Parabens are they allergens, toxic, the breath of Beelzebub himself or just misunderstood? -What goes on your head series.

What goes on your head - series

Here is the first of the series of posts on the ingredients in our cosmetic products. It’s the guest blog by industry expert Simon Mortimer. Enjoy

Parabens are a group of chemically similar preservatives, there are several versions of them. Methyl, ethyl, propyl, butyl and iso-butyl; each has efficacy against different spoilage agents e.g. gram negative and gram positive bacteria so by combination often in pre-blended formulations they provide what is often referred to as full spectrum protection. These are found in many consumer products and often in multiple as each has efficacy against different spoilage like bacteria and fungi. These are very small fungi and not the mushrooms that might initially spring to mind!

If you don’t use parabens then you have two alternatives, possibly three.

  • Don’t use preservatives at all,
  • Use another preservative
  • Include a substance in a cosmetic formulation that is NOT recognised or registered as a preservative agent and is included for another purpose – quite legally – but which has by happy chance the effect of being a preservative too!

This last gambit is sometimes how products are marketed as “Preservative Free” but still don’t actually succumb to some form of microbiological spoilage.

Using NO preservative agent is rather a courageous decision. It sounds very attractive of course and the marketing people love it. But in truth a cosmetic or toiletry product with no preservation agent that is susceptible to microbiological assault needs a preservative. That is pretty much all of them, obvious exceptions being odd items like nail polish remover that has enough acetone in it to fell an ox!

Without preservation agents any microbiological contamination derived from the raw materials (extreme examples might be things like crushed walnut shells used as an exfoliant in shower creams which if not gamma irradiated are positively alive!) the production process/factory and the post production environment will almost certainly mean contamination and possible spoilage.

Apart from becoming smelly, discoloured or having their emulsions split unpreserved personal products may provide a breeding ground for pathogens (Disease spreading organisms) and their chemical buddies endotoxins (toxins released even when the bacteria is killed off) that can really ruin your day. In fact the acute and chronic responses of these can be much worse to any allergic reaction to preservatives. We might all want to consider these issues even using preserved products if you are in the habit of dipping dirty fingers in your face cream, leaving the lids off tubs and open to the air or even spitting into your eye mascara to give it a bit of lubricity (you know who you are!)

Finally on this tack, the risks from spoilage of product on you as compared to those “nasty” preservatives is much greater, who would want to use creams teaming with microbial life, most would be quite harmless but like many things in life it’s that “last 3%” that get you!

The third option, use another preservative, obvious, but why and is it better?

Well, that really depends on you, you might be allergic or sensitized to parabens (one or all of them) but then you might just as likely be allergic or sensitized to the alternative. Look for methyl isothiozolinone: chloromethylisothiozolinone on the label or bronopol or DMDMH etc, etc. More likely it could be the fragrance or colourant in your product of choice that causes the trouble!

Why it largely depends on you is because we all have a disposition to allergy that is almost part of our DNA. Life will then provide chemicals for your body to try out for even decades before it says, no more! Enough is enough! You turn red and itchy…..or worse….These chemicals will only in fraction come from personal products, they will come from every material you touch, breath, ingest and sometimes it’s the cocktails of these which can create reactions. It’s all because we live in a chemical soup of mankind’s making, and sorry but there is no escape!

Now I bet you might be thinking why oh why don’t “they” produce a “safe” preservative, one that kills everything and upsets no-one…..dream on! For a start preservatives are designed to disrupt the cellular processes of the little critters we don’t want living in our shower gel and so are likely to have a biological profile in other ways too!

Then there is legislation (Cosmetic Directive EU), which effectively stopped all development of new, safer or more effective (lower dose) preservative actives as this is now so expensive to develop and register no company will take the commercial risk. We’ve frozen the science about 15 years back now, ironically in an attempt to make cosmetics better and safer.

So returning specifically to Parabens, are they allergens, safe, toxic, the breath of Beelzebub himself or just misunderstood?

The fact is Parabens have been around a long time in preservative agent terms and are even used in toothpastes and food so it is pretty difficult to say they have any worse record as allergens or toxilogical (toxicological) profile then alternatives.

They have been associated most notoriously with breast cancer as traces are often found in tumors but this casual link has to date not been scientifically turned into a causal link, no studies have been able to link them to the propagation of the disease. It is likely lifestyle choices and of course genetic disposition play far greater roles in determining who develops this cancer.

On the whole if Parabens worry you, then yes, buy products that are Parabens free, as worry is never a good thing, if not reflect on the fact that if you have suffered no adverse reactions to products containing them then changing is probably just as likely to lead you to finding some agent that you will react to!

I hope you’ve enjoyed the first part of the What goes on your head series. Join email subscription or like my facebook page so you don’t miss out on the future posts.

Don’t forget it’s a series of post dedicated to ingredients in your cosmetics. You can read about SLS (surfactants) here and about  natural ingredients in your products and what does it mean here.

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