Why 'Free From' is not all it's cracked up to be.' Article published in the Western Morning News
“I’ve noticed a lot of skincare products these days are labeled ‘paraben free’. I’m ashamed to say I don’t actually know what parabens are, but now I’m seeing ‘free from’ alternatives, it sounds like I should avoid them. Is this the case?”
This is a great question and one that I asked myself before taking a cosmetic science qualification. It is a complex area of chemistry but a fantastic example of how consumer misinformation has been spread by the non-scientific community.
Firstly, parabens can be found in nature, they are in blueberries and are part of various natural processes within plants. Parabens are used in a variety of products from personal care to foods and have been around since the 1930's, making them some of the most scientifically researched ingredients with a proven record of safety and efficacy. They perform the function of a preservative within cosmetic products by prohibiting the growth of microorganisms which may lead to spoiling.
Parabens are a group of closely related chemicals; esters of para-hydroxybenzoic acid, which is where they get their name. From a skin kindness point of view, they have very low irritation potential. It is also extremely important that products used by people with conditions such as eczema are free of bacterial contaminants, because infection with pseudomonas (the collective name for a wide range of unpleasant and potentially harmful bacteria) would be devastating for the skin.
Short-chain paraben esters are amongst the safest cosmetic ingredients and are used to preserve cosmetic products ranging from sun cream to children’s liquid paracetamol. In fact, if a leave-on product, such as a moisturiser, does not contain parabens I’d want to know what exactly they use as an alternative to prevent it spoiling and keep it germ-free.
Within the industry, the move away from parabens due to misinformation has led to all sorts of questions and issues about the chemicals used to replace them. It makes no sense to talk about what is not in a product or what it’s ‘free from’ – the list could be endless. Indeed, advertising and marketing has now reached a point where ‘paraben free’ claims are now made on products that would never have contained them in the first place, such as oils and deodorants. Countries like France do not allow this type of claims as it’s misleading and will soon be banned across Europe.
What ‘free-from’ labels do suggest though, is that as consumers, we like to be aware and feel like we’re making the right –and safest- choice. But I think we’d be better informed if brands talked to us about the ingredients they do include in their products, rather than things that the advertising people tell us they don’t.