Tuesday, May 3, 2011


I have mentioned before that parabens really aren’t the most toxic ingredient (or family of ingredients,) that ends up in our personal care products, or by extension, on us. (And by further extension, but more to the point: in us.) Here is the story of how parabens got their bad name. What follows are the meeting minutes from the 2005 Natural Products Expo, (I was able to acquire these by methods I shall not disclose, lest you blow my cover as an actual beauty blogger,) during which the topic of parabens came up:

Meeting called to order by Chair, 5:00 p.m.
Chair welcomes returning attendees, Board Of Beauty members
Attendance taken, 5:03 p.m.
Agenda Approved, 5:04 p.m.
Agenda Hijacked, 5:05 p.m.

Fictitious Beauty Company Member, named Bob (BOB): Hey, have you guys noticed that Avalon Organics says they aren’t using parabens anymore?

Other Fictitious Beauty Company Member, named Other Bob (OBOB) member: What?

BOB: Totally. Look at their labels, they say “Paraben-free.”

OBOB: Why? They’re already the good guys. We’ve all removed the pthalates, synthetic fragrances, petroleum products, and other worse-than-a-meat-dress crap from our stuff. Why are they crying about parabens?

BOB: They’re apparently estrogenic.


BOB: Apparently, Avalon thinks putting extra estrogen in people is bad, like it may cause cancer, or contribute to it or something.

                   *room erupts with laughter*
                   *gavel drops, Chair calls meeting back to order, 5:16 p.m.*

OBOB: Seriously though, what evidence do they have?

Meeting Chair: Seriously, though, I have an agenda to run…

BOB: Well, they’re citing rising breast cancer rates in younger women, and think maybe there’s a connection.

OBOB: Bullshit. It’s marketing. Everyone uses parabens, even us, and we’re the good guys! We all have “organic” in our names!

Meeting Chair: I give. Meeting adjourned.

Avalon CEO Gil Pritchard: Guys? I’m right here. I can hear everything you’re saying.


CEO GP: If you have anything you want to ask, then ask me. I’ll answer all your questions right here, right now. No need to act like fifth-graders here.

BOB: Are you using parabens?

CEO GP: Nope.

OBOB to BOB: Told you!

BOB to OBOB: Dick.

BOB to CEO GP: Are you exploiting this as a marketing opportunity?

CEO GP: Totally. But it’s still true. And don’t give me that wounded look. We ALL do marketing. Don’t hate the player.

OBOB: What are you using for preservatives, then? How are you keeping your products stable? How are you controlling the shelf life? Do they all have to be refrigerated?

CEO GP: I’ll tell you all everything you want to know. I have no problem sharing our data or our ideas, but I’m gonna need some brewskis, and you’re buying.

BOB: Oh…. We’re not already supposed to be drinking? *hides flask under table*

Bottom line, the “organic” movement was well underway by the time parabens catapulted to notoriety. Why did they? I’m not sure. I think it may be that since Avalon was prepared to share their philosophy and knowledge about parabens and how to replace them, many other companies jumped on the bandwagon, and the whole thing got so much momentum that many of the “traditional” companies had jump on, too. Or, maybe it’s because since consumers who were already interested in the “organic” movement started seeing “paraben-free” products all of a sudden, they started assuming that parabens must be really rancid. Maybe BOB was right, maybe it was a golden marketing egg, even if that’s not what Avalon intended. Or maybe all of these things, in some measure. But we do know that parabens tend to be the first thing on everyone’s list of ingredients to eliminate, even though phthalates, petroleum, and formaldehyde (oh my!) have a lot more documented nastiness about them.

Which is not to say that’s necessarily a bad thing. Personally, when I am looking at a product’s ingredient list, I scan for any parabens first. If there’s a paraben (or worse, several parabens,) I put it back on the shelf. I don’t even have to really read the rest of the ingredients. (Sometimes I’m actually relieved, because it means I don’t have to really read for content.) I find it’s a great screening tool.

