somewhat powerless against these types of claims, and of course, there's still plenty of misinformation out there. Thanks to the wonders of the internet though, we have powerful tools of truth at out disposal, and I'm happy to help spread some of that around :)

Amanda Lehrke said...

Thanks for posting this! I never know what to believe any more or who to trust. I guess what I've learn from this is to always look at both sides and do your own research! In the end it's really up to ourselves to decide who we are going to believe and trust.

Unknown said...

I'm analytic by nature- and always have been. When I worked retail, I was never content to spout the company press-release on a new product. I needed to know why or how something worked if I was going to sell it to someone. It's that nature that lead me to write this blog.

Having said that, I don't think it's as terribly devious as it seems- it's not as if these things are going to kill us...or even generally cause harm. Still, nothing gets my blood boiling like seeing someone waste money on high-priced skin care and cosmetics that I know can never live up to their claims.

As you can probably imagine by reading my blog, I research everything. Sometimes to a fault. FYI, my favorite source is the archives of the US National Library of Medicine. It's a huge database of published scientific literature that's easily searchable, if not always easy to decipher- but, hey, that's what the dictionary is for, right? ;)

Lulubelle said...

The impression I've gotten regarding parabens is that it's not allergic reactions that are the concern, but more that parabens have shown estrogenic properties (I've looked at a few of the studies). I know that the FDA has deemed that low levels are safe in cosmetics, but how do we know that a product really does contain low levels?

Anonymous said...

Thanks for writing about this. I am allergic to phenoxyethanol and recently went to purchase a sunscreen that for years did not have phenoxyethanol in the ingredients. Luckily I reread the label and noticed it there and the sales person contacted the company and they said because they had so many complaints about parabens they changed the formula.

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