Tag Archives: parabens

Colour Codes For Preservatives

Colour Codes For PreservativesAmong the many things I try to cram into my schedule is a newsletter for people with sensitive skin.  I am not very successful at doing this I am afraid, and I don’t get the newsletters out very frequently.  But despite this I get a steady stream of people talking to me about their issues with reactions to cosmetics.  In particular, to preservatives.  And particularly in particular to methylisothiazolinone. Continue reading

No Denmark, Methylisothiazolinone Should Not Be Banned

No Denmark, Methylisothiazolinone Should Not Be Banned

Denmark. Love the Lego, take issue with the regulatory approach.

Cosmetic Design Europe is reporting that the Danish Environment Minister Kirsten Brosbøl has called for methylisothiazolinone or MI to be banned across Europe.  I have to say I think this is a really bad idea, but I do see how she came to that conclusion.  Compared to other preservatives, MI does have a greater potential to cause allergic reactions when used at relatively high levels.  This was something that was noticed very quickly when it was brought out in the seventies.  But luckily there was a solution, because it is very effective and so it works at very low levels. Continue reading

Why Would A Company Switch To MI?

I have just had someone get in touch to tell me that Ecover Wipes have just changed their formulation to include methylisothiazolinone  (MI) as the preservative.  I haven’t been able to confirm this myself so I will have to treat it as hearsay for now. If you know the facts please let me know.  But it does raise the question as to why any company would do such a thing?  MI has been in the news for provoking allergies and the permitted level has been tightened recently.  It has even been banned from leave on products – though it is still allowed in rinse off products such as wipes. Continue reading

How to make a Hypoallergenic Product


There was a lot of interest in hypoallergenic products back in the eighties when I first started as a formulator. Back then the perception was that natural ingredients were the problem. Like a lot of popular ideas it corresponded to prejudice rather than evidence.  But few of us, scientists included, trouble to check our beliefs against actual data. Continue reading

Sensitive Skin

sensitive skin

An interesting question from Patricia that I think might interest some other people.

I have sensitive skin and always look for cosmetic products which are free of harsh chemicals. I was not aware of the m1 preservative until today when a report was made on the breakfast show and will in future try to find a product which does not include it. However, I have been aware of parabens for some time and have tried to use products that do not include parabens, difficult. Lloyds the Chemist did bring out a range of their own brand moisturisers parabens free, but for some reason I can’t find that range now, think it may be discontinued. Inecto make a moisture replenishing body lotion which is paraben free, I love this, and have given to friends and to one young friend in particular who suffers from dermatitis and she likes it very much. I have checked some of the most expensive brands of cosmetics, and for some reason most seem to include parabens in their make up, don’t know why because surely cosmetics, particularly lipsticks, are something which are used up pretty quickly, I know mine are.

I think there are two distinct meanings to the term sensitive skin. Some people have skin that is just a lot more porous and dry than others. This means that it is not a good barrier and is prone to becoming dry and itchy. I can sympathise with this as my skin is a bit like this, and is getting worse as I get older. Continue reading

Phthalates in Personal Care Products

Oregon Soap Trail on Twitter asks a question.

‘In reading your beauty pages, I wonder, what is your opinion on the current phthalate controversy?’

This took me back a few years because this was something that was a bit of a hot topic in the UK about 6 or 7 years ago. I remember having a pile of work to do to get phthalates out of a set of formulations. The main use they are put to is as a solvent in fragrances. There is no requirement to label the components of fragrances on packs so there is no way for the consumer to know whether phthalates are being used in a particular product. I cannot tell easily how many products still contain them. My guess is that most companies are avoiding them for new products but may not have gone back and reformulated old ones.

Continue reading

Kate Lock – confessed Ecoshopper

The Daily Mail has published an article by Kate Lock drawing people’s attention to how bad cosmetics are.

Kate Lock asks Are Your Beauty Products Killing You?

I had never heard of Kate Lock before, so before responding I have tried to find out a bit about her online. She seems to be a journalist. That explains the eye-catching headline. She doesn’t seem to be a scientist. That explains why her article is full of inaccurate information.

I am nonetheless grateful to her for raising a few things that I am quite keen to talk about. It will take more than one blog to get through them all. But just to tackle the list at the bottom of the article.


Phthalates are a class of compounds, not an individual one. You can’t make blanket statements about their properties. Some chlorides are dangerous. DDT for instance. Other chlorides are quite safe. Common salt is a chloride. I actually do have some sympathy with what she is saying here. Phthalates are used in synthetic fragrances and I personally prefer natural fragrances. (See my article on how to spot a good fragrance from the ingredient list.) But as you will see if you read the article carefully – the data on phthalates has already been reviewed by the top EU experts. The dangerous ones have been banned. I read the summary of their deliberations on this issue when it was current a few years back. They were very cautious indeed.


I have already confessed that I used to put formaladehyde in formulations when I first started formulating cosmetics. But I haven’t done so for over 20 years and I do not know of a single formulation on the market today that uses formaldehyde as a preservative.

But here is some free technical advice for Kate Lock. Formaldehyde is very cheap and easy to test for. There are many labs that can easily tell you how much formaldehyde is in a product. Reading Scientific Services in Reading is one good one, but there are plenty of others. If you think there is formaldehyde in cosmetics why don’t you get some tested? You would then have some facts to base your article on.


