No doubt you have read, heard and even discussed the subject of parabens and preservatives in cosmetic skincare products by now. Parabens and their use as preservatives have been the subject of heated debate for well over a decade. Alarmingly, certain preservatives have been hailed as dangerous and even unnecessary for our products. The goal of this article is not to just add another voice to the clamor, but to help educate you—the consumer—to 1) what all the fuss about parabens is, and 2) how the role of preservatives in organic personal and skin care products is evolving to meet the ever rising standards of the consumer.
WHAT’S ALL THE FUSS ABOUT PARABENS?
Used as artificial preservatives in food, cosmetics and body care products since the 1920s, parabens are quite efficient at dramatically extending the shelf life of products by preventing and reducing the growth of harmful bacteria and mold.
You can find parabens in a wide variety of leave-on and rinse-off products. Ones with higher water content (like shampoos and conditioners) have a much faster window that opens to the growth of fungi and gram positive (easier to kill) bacteria. Most people use personal care products daily and include products like—
- Face & skin cleansers
- Shaving gel
Once information and studies started to emerge about potential health risks regarding parabens, people started to get concerned. Parabens and many other chemicals and substances are rapidly absorbed through the skin and go on a journey through the bloodstream. Eventually, they are metabolized and excreted through urine and bile. While this is, in itself, quite normal, what chemical parabens do while coursing through the body became the ultimate concern. To make matters even more controversial, excreted parabens being added to our environment raises additional concerns that the environment is being inundated, when already oversaturated with chemicals as it is.
The main types of parabens that you will see on product labels start with the prefixes…
…and, of course, end with the word paraben (i.e. methylparaben). When in the body, the chemical structure of parabens can falsely mimic estrogen. Our body has hormone receptors where the estrogen we produce fits like a lock-and-key mechanism. Parabens, due to their similar molecular construction, can steal your natural hormones’ place in the receptor. In doing so, they can artificially signal cellular activity to turn off or on. Put simply, a body (male or female) will produce a certain amount of hormone needed for healthy functioning. The presence of estrogen mimickers (chemicals, called “xenoestrogens” and bio-identical molecules, called “phytoestrogens”) can be detrimental in two ways.
HOW DO PARABENS ACT LIKE HORMONES?
First, your body can build up an excess of estrogen (real and pseudo) in your system. When this “over 100%” level is reached, this can tax your liver and cause your body to sequester excess estrogen into fat cells; much as nuclear power plants sequester nuclear waste. It’s not destroyed—just stuffed somewhere. Estrogen is carcinogenic when exposed too long to body tissue—particularly to certain cells in the breast. To prevent harmful and toxic exposure, your body needs to metabolize estrogen regularly.
Second, too much estrogen (real or pseudo) can cause your own body to under-produce your own natural hormone, since it mistakenly assesses that there is already enough hormone to go around. And let’s face it, nothing is better for you than what you naturally make for yourself. However, if a body continues to produce estrogen while still getting pumped full of foreign estrogen-mimickers, the excess will take a toll eventually.
This brings up the central issue that is the cause of the debate surrounding parabens. A properly functioning liver can handle all the estrogen a body throws at it and can even handle some phyto- and xenoestrogens from time to time (such as a diet high in soy, which is a phytoestrogen). This apparent lack of detrimental effect gives one side of the debate the view that parabens are harmless. But parabens, as chemicals, can build up in tissue over time, effectively adding to your overall estrogen total due to bioaccumulation. And you don’t want that.
Eventually, factors such as trauma, chronic stress, poor environment, and poor diet can tip the scales and you go from parabens not causing any issues for you, to, now, manifesting symptoms of estrogen dominance suddenly. It’s much like acquiring a food allergy. One day a person can be eating shrimp just fine and the next time their throat closes up. Something tipped the scales and the same can be true with the effects of parabens.
