In recent years, the cosmetic industry has been shaken up by controversy over the chemicals frequently used in hair, skin, and makeup products.
The obscure (and growing) list of ingredients on the labels of self-care items has become worrisome to some consumers that wonder if they are safe. As such, the debate has created ongoing tension in cosmetic marketing and prompted brands to either take the direction of A) sounding cutting-edge and science-driven, or B) appealing to natural, traditional materials that society collectively views as safe.
One family of chemicals that has recently ignited the discussion is a class of preservatives known as parabens. They are found in almost anything, from makeup to toiletries, and act as an antibacterial and antifungal agent used to extend the shelf life of commercial products. Parabens go by the names methylparaben, ethylparaben, propyl, butyl, and heptyparaben, but almost all are hidden in lists of ingredients and written by their E numbers—or, mysterious codes for substances.
Although small traces of parabens can be found in certain fruits and vegetables, all of the ones used in cosmetic products are created synthetically. While it may sound like a good thing since these chemicals are used to sustain the usability of products, it’s actually quite dangerous for your body. Here’s why.
During the 1990s it was discovered that parabens were in fact xenoestrogens, which are agents that mimic hormones in the human body and can act as endocrine disruptors. This is crucial because estrogen disruption is linked to breast cancer and reproductive problems in females (in 2004, scientists found evidence of parabens present in malignant breast tumors).
Because of this discovery, dozens of countries now recommend limits on paraben levels used in cosmetic products, however, that doesn’t necessarily change anything since it’s just a “recommendation.” Scientists also found that parabens can be stored in the body, which means that over time they could become detrimental to a person’s health.
Paraben-free products on the rise
The good news is that consumers are now coming across the phrase "paraben-free” more often. But what does paraben-free mean, and why does it matter?
When products are paraben-free it means they don’t contain any esters (a compound that is formed from acid and alcohol) of p-hydroxybenzoic acid, or chemicals like methylparaben, propylparaben, and butylparaben. As mentioned above, these compounds are used to extend the shelf life of cosmetics and bathroom products by preventing the growth of bacteria and fungi.
It’s important to know, however, that while parabens may make products last longer, they are also filled with cancer-causing toxins that you probably don't want in your body. Luckily, the movement to live a healthier life has been gaining traction and people are becoming more informed of the risks presented by parabens while manufacturers are living up to the demand for free and clear products.
Brands change their ways
Some corporations have been taking this matter quite seriously and have rapidly moved to provide paraben-free options for consumers. Certain brands have even been interested in changing their whole product line—or creating a new one—in order to produce only paraben-free cosmetics and toiletries.
One example is the founder of Aveda, Horst Rechelbacher, who sold the company to Estee Lauder in 1997 and has since launched a newer division called Intelligent Nutrients. This cosmetic line is completely committed to USDA certified organic health and beauty products that are paraben-free. Intelligent Nutrients also warns their customers that all “natural” and “organic” labels are not created equal, so make sure it has the USDA organic certified seal (like theirs) to ensure it’s safe for your body.
Josie Maran Makeup
Another beauty icon making waves in the cosmetics industry is former model and makeup connoseuir Josie Maran. She created her eponymous makeup line in 2007 that provides “luxury and conscience—cosmetics that are sexy and fun, high-quality and organic, and good for Mother Earth.” The extensive line carries products for hair, skin, nails, and body, as well as makeup, all of which are free of parabens and toxic chemicals.
Maran’s company was partly inspired by her family of cancer survivors, and also the desire to be a pioneer in creating high-performing, healthy makeup products. Instead of paraben-filled products, Josie Maran Cosmetics uses ingredients like phenoxyethanol and ethylhexylglycerin, which are plant-derived and used in small concentrated amounts.
While many people may be concerned about paraben-free makeup being muddy or of inferior quality, Maran’s company has tested each of the products (humanely), and they’ve become favorites of some of the best makeup artists and celebrities today. "That was the approval that I had every product go through: Is it good enough for the best makeup artists to use on a shoot or in a movie?" she has said, pointing out a word she created for the line, 'chic-ological.' "It brings together fashion and performance with healthy and good-for-you ingredients."
Thrive Market's paraben-free products
Here are some of Thrive Market’s favorite personal care brands and products that are completely non-toxic, from hand soap to shampoo and conditioner, even face cream.
The brand's Fair Trade Shea Butter Foaming Hand Soap is a moisturizing cleanser handmade with neem leaf extract to support healthy skin and shea leaf extract to provide antioxidant protection.
The Hair Defense Shampoo in Pomegranate Sunflower defends color-treated hair from the damaging effects of UV rays and heat styling. It’s formulated with antioxidant-rich pomegranate, sunflower, and red tea leaf extracts as well as seven healthy hair nutrients to strengthen and revitalize strands.
This Ultra Sleek Conditioner is also safe for color-treated hair, made of an intensely moisturizing, detangling formula that delivers high-gloss shine and manageability. The addition of Brazilian Phyto-Keratin and Moroccan Argan Oil help banish frizz and revitalize hair from within the follicle.
Packed with pure botanicals, this super soothing French Lavender Very Emollient Bath & Shower Gel cleans, nourishes, and quiets your body—and your mind. Both hydrating and hypo-allergenic, it also combines aloe vera and fragrant herbs to leave your skin soft-to-the-touch.
The extract of Hawaii’s fragrant Awapuhi plant brings additional softening properties to this gentle, but effective Thoroughly Clean Face Wash. It's rich in soothing Goldenseal extract as well as chamomile and tea tree oils. The result is a clean, oil-free face—and with regular use, it can help improve the texture and radiance of skin.
A single molecule of hyaluronic acid can hold up to 1,000 times its weight in water, binding moisture to cells to help plump, soften, smooth, tone, and rehydrate skin. Enriched with anti-aging antioxidants like green tea, vitamins C and E, and soothing aloe, the formula behind this Hydrating Facial Creme is ideal for dry, dehydrated skin that needs long-lasting moisture throughout the day.
Other cosmetic companies that are paraben-free:
Beyond Thrive Market’s selection, there are other brands that are also interested in the paraben-free movement—many of which you may already know:
Making the switch
Because of public pressure and the demand to know what’s in makeup and self-care products, paraben-free options are thankfully becoming more widespread. Nowadays, you can buy just about anything that is paraben-free, including shampoo, conditioner, body wash, face wash, face cream, lotion, and makeup products. So it’s easier than ever to make the switch. They do the same job (or better) as those other brands, but without the risky chemicals.
Photo credit: Alicia Cho