Again parabens are not something I personally use and I recommend avoiding them. I have also proposed an alternative. (See my post what’s wrong with parabens.) But there is no good reason to believe that parabens cause any kind of cancer, let alone breast cancer. Let us read what the article says in detail:

“More than 12 studies have shown them to mimic the effect of oestrogen …. The link between oestrogen and breast cancer is already well proven, but a 2004 study …found evidence of parabens in breast tumours.”

Sounds scary? What has been done here is put together a list of disparate facts. Parabens mimic oestrogen? Maybe they do, but are they present at a high enough level for the effect to be measured? There is a link between oestregen and breast cancer. What does that mean? There is a link between oestregen and pregnancy. Does that mean parabens will make you pregnant? And it is not surprising that parabens have been found in breast tumours. If you use cosmetics containing parabens you will have parabens in your body.

Kate Lock cannot prove that parabens cause breast cancer any more than I can prove that she deliberately played up the risk of parabens to make an impact and sell her book.


Pesticides are less likely to be in cosmetics than in food. If the motive of the article is to draw attention to the risks of pesticides then surely it should concentrate on the biggest source?

Anyway, rant over. I suspect that Kate Lock and I will never become friends but she has raised some points that I will be looking at in more detail soon.  In the meantime you can have your say on the beauty forum.

What’s wrong with parabens – and a possible alternative

All cosmetic products that contain large amounts of water need to be preserved from micro-organisms. If they aren’t preserved the go mouldy. For years the most widely used preservatives have been the esters of para-amino benzoic acid. These are known collectively as parabens. The most useful is methylparaben. This is often used in combination with its close relative propylparaben. Another popular approach is to put a blend of a whole lot of parabens in. These appear on the ingredient list as butylparaben, ethylparaben, isobutylparaben along with methlyparaben and propylparaben.

These compounds are cheap and very effective. They are also pretty safe. There are many reports of skin reactions to them, but when you consider how widely used they are the numbers of reactions are surprisingly low.

In January 2004 there was a report that was widely publicised, picked up by the BBC among others, that linked parabens in underarm deodourants to breast cancer.

The first two sentences of the BBC report read: “Chemicals from underarm deodorants and other cosmetics can build up inside the body, according to a study.

British researchers have found traces of chemicals called parabens in tissue taken from women with breast cancer.”

The study was carried out by Dr Philippa Darbre at the University of Reading. What she found was that there were detectable levels of parabens in cancerous breast tissue. The conclusion she drew from this observation was that parabens in antiperspirants must have migrated through the skin and accumulated in the affected tissue. The problem with these conclusions, as cosmetic industry spokesmen were quick to point out, was that the presence of the parabens was not in itself evidence that the parabens themselves caused the cancer. There was also another problem. Parabens are very versatile and are used in just about every kind of personal care product. But not every kind. As it happens they are almost never used in antiperspirants. This fact was gleefully seized upon by people in the industry to discredit the report. If someone is saying something you don’t want to hear, glaring factual errors are a gift.

But on reflection I don’t think that there is any cause for complacency. What the study did show was that parabens can be absorbed across the skin, and that they can accumulate in tissues in the body. This doesn’t mean that they cause breast cancer, but there may be some risk associated with them. The long history of safe use only means that there are no obvious risks associated with parabens. Tobacco had a pretty long history of use before the health risks of smoking became well known. Parabens are so widely used in products that everyone comes into contact with that quite simply we are all walking around with them in our bodies. Any long term adverse effects are now undetectable.  Although there is no particular reason to think that parabens might be harmful to humans in the body, there is no reason to believe that they are doing any good either.

There is another issue though. We don’t know that parabens are harmful to humans, but we do know that they are harmful to micro-organisms. That is why they are used. Parabens must be entering the water courses in considerable amounts. There must be a good chance that this is having some effect on the environment.

So are there alternatives to parabens? Preservatives are necessary and there aren’t too many alternatives. I have had misgivings about parabens for a long time now and I haven’t used them in a formulation that I have developed for about twenty years now. But there are drawbacks to most other preservatives as well, particularly their effect on the environment.

But recently I have been working with a new approach to preservation that offers a solution to the problem of using what are in effect toxic compounds in personal care formulations. Parabens and other chemical preservatives work by directly poisoning the microbes they come into contact with. Research done originally by Boots, the big UK drugstore chain, has identified an alternative using enzymes. What they noticed was that the body has its own preservative system that can be found in tears and breast milk. Some enzymes, namely glucose oxidase and lactoperoxidase, along with some glucose and some other co-factors to feed them, produce low levels of hydrogen peroxide. This rapidly kills off a wide range of organisms. The results are impressive because most preservatives, even the effective ones like parabens, only kill some of the micro-organisms. You usually find yourself having to use a blend of preservatives.

The use of an enzyme based preservative system has the advantage that there is no build up of chemicals in the body. The enzymes are easily broken down by the body into molecules that it can easily deal with. But the biggest advantage is probably outside the body. The enzyme system only works when all the factors are present at the right concentration. Once the product has gone down the drain it is rapidly diluted. The enzymes are extremely biodegradable and no new or persistent chemical is introduced into the ecosystem.

Handling this natural preservative system is a bit trickier than simply using a chemical and the cost is a lot higher. I think it will take a long time for the large scale cosmetic manufactures to catch up with this initiative. But there are a few smaller companies using it already, especially ones that I have some influence on. The word to look for on the ingredient list is ‘lactoperoxidase.’