What is a paraben and why don’t I want one?

By now you’ll have heard about nasty parabens but do you know what they are?

A paraben is essentially a preservative that many cosmetic companies use to lengthen the shelf life of their make-up and toiletries. Liz Earle, purveyor of ‘naturally active skincare’ and creator of the cult sensation Cleanse and Polish Hot Cloth Cleanser, has a very handy and informative guide to preservatives on her website, and defines parabens like this:

Parabens are a family of ingredients widely found in nature, especially in foods such as fruits. They are esters of para-hydroxybenzoic acid, hence their name, and include methylparaben (E 218), and propylparaben (E 216).

The Liz Earle site actually asserts that parabens are not harmful. In fact, she goes so far as to say:

Parabens are frequent in nature and can be considered to be ‘green’, bio-degradable and natural.

Say what? This runs contrary to everything I’ve ever heard on the subject. I decided to do more research. I looked to the Sense About Science website, run by an independent charitable trust that responds ‘to the misrepresentation of science and scientific evidence on issues that matter to society’.

I wasn’t able to find anything specifically on parabens, but they did have a lot of information about chemicals generally, and misconceptions about the use of chemicals in our day to day lives. By the way, be sure to check out how they slam the detox industry as well as celeb pseudo science – I actually laughed out loud when I got to the part where they quote Madonna as saying:

“That’s something I’ve been involved with for a while with a group of scientists —finding a way to neutralise radiation.”

Posing for nudie pics, writing children’s books, nuclear physics - is there nothing that woman can’t do? Anyway, the site is amusing and interesting but, a word of warning. Sense About Sciene have been accused of partiality, and one of the members of their Science Advisory Board is a reputed global warming sceptic.

An article in Wikipedia seems to think parabens are okay, but the neutrality of the article was questioned, and one should always be cautious about Wikipedia’s accuracy. Doing a general search on Google shows up as many sites saying parabens are helpful as there are saying they’re harmful. One thing they all agree on, though, is that they are widely used because they have been considered safe for many years. There are studies that show they are safe, though there appears to be studies saying they aren’t safe. I found one article that even said that one kind of paraben caused premature aging of the skin! Of course, this article sited no references what so ever. It also mentioned the fact that using moisturisers with parabens allowed the preservatives to absorb directly into the bloodstream. But, scientists quoted on the Sense About Science website claimed that ingredients in skin cream don’t actually get absorbed into the blood stream at all.

Who to believe? I guess the answer here is that you won’t find an answer here! There are companies that don’t use parabens in some or all of their products, so they are possible to avoid. I guess this is just something that each person had to decide for herself – what can I live with? What do I believe, which sources of information seem more trustworthy to me?

I will be posting another entry soon on paraben free costmetics and where to find them.

1 comment :

  1. Hi there,
    I was looking around today to see if Shu Uemura makeup contains parabens and I came across your interesting post. I looked into parabens quite a bit recently too. I think that the parabens that are used in our cosmetics are derived from petroleum (which is "natural" after all ; ), which I certainly don't want anywhere near my skin. I just read this and even though I don't understand all of it, I know that I don't want preservatives of any kind on my skin if I can help it! However they synthesize it, it IS synthetic, and does seem related to Estradiol, a synthesized Estrogen simulator, probably why paragens turn up in breast tumors (from deodorants). http://chemicalland21.com/lifescience/foco/PARABENS%20(METHYL,%20ETHYL,%20PROPYL,%20BUTYL).htm
    Thanks for your stimulating post! Gosh, since we have a choice, why choose chemicals like this?



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