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.’