Parabens and Sulfates: Is There Really Cause for Concern?

A product with a paraben—or sulfate-free label appeals to consumer preferences and demands a higher price point. But is removing parabens and sulfates from cosmetics truly in our best interests, or is it little more than marketing hype?

How Innocent Are Parabens?

Parabens—such as methylparaben, propylparaben, and butylparaben—are preservatives that extend the shelf life of our cosmetics. They’ve been keeping bacteria out of products since the 1920s, but in the last decade we’ve seen a backlash against these handy preservatives.

In 2004 the Journal of Applied Toxicology published a study linking parabens to cancer, and ever since then naturalists, environmentalists, and organic consumers have been in an uproar. The study found that 18 out of 20 breast tissue samples taken from human tumors were rife with paraben buildup. The results, however, are inconclusive. Researchers failed to test healthy breast tissue, so to determine that paraben buildup was indeed the cause of cancer is an unsubstantiated theory.

In theory, parabens do seem a likely culprit because they have estrogen-like properties. Estrogen has been proven to promote the growth of breast cancer tissue; researchers theorize that parabens may act in a similar manner. Unfortunately, tests thus far have rendered inconclusive results. Neither the National Cancer Institute nor the FDA has found any evidence that proves preservatives cause cancer. The Mayo Clinic maintains that as of right now there is little cause for concern.

The Cosmetic Ingredient Review, an independent U.S. organization, states that the levels of parabens found in cosmetic products (1.01% to 0.3%) are minor and that only paraben levels over 25% are unsafe.

Our verdict? Until a more conclusive link between parabens and cancer is either established or broken, it doesn’t hurt to invest in paraben-free products, especially antiperspirants and deodorants that are so close to breast tissue.

How Safe Are Sulfates?

Sulfates are added to cosmetics—such as shampoos—to pump up foam and lather. They’re a combination of sulfur and lauryl alcohol (derived from coconut oil and other plants). The most common sulfates are sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) and sodium laureth sulfate (SLES), which are biodegradable and don’t harm plants or water. So what’s all the fuss about?

Despite the fact that regulating agencies such as Health Canada, the European Union and the FDA give sulfates the “safe” stamp of approval, naturalists and consumers are still demanding sulfate-free products. It’s the carcinogenic by-products the sulfates produce that are under fire. These two chemicals, called 1,4 dioxane and ethylene oxide, have been shown to promote cancer. Manufacturers can only clean out so much of these by-products and it is safe to assume that some residue is left behind. However, Health Canada analyzed 1,4-dioxane in 2009 and found that the amounts left over in cosmetics is thousands of times lower than the levels that could influence our health.

What we do know for sure is that sulfates can strip the skin and hair of moisture. Because they are essentially detergents, sulfates cause hair color to fade more rapidly. Our verdict? Sulfate-free beauty products are gentler on your skin and hair.