As a conscientious consumer, you stay informed about what you put both on and in your body. But getting to the bottom of the issue of synthetic preservatives in consumer goods is a challenge even for the most astute.

Phthalates and parabens, for example, are ubiquitous ingredients in many cosmetic products. Some companies reassure us that they are harmless, but recent research suggests otherwise.

Phthalates

Used as solvents in many cosmetics, phthalates are industrial chemicals that have also been added to polyvinyl chloride (PVC) products, such as building materials, food packaging, clothing, and children’s products, to provide flexibility and durability.

Phthalates are commonly found in dozens of personal care products including deodorants, nail polishes, fragrances, and hair mousses. Research has found that this preservative is an endocrine (hormone) disrupting chemical that can cause reproductive defects in the developing male fetus and cause early puberty in girls.

In addition, the American Academy of Pediatricians Committee on the Environment issued a report in 2000 indicating that phthalates are carcinogens. In laboratory animal studies they have been shown to cause fetal death, malformations, and reproductive toxicity, depending on dose potencies.

Parabens

Used primarily as a preservative, parabens can be found in makeup, moisturizers, hair care products, deodorants, shaving products, and other cosmetics. Some companies and government organizations, including the US Food and Drug Administration, assure us that exposure to these chemicals is not harmful to our health. However, research continues to cast doubt on this assertion.

Parabens are easily absorbed through the skin. They have lipophilic properties, which means they can accumulate in fatty tissue such as that found in the breast. This makes the use of parabens in underarm deodorants, skin cremes, and sunscreens a concern if they are found to be harmful to our health.

In 2003 British researcher Dr. P.D. Darbre authored a paper in the Journal of Applied Toxicology on the potential connection between the use of paraben-containing deodorants and breast cancer. Darbre’s concern was that cosmetics such as deodorants and skin cremes are left on the skin, allowing more direct absorption and escape from normal systemic metabolism.

This publication sparked increased public and scientific interest in the area. Yet despite a large number of clinical trials to determine the toxicity of parabens, to date, there is still no conclusion.

Toxicity testing of parabens in laboratory studies has been inconsistent; some studies suggest parabens can increase uterine weight and affect male reproductive health, while others find no signs of toxicity.

A 2006 study from China noted that parabens act like the hormone estrogen. The suggestion alone that parabens are estrogen-disruptors and may affect human health has raised enough concern that parabens are now a topic of discussion in government meetings around the world, and they are on many consumer’s watch lists of chemicals to avoid.

In Canada phthalates and parabens are still used in many cosmetic products. New legislation in November 2006 requires that all cosmetics now sold in Canada include full labelling information about the chemicals used to make the product.

Thanks to increased public awareness of preservatives such as phthalates and parabens, and their potential risk to our health, many companies are working to remove these controversial ingredients from their personal care products.

Check Your Label

Before you take your personal care products to the checkout, check out the label. If you find any of the following ingredients listed, you may want to reconsider your choice:

  • butyl benzyl phthalate
  • dibutyl phthalate
  • diethyl phthalate
  • diethylhexyl phthalate
  • dimethyl phthalate
  • dioctyl phthalate
  • butylparaben
  • isobutylparaben
  • isopropylparaben
  • sodium methylparaben
  • sodium propylparaben
  • ethylparaben
  • methylparaben
  • propylparaben
  • benzylparaben

Although these ingredients must be listed, they are also known by various names. To get more information consult the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Cosmetic Safety Database at cosmeticdatabase.com.

Phthalates in Children’s Products

Phthalates can be released when children suck or chew on products that contain them. The European Union, which placed a temporary ban on phthalates in all children’s toys and childcare articles in 1999, later made this ban permanent in 2005. Mexico, Japan, and Argentina have banned phthalates. In 2007, California also enacted a bill banning phthalates in children’s products.

The Canadian government has pressured the plastics industry to remove phthalates from the manufacture of children’s soft vinyl products, such as baby bottle nipples, teethers, and other chewable toys, but to date there is no outright ban.

About the Author

Allison Tannis, MSc, RHN, is the author of many books including Feed Your Skin, Fight Wrinkles (Fairwinds, 2009).