We’re lucky we live in an age where consumers don’t just buy products based on marketing claims. We’re all checking labels. Understanding ingredients is a trend in skincare right now. Learning about what goes into the making of products allows you to choose them correctly, so that’s good news. But here’s one downside – there’s limited information out there. Often, this leads to unwarranted fear associated with certain ingredients that get spotlighted, and many others may slide under the radar.
But we’re here to help and break things down, one ingredient at a time.
Let’s start with a big, scary one: Parabens.
As you may already know, Organic Riot chooses to steer clear of any risky, anxiety-provoking ingredients. Which is why we choose not to use any parabens in our products. But we do think it’s important to understand why a certain ingredient is considered potentially dangerous, so that you, as a consumer, can make an informed choice about what you want and don’t want on your skin.
So what is a paraben, anyway? Well, ‘paraben’ doesn’t actually refer to a single chemical. It’s a group of chemicals. It has many variations. You may have heard of Isobutylparaben, Phenylparaben and so on. Each version has its own chemical and toxicological properties. Although there may be similarities in certain properties, there are also significant differences. These are used in varying amounts as a cocktail of preservatives. They have been used for a long time because they are odourless and inexpensive, as a result of being derived from petroleum sources.
Okay here’s a fun fact about parabens to lighten the mood –
did you know that parabens can be found in nature? Methylparaben naturally exists in blueberries. It’s also found in the secretions of female dogs where it acts as a pheromone to notify the male that his advances are welcome.
Obviously, extracting parabens from blueberries and canine secretions is not a commercially viable option. So, the parabens used in popular cosmetics are produced synthetically. This means that even though the final product is identical to ones found in nature, it cannot legally be called “natural”.
Although parabens have been used since ~1920 in cosmetics,
food and medicine, our formulator began to be suspicious of them in the late 1980’s when various breast cancer surgeons found parabens in tumours. It then took over a decade for various other studies to complete. But mainstream suspicions regarding them began in 2004 when Dr. Philippa Darbre from the University of Reading published a paper claiming to have found traces of parabens in breast tumours. As you may expect, the study received extensive press coverage. Since parabens are widely used in foods and cosmetics, they can possibly be detected in most people. But Dr. Darbre admitted that merely their presence does not prove they caused the tumours. But she did bring to attention the fact that parabens undertake an estrogen-like activity and that such activity has been linked to breast cancer.
But what’s interesting is that depending on your usage of products containing parabens, the estrogenic activity linked to it is often less than that of estrogenic substances found in soy, sunflower, sesame, garlic, green tea, tomatoes, oats, chickpea and many other common plant foods that we take for granted, as well as many plastics, other environmental elements and even the estrogen produced naturally in the body. To put it simply, there’s no point demonising a single suspicious ingredient if you’re not being careful about other potentially dangerous lifestyle choices you make. To ensure you don’t tip the scale to hormone disruption, you have to view your health holistically.
Our formulator commissioned one of New Zealand Government’s laboratories to do a study on all of the ingredients she considered dangerous. Dr. Weir, who is a world leader in the field, was shocked at the results on parabens. The study looked at how substances impact the cell membrane, the mitochondria and the DNA. According to the study, some parabens can go through the cell membrane without damaging it, making it appear technically “harmless”. The shocking results were that some parabens damaged the DNA, yet the cell membrane remained intact. This means damaged cells could possibly continue to freely replicate. These replicating “damaged” cells could possibly become tumours. The evidence on the dangers of parabens are not conclusive enough to term them as carcinogens but there is definitely a possibility of some risk involved.
Based on all this data The European Commission; Health & Consumer Protection Directorate-General
(arguably one of the most stringent bodies for Cosmetics) in collaboration with Scientific Committee On Consumer Products in Europe put out an official statement on parabens, banning the use of five parabens (Isopropylparaben, Isobutylparaben, Phenylparaben, Benzylparaben and Pentylparaben) due to their possible ill effects on health. They allowed some at maximum concentration limits: 0.14 % for Butylparaben or Propylparaben, 0.4% for Methylparaben or Ethylparaben and 0.8% for the mixture of these four ingredients, wherein the sum of the individual concentration of Butylparaben and Propylparaben cannot exceed 0.14 %.
This is crucial information for consumers as it’s never a good idea to demonise ingredients without knowing if their concentration is within safe limits based on valid research. The benchmark from when a product goes from healing to dangerous is always in the dosage %. This is the most basic principle of toxicology. As consumers, you absolutely must demand safety information to make sure you are never at risk.
At Organic Riot, we prefer to avoid parabens, and instead use the safest preservatives approved by the European Commission, US FDA, Natrue certified or Food Grade, so you can be assured you’re in safe hands. Over and above this, we also ensure the preservatives are safe for the environment. This is why they’re also certified by the Soil Association so that your product finds its way in the soil, no harm is caused to the earth either.
Has this sparked your curiosity about parabens? Want to know which of the products you use contain them? Well, read your ingredients labels and keep an eye out for ones with the word ‘paraben’ in their name (methylparaben, butylparaben, propylparaben, isobutylparaben, ethylparaben). Now that you’re armed with the right information, you’re free to make a choice about the products you’re happy to apply on your skin, and the ones you’d rather skip.
References for this information:
EUROPEAN COMMISSION HEALTH & CONSUMER PROTECTION DIRECTORATE-GENERAL Directorate C – Public Health and Risk Assessment. Extended Opinion On Parabens, Underarm Cosmetics And Breast Cancer. SCIENTIFIC COMMITTEE ON CONSUMER PRODUCTS, 2005.
Schwarcz, J. “The Right Chemistry”. Mcgill University, 2014.
Jinqiu Zhu, PhD, DABT, ERT Toxicologist. Amended Safety Assessment Of Parabens As Used In Cosmetics. Cosmetic Ingredient Review, Washington DC, 2018.