Estrogen dominance will continue to turn on/off processes that estrogen is designed to manipulate, but in a much more aggressive way due to it being too abundant. Estrogen’s role in a body is to—
- Grow and enhance the walls and membranes of the uterus, vagina and mammary glands
- Make bones smaller and shorter
- Increase fat storage around hips and thighs (creates a curvy and contoured shape in a healthy body)
- Increase sensitivity to insulin (regulating fat storage)
- Regulate oil production in skin glands
- Modulate thickness and quality of the skin, as well as collagen content
- Control cholesterol production in your liver
All of these processes stay balanced and function well when your body’s estrogen is balanced. But, having too high of overall estrogen (real or pseudo) for too long can cause these mechanisms to never turn off and basically run amok. Some parabens are more endocrine-disruptive than others. It can be different for different people, but, generally, symptoms of estrogen dominance/surplus are—
- Weight gain that won’t come off even when dieting
- Uterine, ovarian, and breast cysts and fibroids
- Dry skin
- Brittle hair
- And more…
Major retailers in the USA have already implemented, or are planning to implement, restrictions and even active bans on paraben containing products. Whole Foods has banned the four main parabens as part of its premium body care products standard. CVS has followed suit in 2019 and Target is phasing out parabens in all beauty, personal care and baby products in 2020. Walgreens has committed to the year of 2021 for removing isopropyl- and isobutyl- parabens from shelves.
Ahead of the USA, the EU has banned isopropyl- and isobutyl- parabens in personal care products since 2015. Following the trend are 10 countries in the Southeast Asian Countries block (ASEAN), as well as Japan.
Research points out that a body’s ability to handle excess hormones and chemicals can be compromised despite being visually healthy and seemingly tolerating parabens. This compromisation can be compounded by stress or traumatic events that happen in your life. Using a product containing parabens can be equated to adding fuel to a fire in that case. Limiting your exposure—before an issue arises—appears to be the safest course. Consumer cries for “No parabens!” have definitely been heard and are currently making an industry impact as well as innovating change in approaches to preservation.
NATURAL, SAFE PRESERVATIVE USE IN COSMETICS AND SKIN CARE
Any food or personal care product not manufactured for immediate use or consumption will, to some extent, require a preservative to achieve a shelf life and prevent the growth of harmful organisms. The easiest and oldest way was to use salt as the preservative. Salt can cure meat so that it will stay fresh much longer. In fact, swishing and rinsing your mouth out with saltwater is a common way ayurvedics use to keep teeth healthy in some lands. Fermentation is another way of preserving perishable foodstuffs. In the thousands of years gone by without refrigeration, those were the primary ways to prepare and store food.
During the last century, thousands of synthetic preservatives were designed. Over this time, many hazards involved with various chemical solutions used to preserve our products were also identified; parabens being one of the more recent examples. What producers and manufacturers of organic/natural personal care products have been searching for are ways to preserve products naturally and without the risks associated with chemicals.
Some organic cosmetic manufacturers have even determined that parabens are completely unnecessary if the formulation uses high-quality organic herbs, among other ingredients. Certain ingredients are naturally antimicrobial, such as coconut oil. No preservative-free formulation is a magic bullet, however. Consequently, using the age-old method of fermentation, natural preservatives have been designed.
Sweet On You uses this is the type of preservative. We want our products to not only be organic, but safe for long-term use as well. How do fermented preservatives work? One way is with antimicrobial peptides. These peptides can be created by fermenting coconut with Lactobacillus (the main gut-friendly bacteria that creates yogurt, kefir and kim chi). When added to oil-based cosmetic formulations, this type of preservative disrupts the cellular structures of fungus, destroying them before they can multiply. Similarly, a process used with Lactobacillus ferment creates a water-based preservative that can kill harmful bacteria in creams and lotions.
When using Sweet On You products, you can rest assured that as the media focuses its attention on the risk of parabens and other synthetic preservatives, we have been procuring organic and healthy alternatives that provide broad-spectrum protection all the while. If you haven’t tried any of our body, lip, hair or skin care products, now’s the time! Head over to our shop here and enjoy loving your skin and know that it will love you back~