Wednesday, 27 January 2021 15:07

Are parabens and sulfates unsafe in skin care products?

Written by   Ahmed Abdullah

Preservatives play a vital role in skin care. Because most skin care products contain a considerable amount of water, they are an easy target for fungi, mold, and bacterial attacks, if not for the chemical shield that preservatives provide. For decades, parabens were the most commonly used preservative in skin care products. Today, parabens are shunned by much of the industry and believed by many to be potentially carcinogenic.


While it has not been proven that parabens can cause cancer, the backlash came against them after a 2004 study by Dr. Philippa Darbre was published in the Journal of Applied Toxicology. That study demonstrated that parabens were found in cancerous breast tissue but did not provide evidence that the parabens were related to the cause of cancer. The study also failed to investigate the presence of parabens in healthy breast tissue, which would have been a crucial step to take before drawing scientific conclusions.

Since the Darbre study, many skin care companies have removed parabens from their products in response to the consumer demand that alternatives be used. This reversion from parabens has come with a sacrifice. Product formulators have since turned to paraben alternatives, many of which are inferior to parabens in their ability to protect products from bacteria and fungi. Furthermore, the alternatives must often be added in large quantities before paraben-level preservation is seen. A question then arises – are paraben alternatives any safer than parabens? Sufficient research is yet to be done.


Like parabens, sulfates have also undergone scrutiny. Responsible for producing lather, which enriches the cleansing experience for certain products, sulfates are commonly found in skin care, shampoos, soaps, and more. Despite claims that sulfates are harmful, research has shown that sulfates are not carcinogenic or dangerous. The primary factual criticism is that they have the potential to over-dry the skin.

Clients and consumers alike are used to seeing bubbles do the cleaning. Without seeing a foamy lather, many believe that cleansers are not doing their jobs. To produce bubbles, sulfates draw oils and water together. When used often and in large quantities, or when left on the skin for too long without being rinsed off, sulfates can strip the skin’s natural oils. This leaves the skin dry and potentially irritated, especially for those with sensitive skin. In reality, cleansers do just as well whether there is a tangible lather or not, leaving one to suggest that sulfates provide primarily a psychological effect.

The bottom line – sulfates are safe to use but should be avoided by those prone to dry or irritated skin. On the other hand, parabens have yet to be proven harmful yet have been removed from most skin care products. The research into parabens’ effects must not stop. Simultaneously, skin care professionals, must stay abreast of the outcomes of new studies into these and other skin care ingredients to ensure a continuation to provide clients with the safest and most effective solutions for their skin care needs.

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