However, if a product passes the paraben test, that does not make it clean. At least we can be pretty sure what parabens are doing, and at least they have to show up on the label, as long as they’re part of the manufacturer’s formula. (Remember, fragrance is a total wild card.) Parabens are translated by the body as estrogen, and for those of us who have concern for over-estrogenation, it may be worth avoiding. (Here I will add that lavender, tea tree, and soy all do the same thing.) We also know that parabens have been found in breast tumors, and in cancerous nodes.  But we do NOT know that there’s a causative relationship there. We also know that sometimes tattoo ink can be found in these same tumors, but nobody theorizes that getting tattoos causes breast cancer. It could well be that parabens simply happen to get deposited in cancerous tissue in some people, for whatever reason. (Or not. Nobody knows for sure, that’s my point!)

I’ve mentioned before that we all have to choose where to draw our own personal line in the sand. I have come to believe that eliminating parabens is a good idea, partly because if a company has NOT eliminated parabens from your products, then for sure they don’t give crap ONE about petroleum, or worse. Like I said, they’re a good early-detection system. But ultimately, everyone has to decide for themselves what is or is not tolerable in their products, and then learn how to recognize how those products are camouflaged. (Seriously, if a product/ingredient has a lot of Xs, Ys, and Zs, that tends to be a red flag, especially if there are a lot of ingredients that have lots of them. That’s not always true, but it’s a decent rule of thumb.)

