How to Find Paraben-Free Cosmetics
What are parabens?
Parabens are all forms of: alkyl esters of p-hyroxybenzoic acid.
Some parabens occur naturally in some plants, with blueberries being the plant most widely cited as an example. You can be fairly sure it’s safe to eat those. However most parabens are chemicals widely used as preservatives in cosmetics and even in some medicines and foods. About a decade ago scientists began to realize that parabens act like estrogen in the body, so they are one of a group of chemicals known as xenoestrogens.
Why would you want to avoid Parabens?
There is growing evidence that xenoestrogens as a group contribute to a variety of issues of concern, including earlier puberty in girls, lowered fertility in men and to breast cancer. Xenoestrogens can linger for many years, and a study in the Cape Cod area found pesticides in house dust that had been banned up to 30 years previously.
Lately parabens have been singled out for research due to growing concerns that in particular in deodorants are connected with breast cancer. In a British study published in January 2012, parabens were found in 99% of breast tissue taken from 40 breast cancer patients. Although a high number of the women had tumors in the outer and upper area of the breast – in other words close to the underarm where deodorant is applied – the author of the report, Dr Philippa Darbre, cautions against jumping too rapidly conclusions. Her view is that parabens are probably only one part of the picture, a view supported by other scientists.
But parabens are part of the picture, and what many scientists believe is that when combined parabens (and other xenoestrogens) could create an “estrogenic stimulus” far beyond what each would do individually. Doctors are taking this seriously, and so should we.
How to recognize a paraben in an ingredients list.
The diagram above shows the structure of a methylparaben, but parabens don’t look like that when in toiletries and cosmetics. You won’t find them by looking in the bottle, but sometimes you will find them listed among the ingredients on the bottle or packaging.
Common parabens used in cosmetics are:
However sometimes parabens go by different names. See this article on Chemicalland21 for a full list of the different names used for parabens.
A quicker way to assess ingredients
The list of variations is long, and the names unfamiliar to most of us, so the chances are you won’t be able to remember each one when out shopping. Therefore let’s return to paraben’s full name for a few clues: alkyl esters of p-hyroxybenzoic acid.
Ester sounds like a nice girl’s name, and indeed some esters are perfectly benign. They are naturally present in fats and oils such as butter or sunflower oil. Very simply an ester is formed by an acid and alcohol bonding. (In fats fatty acids bond with alcohol glycerol.) For this reason don’t assume that all esters in cosmetics are parabens.
But once the ingredient is made up of ester along with other parts of either alkyl esters of p-hyroxybenzoic acid, or of the first part of any parabens from the list above, there is a good chance it is a paraben. For example benzylparaben is also known as:
4-Hydroxybenzoic acid benzyl ester
p-Hydroxybenzoic acid benzyl ester
The first of these two names contain parts of paraben’s full chemical name and the last one contains methyl, which is in the list of parabens above.
So a quick way to assess ingredients is to watch out for any of the names on the list above combined with each other or with hyroxybenzoic acid or with ester. If you find any of those combinations then it’s best to assume you have found a paraben.
As I wrote in my article: How To Protect Your Kids From Xenoestrogens, it is not safe to assume that because a cosmetic is labeled organic it means it is. Organic cosmetics are not controlled nearly so rigorously as organic foods. This is especially true in the United States where rules are much less stringent than in the European Union or Australia. A product might contain only a few organic ingredients along with many that are non-organic, and still boast of “certified organic ingredients.” Look carefully at ingredients and look out also for products that clearly state: paraben-free or no synthetic preservatives, colors or scents.
All these products are paraben free
Where to look for paraben-free cosmetics
You probably won’t find many paraben-free cosmetics in your local supermarket, but on the other hand don’t discount it. When I originally wrote this article, finding paraben-free cosmetics was quite a challenge, but a few years on that has changed. In many countries around the world, mainstream brands and stores have realised may people don't want risky ingredients in their cosmetics and many offer a wide variety of organic toiletries and some make-up. Several supermarket chains stock organic and natural toiletries for babies and toddlers. In the US choice is more limited than in Europe, but even supermarket giant Walmart has some paraben-free products. They also have other products advertised as organic, but that list parabens and petroleum jelly among the ingredients - so remember to read the labels.
You are likely to find a wider variety of organic and paraben-free toiletries in a health food or whole food store. In the States, the Whole Foods Market chain is good place to go, while smaller independent stores will also have a selection. One example is Chamberlin’s in Orlando. In the UK most departments stores have at least one organic range of cosmetics. Marks and Spencers and the health food chain Holland and Barrett both stock a wide variety of organic toiletries. For make-up the best bet is small local stores that sell either whole foods or toiletries, herbalists, or departments stores with a cosmetics department.
In the UK buying cosmetics on-line is relatively easy as many companies now list ingredients. This is less common in the States, so be sure you know the product when purchasing on-line. Amazon.com has a variety of organic products and I have listed a few that I know and trust in the grey box on the right.
Alternatives to Standard Cosmetics
Finally think out of the box, or maybe out of the bottle! Try products you may not usually consider. The easiest way to avoid parabens is to choose products that are as close to their natural state as possible.
Instead of using a night cream, use pure oil on your face. My favorite is Rio Rosa Mosqueta. This oil is extremely high in essential fatty acids and has been used by South American women for centuries to combat wrinkles, stretch marks and scars. Contrary to what you might imagine it doesn’t make your face greasy, because the skin easily absorbs the oil. Some of my friends use almond oil or sunflower oil as a moisturizer.
Instead of chemical deodorants use a pure salt stick, such as the one from Salt of the Earth shown in the photo above.
Rose oil from the Andes
Instead of commercial perfumes, use essential oils. Some such as lavender can be applied neat, while others should be mixed with carrier oil before applying to skin.
Instead of chemical hair dyes, use natural henna. Yes it can be messy, but in my experience no more so than other dyes. You do need to mix the henna first, and allow it to work longer on your hair, but it is nowhere near as difficult a process as you might imagine. And a few hours every few months are nothing when they bring you peace of mind.