Blueberries a natural source of parabens
photo: morguefile: greyerbaby
What are Parabens?
Since the dawn of time, human beings have searched for ways to preserve foods and perishables: cavemen used ice to freeze their food, sunlight to dry it and fires to smoke it. Cosmetics are no different: ancient Egyptians used arsenic and ox blood in an effort to prolong the life of their cosmetics, often taking their lives into their own hands.
Today, arsenic isn’t the secret ingredient used to preserve foods, perishables or cosmetics. Instead, the secret ingredient is parabens.
Without parabens, bacteria and fungi would grow in perishable products, spoiling them and harming consumers. Your moisturiser would go mouldy. Your foundation would be spoilt. Your perfume would be putrid.
Almost all parabens are man-made rather than naturally occurring.
The one exception is blueberries, which are the only naturally occurring source of paraben.
Parabens are easy to produce, cost very little to manufacture and are simple to incorporate into products. For product manufacturers, parabens offer the perfect way to lengthen the shelf life of any number of consumer goods.
Chemically speaking, parabens belong to the ester family. Esters are compounds formed by using alcohol and an organic acid. For parabens, the particular organic acid used is p-hydroxybenzoic acid , a derivative of benzoic acid. It is a white crystalline solid that is soluble in solvents like alcohol and acetone, but does not dissolve in water. Strangely enough, it occurs naturally in green tea, vanilla and red wine.
Determining whether a product includes parabens is quite simple. Legally, they have to be listed in the ingredient list on the back of packaging. Some more common parabens include: proplyparaben, methylparaben, isobutylparaben, isopropylparaben, butylparaben or sodium butylparaben. Typically, products contain more than one paraben. In fact, they are often used in combination with other chemical preservatives to protect against a range of micro-organisms.
You may have used a whole range of parabens today without even realising. Have you used shampoo or conditioner? Washed your hands with a bar of soap? Brushed your teeth with toothpaste? Applied sunscreen, deodorant, moisturiser, foundation, lipstick, eye shadow or eye drops? Pretty much accounts for half your bathroom cupboard, right?
Cosmetics aren’t the sole province of cosmetics: they are also used as food additives and can be found in a whole range of food products from salad dressings, mayonnaise and mustards, to frozen dairy, soft drinks and processed meats. Parabens are even present in some pharmaceuticals and prescription medication.
The jury is still out on how and why parabens might affect the health of human beings. While the American Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has decreed that parabens are safe, some studies have linked parabens to cancer. For this reason, many people choose to take a precautionary approach and err on the side of safety by using paraben-free products.
For more information, be sure to read Part Two of our Parabens Under the Microscope series (released next week)