Ask and you shall receive: The dangers of synthetic preservatives in cosmetics

toxic!We were recently asked if we'd write some items on organic beauty, specifically on products that don't contain parabens. Firstly though, here's a bit of an introduction for those of you who haven't yet heard about this issue.

More and more people are becoming aware of, and worried about the amount of chemicals cosmetic products contain - and what those chemicals might be doing to our bodies. Did you know for example, that some estimates put the average number of chemicals applied to our bodies daily at a massive 200? And that's just from using the sort of body and skincare products we all slather on every day.

So it's no surprise that organic products are becoming more and more popular. Most well known cosmetics brands use synthetic preservatives like parabens (including methylparaben, propylparaben, isoparaben, and butylparaben) in their products - check the labels on products you own and use, and you're bound to find them. They're commonly used in shampoo, moisturiser, cleansing and shaving gels and toothpaste. They're also used as food additives.

So what's so bad about synthetic preservatives? Well, parabens have been known to cause allergic reactions for a long time, but recently it has been discovered that they can increase a womans risk of breast cancer. These chemicals can also transfer to the uterine lining and cause reproductive abnormalities. Young boys exposed to such chemicals either prior to puberty or as fetuses also may be at an increased risk for undescended testicles, testicular cancer, sperm abnormalities and prostate disorders.

More immediately alarming perhaps is the fact that there are preservatives used in cosmetics which actually release small amounts of formaldehyde - which is not only an irritant and skin sensitizer, but is cancer-causing and damaging to the nervous system.

Because these agents are present in topical cosmetics we apply and then leave on our skin (such as moisturisers), this means that they have a long time to penetrate the skin and migrate into the blood stream. Recent research has also indicated that these chemicals could damage cell-processing properties in ways that could potentially lead to skin cancer.


While parabens are less toxic than other chemicals we may be exposed to, the problem lies in the fact that they're commonly included in so many products we use daily, thus upping our exposure to them. This is a reason why some people are now calling for the re-evaluation of their use in cosmetic and topically applied products.

So at this point you might be asking yourself, why on earth are these preservatives being used? Well, cosmetics contain active ingredients which would quite literally go off if preservatives weren't included, and parabens are anti-microbial. And - they're cheap. But there is some good news - there are actually preservatives out there which are both gentle on our systems and which have effective preservative qualities. They include grapefruit seed extract, potassium sorbate, sorbic acid, tocopherol (vitamin E), vitamin A (retinyl), Vitamin C (ascorbic acid).

So the trick is to be informed. Read labels, find out what's in the product you're about to buy. Or buy organic, preservative-free products. There are loads of them out there which are available here or to buy online - Jane Iredale, Dr. Hauschka, Jo Wood Organics (madly expensive), Aubrey Organics, Burts Bees, Origins, Aveda and Lavera. I'll be discussing some of these in greater detail in forthcoming articles.

Further Reading

If you're concerned about this issue, then you may find the following books useful:


Related Articles

More from Life