How many times have you walked into a store to buy your monthly dose of hair products, picked up a product off the shelf, and immediately turned it around to analyze the ingredient panel? It is probably second nature at this point!
It has been proven that ingredients are considered to be one of the highest determining factors when a consumer is deciding whether she will purchase a hair product. TextureMedia surveyed 6,000 women and found that 95% of coily consumers and 85% of curly consumers avoid certain ingredients in their hair care products, while only 64% of straight-hair consumers were this conscious.
Why has the naturally curly consumer been programmed to avoid the no-no ingredients like sulfates, silicones, parabens, and mineral oil, while other consumers seem unbothered? It seems like one blog post can turn any ingredient into public enemy #1 in a matter of days. I support consumers educating themselves about the products they use and consume, but it is important to consult reliable and fact-based information to make informed decisions. I believe it is part of my responsibility as a cosmetic chemist to present consumers with more fact-based knowledge and allow her to choose the path that makes sense for her lifestyle.
What do parabens do?
In that spirit, let’s talk about the nasty p word…Parabens. Imagine dipping your hands in your jar of leave-in conditioner and pulling out green, fury objects. Not a pretty picture right? Parabens are chemicals that prevent microorganisms and fungi from growing in our favorite products. They are typically used anywhere from 0.01 – 0.3% by weight in a product formulation. They most commonly are identified as methyl-, ethyl-, propyl- and butylparaben on the product ingredient panel. However, parabens can also be used to preserve other ingredients that are commonly found in consumer products. This means it may not be listed at all on the ingredient panel because it is technically not an intentional ingredient of the final product, and would most likely be at a low percentage in the final formulation.
Parabens are not the only preservatives that can prevent fury mold from appearing in your product jars, but they are considered to be some of the most cost effective, broad-spectrum preservatives approved for use in consumer goods. Read the back…approved for consumer goods. This means that parabens are also used in our food, skin care, and pharmaceutical products. Surprised? You have spent all of this time avoiding parabens in your hair products, when you could easily be putting them on your skin or in your mouth. The irony.
Parabens and breast cancer
In 2004, the Journal of Applied Toxicology was the first to report the appearance of parabens in breast cancer tumors. Researchers from the University of Reading in United Kingdom found that nearly 99% of cancerous breast tumors had evidence of some form of parabens. On top of that, another study in Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology reported that parabens have the ability to impersonate estrogen, forcing the body to believe that it has high levels of the hormone, which may increase the risk for breast cancer. Parabens have also been associated with early onset of puberty in girls and low sperm count in men, due to the aggregation of this estrogen-like chemical in the body. There is an entire catalogue of these types of studies at Cornell University through its Breast Cancer and Environmental Factors program. These studies alone have painted parabens to be the evil houseguest that won’t leave after dinner. However, there’s still the question of who invited them?
Due to the fact that parabens are used universally, it has not been determined how these parabens are reaching these breast tumors. Are we absorbing them through our skin? Are we digesting them? Furthermore, to date, studies have been able to show strong epidemiological evidence that the parabens are the cause of cancer, especially since some of these same parabens have been found in normal, healthy breast tissue. Most experts agree that more research is needed to better understand whether parabens are truly a catalyst to breast cancer.
Parabens and your hair
What I can tell you is that the effect of parabens on the hair is insignificant, especially at the low levels that they are used at in various beauty products. They do not cause buildup or breakage, and rinse out fairly easy. The reason why parabens are avoided like the plague is because of the alleged health problems they can cause through the chemical being absorbed through the skin. If this is indeed the case, why aren’t we crucifying hand soaps, deodorants, and body lotion in the same way that we condemn our hair products? Well, some are which is a reason why some people are now shopping at Whole Foods. Only concerned about hair products? Maybe you should take all of this into consideration the next time you put your hands in soapy water or even wash your clothes.