The debate around Parabens and Sulfates in products

Updated: Sep 17, 2020

Written by Rhoda Mamati

There is a fashionable trend going around with products being labelled as “natural”, “organic”, “paraben- free” and “sulfate - free”, some of us like to see this on the label but not all of us know what this truly means. We understand that at times this leads to consumer confusion and concerns.

In this article, we hope to shed some light on the role of ingredients such as parabens and sulfates in consumer products.

What are Parabens and Sulfates?

Parabens are a family of chemicals used as preservatives in many cosmetic products. They are used to inhibit the growth of mold and other harmful bacteria, thus protecting both the products and you, the consumer.

The parabens used mostly in hair products are methylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben and ethylparaben. Hair products that list only one type of paraben often utilize another form of preservative to preserve the products against a broad spectrum of harmful bacteria and microorganisms.

Parabens are also used to preserve a number of pharmaceutical and food products. Research actually shows that 90% of processed food items contain parabens, which is why they can still be traced in the blood stream of people who stick to paraben-free hair and cosmetic products. Parabens in food are harder to spot though, as they are usually referred to as chemical “E” ingredients, for example: E214, E216.

Sulfates on the other hand are foaming agents or detergents commonly used in products like shampoos, body washes and household cleaning products. Sulfates work by lathering the hair, consequently removing dirt and product build up from the hair surface.The most common sulfates used in hair care products include Sodium Lauryl Sulfate and Sodium Laureth Sulfate. The former is a more thorough cleanser while the latter tends to be more gentle while cleansing and doesn’t foam as much.

So are Parabens and Sulfates as harmful as they are believed to be?

Some parabens actually occur naturally in fruits and vegetables like blueberries, strawberries, cucumbers and carrots. This is because para-hydroxybenzoic acid(PHBA), the ingredient from which parabens are derived, naturally occurs in those fruits and vegetables.

The controversy about parabens started when a study linked them to breast cancer in women. This then drove the assumption that parabens, which may have been used as preservatives in deodorants, got absorbed into the body, resulting in breast cancer.

After the heavy publicization of these assumptions by the media, a great number of cosmetic manufacturers opted to do away with parabens, branding their products as “paraben - free”, which then raises the question of what preservatives are they using in place of the parabens? and how safe are these alternatives? It is also interesting to note that since the findings of this study were published, other research studies and regulatory bodies like the American Cancer Society have come out to categorically state that parabens do not cause cancer.

The issue around sulfates stems from the fact that, when used in excessive amounts, sulfates can strip the hair and skin of its natural oils leading to dryness. This is a concern to people with sensitive scalps and skin types, that tend to be prone to eczema or acne. At some point, people also thought sulfates to be carcinogenic, however a research study conducted in 2015 has countered those claims.

So should one be using parabens and sulfates in hair care products?