Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Cosmetics Contemplations: Yes to Carrots, No To Parabens?

Yes To Carrots is just one of a number of ranges lately to either centre their range entirely on its lack of parabens (a commonly-used preservative in beauty products) or cite it as a major feature of its products. Launched in January 2008, Yes To Carrots promises its consumers paraben-free products "to ensure your products stay clean while ensuring your safety" by using alternative preservatives, and centring its range on the use of cucumber and tomato as well as carrots.

A quick consultation with our friend Google reveals hundreds of results when "paraben-free skincare" is typed in. Concern regarding parabens initially arose in 1998 following an American report from the Environmental Protection Agency stating that parabens demonstrated oestrogenic activity, which some have read to indicate that these chemicals could imitate hormones found in the human body and have an adverse effect on the endocrine system (system of glands that release hormones and regulate metabolism, growth, development, puberty and mood). However, this was further brought to public attention more recently when a separate report indicated that parabens had been found in breast cancer tissue. Since then, the market for paraben-free skincare and cosmetics has grown exponentially, which leaves companies that still use parabens in their products open to scrutiny.

Some companies have made no response to this and continued as normal. Other companies have continued using parabens, but have also issued statements by way of justification. Lush is one of these companies, who reply with the following:

"71% of Lush products do not contain preservatives because, whenever possible, we create formulas that do not require them. However, the remaining 29% of our products do require some preservatives to prevent the growth of bacteria. The most important thing is that our products are safe to use. Without a preservative some of our products would start to go off. Methyl and propyl paraben are used to control the growth of bacteria, yeasts and moulds. We use less than half the maximum permitted level to ensure the product is as mild as possible and the skin's natural micro flora is not affected. This low level of use also helps with the bio-degradability of our product and any waste material created during manufacture.

[These parabens] have a long history of safe use and are highly effective. [They] are some of the oldest of cosmetic preservatives and have been used since the 1920s. They are used globally and are permitted by every world health authority (500 independent safety studies have been carried out over the decades). They are considered safe because of their low toxicity and how our bodies process them when eaten in foods. They don’t accumulate or get stored in the body and are eliminated normally.

A combination of mis-interpretation and flawed studies has caused a lot of worry associated with the use of parabens in cosmetics. The main sound bite often quoted - “parabens were found in breast cancer tissue” - comes from a study that has been completely discredited by scientists. No causal link between parabens and cancer has been proven. You may also have heard that parabens show weak oestrogenic (oestrogen = female hormone) activity. This is true, but the effect is so weak that it is not significant. By comparison, whole grains, hops, soy beans and many other common foods show high oestrogenic activity.

Nevertheless, paraben scare-stories have spread via mass-emails, websites and the media, and several companies have started to sell their products by specifically promoting that they are “paraben-free”. The fact is that methyl paraben and propyl paraben are the safest cosmetic preservatives around – and using alternatives which may not have been proved to be safe or effective could be more dangerous than simply sticking to parabens. Many companies are promoting ‘paraben-free’ products as if this is a good thing. This demonstrates the danger of companies supporting unsubstantiated rumours. If a cosmetic product that contains water is declared to be ‘paraben-free’ it will contain another preservative.

If it doesn’t contain an effective, proven preservative it is dangerous in itself as it provides a breeding ground for bacteria. Some other formulas may also require the presence of preservatives. At Lush, all elements of the formulation process, including whether or not a preservative is required, are always carefully considered.

Our products are freshly made locally, which is something most cosmetics manufacturers can’t compete with. Our fresh face masks are made without preservatives in small batches and delivered direct to customers and shops – and they must be kept in the fridge and used within three weeks of making. These are the ideal cosmetic product for anyone concerned about preservatives! We use parabens only when necessary.We use them at the lowest possible levels, which is why our products won’t last for three years (the industry average), and why we put a use-by date on them. 71% of our products are unpreserved. For this, we are unique in the industry."

As is all-too-common in the fashion and beauty industry, consumers are therefore left (again) unsure about who or what they should believe. Mass-market brands such as L'Oréal and John Frieda continue to use parabens; natural brands like Liz Earle also continue to use them when necessary. The implication for many users, thanks to the ensuing media frenzy behind the 'parabens in breast cancer tissue' report, is that natural is good and that anything artificial is bad. As Lush points out, it's only common sense that preservatives should be required (and, indeed, many more can be found in food, even if you avoid ready-meals like the plague) so that products can remain safe. Plus, it is perhaps also obvious that not everything natural is good - while this does take things to the extreme, deadly nightshade and a bite from a puff adder are both perfectly natural but will also kill you.

It therefore stands to reason that this natural=good and artificial=bad dichotomy has to stop. Almost every week the media report that something new will give us cancer, whether it's coffee or parabens. Where did the old adage 'everything in moderation' go? Perhaps more worrying is the complacency that this will breed in people; many who have never smoked, are vegetarian and exercise regularly die young from various illnesses, while those who McDonald's and smoke their way to their graves get a telegram from the Queen. But I digress.

People therefore need to start choosing for themselves again in order to make distinctions between fake threats and real ones (perhaps unlike parabens, Yes To Carrots' next target, phthalates, have been linked in the past to birth defects, and can also contribute to allergies and diabetes as well as disrupting the endocrine system). Sites such as Cosmetics Cop are incredibly valuable in helping people to do this. Pseudo-science is often peddled in the news in order to manipulate the masses, sending them running from one point of view to another (particularly in the case of animal testing) when they have barely considered the true issue at hand. Or, as in this case, from one product to another. Obsessive label-reading is no bad thing; it's good to know what's in your products, even if only to check out the ingredients for allergy reasons. In fact, think on this: my father used to be allergic to carrots.

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