In an ideal world, we’d be mixing up our own natural skin- and hair-care products daily with fresh ingredients from our gardens and pantries. Sounds lovely, right? But, If we did that, those items would have to be refrigerated due to harmful bacteria, fungi, and yeasts that would grow in those products and force us to throw them out within a week.
This is where preservatives come in. Any product that has water needs to have a preservative to remain shelf stable (i.e., good to use for months if not years). Not all preservatives are created equal, however. Some man-made chemical preservatives, like parabens, can have harmful effects on health.
This is something that I realized when creating Pharmacopia’s apothecary-style, plant-based line of products, and why all of our products have been paraben-free since the start. In 2014, when companies began removing parabens from their products due to health concerns, we were once again ahead of the curve.
Why Products Need Preservatives
I’m always suspicious when I see a product claiming to be “Preservative Free!” or “Contains No Preservatives!” Unless the product is being refrigerated—and is not meant to last long—every skincare and haircare product needs to have some preservatives to prevent the product from “spoiling.” Skin and hair oils, as well as the oils you find in your pantry, are an exception. Oils don’t grow bacteria because they don’t contain water (bacteria need water to thrive). However, if a product contains oil and water—as most personal care products do—it absolutely needs preservatives.
What Are Parabens?
Parabens are a group of synthetic chemicals commonly used as preservatives in health and beauty products, though they are also found in food, beverages, and pharmaceuticals.
Parabens can be found in almost any beauty product: facial cleansers, shampoos, conditioners, sunscreens, deodorants, shaving products, and toothpastes, as well as eye, face, hand, and body moisturizers. Multiple parabens can even be found in makeup products like lipsticks and eyeshadows.
The most common paraben types used in personal care products are:
Why Parabens Are Bad for You
Parabens can be absorbed through the skin into the body, eventually seeping into the bloodstream before being excreted from the body in the urine and bile. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) measured the parabens in the urine of more than 2,548 people, ages six and older, who took part in a large study. They found methylparaben and propylparaben in the urine of most people tested, indicating “widespread exposure to these parabens in the U.S. population.” Even more concerning, the CDC found that females had several-fold higher parabens concentrations.
Also worrisome is the fact that one study found that makeup-wearing adolescent girls had 20 times the levels of propylparaben in their urine compared to those who never or rarely wore makeup.
Scientific studies have shown that these preservatives, once in the body, are potential endocrine disruptors. This means that they can mimic the behavior of estrogen in the body and affect our body’s reproductive, endocrine (e.g., thyroid gland), and nervous systems. According to the Environmental Working Group, this effect on the body could harm “fertility and reproductive organs, affect birth outcomes, and increase the risk of cancer.” Parabens can also cause skin irritation.
The European Union (EU) has banned five types of parabens in personal care products, believing that there’s enough evidence of parabens’ harm to remove them. We wholeheartedly agree with this decision here at Pharmacopia.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), on the other hand, doesn’t regulate the use of parabens in cosmetics and personal care products. According to the FDA, there’s a lack of scientific evidence to prove that parabens are indeed a significant health risk. This means that companies can choose to continue using parabens as preservatives in their products if they choose to. These companies won’t advertise their use of parabens, however, and most consumers will continue to buy these products without checking to see if what they’re buying or using contains parabens.
The concern is about repeated daily exposure through the use of numerous paraben-containing products over a number of years. This kind of continuous exposure could have potential harmful effects on our health.
What Does Paraben Free Mean?
Paraben free means that products like our Pharmacopia skin and haircare products, as well as our Lip Elixir and Body Bars, do not contain any parabens. It doesn’t mean that there are no preservatives, just that we prefer to choose safer alternatives.
Preservatives that are safe are the ones that we use in our Pharmacopia skincare products, shampoos and conditioners. These preservatives (below) are all rated safe for use by the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep. These include:
- Potassium sorbate (rated a 2 on Skin Deep)
- Phenoxyethanol (rated a 2 on Skin Deep)
- Benzoic Acid (rated a 1 on Skin Deep)
At Pharmacopia, we prefer to err on the side of caution. We have always believed that if there’s a potential risk of harm, it’s better to avoid that ingredient. That’s why you can rest easy when using our products; we’ve got your back, with your health and safety on our minds every day.