The Organic Divas (http://www.organicdivas.com/index.html ) have a list called the Diva Dirty Dozen, which they believe are the 12 worst ingredients commonly used in personal care products. In their opinion, they should be avoided at all costs. Here’s the list:
1.     Methyl and Propyl and Butyl and Ethyl Paraben. Linked to breast cancer.
o        Methyl Paraben: Allergies/immunotoxicity, non-reproductive organ system toxicity, irritation (skin, eyes or lungs), biochemical or cellular level changes.
o        Propyl Paraben: Developmental/reproductive toxicity, endocrine disruption, allergies / immunotoxicity, and non-reproductive organ system toxicity.
o        Butyl Paraben: Developmental/reproductive toxicity, allergies/immunotoxicity, non-reproductive organ system toxicity, and biochemical or cellular level changes.
o        Ethyl Paraben: Allergies/immunotoxicity, non-reproductive organ system toxicity.
2.     Imidazolindyl Urea. Impurities linked to cancer.
3.     Diazolindyl Urea. Allergies/immunotoxicity. Contamination concerns.
4.     Petrolatum. Can cause highly allergic reactions. Contamination concerns.
5.     Propylene Glycol. Alters skin structure for enhanced skin absorption. A skin irritant that can cause allergic reactions. Irritation (skin, eyes, or lungs).*
6.     PVP/V Copolymer.
7.     Sodium Lauryl Sulfate. Non-reproductive organ system toxicity, irritation (skin, eyes, or lungs). Alters skin structure which allows chemicals to penetrate more deeply into skin.
8.     Stearalkonium Chloride. Non-reproductive organ system toxicity, neurotoxicity, and irritation (skin, eyes or lungs).
9.     Synthetic colors. Developmental/reproductive toxicity, neurotoxicity, and non-reproductive organ system toxicity. For example, synthetic colors may be listed as the following: FD&C Blue 1 Aluminum Lake or D&C Red 27 Lake.
10. Synthetic fragrances. Neurotoxicity, allergies/immunotoxicity, and miscellaneous concerns.
11. Phthalates. Developmental/reproductive toxicity, neurotoxicity, hormone disruption, allergies/immunotoxicity, persistence and bioaccumulation, and non-reproductive organ system toxicity. Linked to reproductive birth defects in baby boys. May damage lungs, liver, kidneys.
12. Triethanolamine. May form carcinogenic compounds called nitrosamines in the body after absorbed - among the most potent cancer-causing agents found.
* My note: Propylene Glycol, Ethylene Glycol, Diethylene Glycol, Polyethylene Glycol, can be identified as (PG) or (PEG)
If you go to their website, you can download and print this list in the form of a little card you can laminate and carry in your wallet! (I actually have to do that again, because I keep giving my cards away…)
And though I am not a scientist, (or a real beauty blogger,) I would add to that list:
Hydroquinone. You’ll find this in skin-lightening products. It decreases production of melanin. And it’s a confirmed carcinogen, as well as being toxic to skin, brain, immune, and reproductive systems. Look for: hydroquinone, 1,4-benzene, dihydroxybenzene, hydroxyphenol
Lead & Mercury. These are no-brainers, I don’t have to tell you why you should avoid them. They can be hard to avoid, though, because they are often not labeled, as they occur as contaminants. However, sometimes Mercury is used in mascara and eye makeup, and lead acetate is sometimes used in hair dye. Here’s what to look for on a label: thimerosal, lead acetate.
Nanoparticles. Nanos don’t have to be listed on any label. All I can tell you is to stay with companies you trust, and stay FAR away from anything that does list nanoparticles or nanotechnology on the label. Nobody knows if these cause damage, what type, or to what extent. There is almost no data, and what there is does NOT look good.
Talc. Not everyone agrees on this. (Well. On anything, really…) Personally, talc falls on the other side of my line in the sand, because it doesn’t break down. It gets into your lungs and it just doesn’t go away. (That’s not always true. Sometimes it goes to your ovaries, and causes trouble there.)
Toluene. This has mostly been removed from nail polish (and some other nail care products,) but can still show up in perfumes/fragrances. In 2006, the IFRA (International Fragrance Association) decided it was unsafe so-get this- they recommend that it should be “kept as low as practicable.” (Lance A. Wallace, Identification of Polar Volatile Organic Compounds in Consumer Products and Common Microenvironments, U.S. E.P.A Report, March 1, 1991)
Finally, if you’ve made it this far, I have the answer to Jojo’s question about minerals. I spoke with my friend Randall, (Randalicious if you’re nasty,) who works for Jane Iredale (could a girl get luckier?) about why minerals are good for us in mineral makeup. His answer is fairly straightforward, but not without nuance. I’ll elaborate later, but for now I’ll give you the shorter version.
Not all minerals are created equally. Lab-grown minerals, while inorganic, are:
°        A known quantity: every batch is exactly the same as the last, so quality control is higher
°        Unable to support life, which means no bacterial, viral, or fungal contamination, EVER
°        Have known anti-inflammatory and sunscreening properties
Of course, not all minerals are the same. He and I had a great conversation about which minerals Jane Iredale uses and why, how their mineral makeup works, and other things. This will not turn into a Jane Iredale advertisement (not on purpose, anyway) but I found what he had to say interesting.
I also think it’s tres cool that I’ve contacted Jane Iredale herself once, and she responded to my email within 24 hours. Also, she followed up after that. Further, I called ‘Licious, and he and I talked for nearly an hour one night, and he answered every single one of my questions, even when I asked him questions that might be considered proprietary. He never pulled that card.
I also think it’s worth noting that I sent Leslie Blodgett (of Bare Minerals,) an email that basically asked the same questions I started out with while talking to Randall, and I got NO response. Nothing, not even from an intern, or a PR rep. Which surprised me a little, until I learned online that Bare Minerals was bought by Shiseido in 2010. (Leslie is probably big money now. Probably can’t talk to her unless you call QVC now.)
Next time, I’ll talk about terms like “organic”, and why, for practical purposes, it’s meaningless.

1 comment:

  1. Isn't "nanoparticles" pretty vague? Nanoparticles of what? I've got a hubby whose scientific work sometimes includes nano this and that. In his case he has to be concerned with them in stuff like machining fluids and aerosols and things but they are particles of some particular chemical or biological or chemo-biological mix, no? So wouldn't it depend on what they are, chemically speaking?