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Green Beauty Conversations by Formula Botanica

May 6, 2021

Parabens is a collective name for a group of chemicals used as preservatives in consumer products such as food, cosmetics and pharmaceuticals. They have been synthesised in labs for almost 100 years. So far then, parabens seem quite boring ingredients.

But, in just under two decades, parabens have become the bogeymen of the beauty industry, pitting at times the mainstream personal care industry and science against indie beauty, the media and beauty consumers. Even someone with just a passing interest in the personal care industry is bound to have heard about parabens in cosmetics products.

Just take a look at row of cosmetics on any drugstore shelf these days and you're likely to come across a good many brands sporting the words 'paraben free' on their packaging; even though in some places, like the EU, it is considered unfair competition. Parabens are permissible in cosmetics in the EU at regulated levels.

If they have been known of and in use since the 1920s, surely we know a great deal about their possible side effects in our consumer goods like cosmetics? When and why did consumers' parabenoia, as we call it, take hold and is the vilification of parabens justified? In this episode, Formula Botanica CEO Lorraine Dallmeier, a biologist and Chartered Environmentalist, digs deep into paraben science, history and hysteria. She takes a neutral standpoint to dissect the facts from the fiction.

Lorraine talks us through the controversy and timeline as parabens moved out of science labs into media stories provoking a crisis in beauty consumer confidence and on to their pivotal moment in pioneering the indie beauty movement.

This is the episode to listen to if you've ever wanted to get behind the headlines and truly understand the furore over parabens in cosmetics. Will parabens continue to coexist with natural, paraben-free beauty? Has indie beauty been too hard on them? Lorraine presents the debate, but only you can decide.

In this episode on parabenoia, you will:

  • Find out that the defining moment for parabens was research published in 2004 showing that parabens had been found in breast cancer tissue. While no evidence of causal linkage was provided by this research, from then on, parabens were vilified by many as 'toxic chemicals'.
  • Learn that no scientific evidence has yet suggested that all parabens need to be removed from cosmetics but that the lack of concrete evidence hasn’t shifted public opinion on parabens.
  • Hear that since the outcry over parabens, a long list of chemicals used in cosmetics including Sodium laureth sulfate, phthalates and PEG compounds were added to those to avoid in personal care - often to the disdain of cosmetic scientists.
  • Discover that first the DIY beauty movement and then early entrant natural beauty brands emerged as consumers sought to avoid buying 'nasty chemical-laden' beauty products.
  • Early indie beauty products often couldn't compete with mainstream products in terms of performance. This gave big beauty leverage - and so the two camps of natural and mainstream cosmetics became even more divided and not only over the paraben issue.

Key take-aways include:

  • Thanks to the paraben saga and its aftermath, consumers are far more aware of science's role in cosmetic formulation and are sceptical of claims whether made by mainstream or indie beauty brands.
  • Indie beauty/natural beauty are coming of age and realising they need to present the inherent benefits of natural cosmetics rather than live off scaremongering and using 'free-from' claims.
  • The paraben story has now come full circle as mainstream cosmetics giants and ingredients manufacturers are ploughing research into natural ingredients and products and also listening to and even investing in indie beauty brands.
  • Parabens and their fellow decried chemicals not only created the indie beauty sector but also changed the mainstream too - time will tell just how defining parabens have been to  both camps in the beauty industry!