Paraben-free claims could backfire in 2010

By Katie Bird

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Cosmetics

Eat less chocolate, start going to the gym, cut down on the alcohol, boycott paraben-containing cosmetics…

January 1 will have seen a number of resolutions for the coming year. Although we are familiar with resolutions relating to diet and fitness, number four may have been adopted with more festive fervor this year than the cosmetics industry would have wished for.

Although much of this can be put down to misinformation and media hype, the blame does not totally lie at the door of ignorance and scare stories.

Many companies have been quick to pick up on the mileage of plying the concerned consumer with ‘free from’ products, particularly in the case of parabens, even though the official line is that they pose no health risk.

Beiersdorf, for example, offers a number of paraben-free products including its basic skin moisturising cream that comes in the iconic blue tin with the white Nivea scroll. However, the company is by no means 100 hundred percent paraben-free.

Arguably, if the German personal care giant really believed parabens were a danger to human health it would not be offering them in any of its products.

Why then is the personal care company advertising one of its flagship products as paraben free? Because a growing consumer base - and therefore growing potential retail dollars – are looking for paraben-free products.

Beiersdorf is by no means alone, many of the major players now offer ranges that are marketed on the back of their paraben-free status, alongside paraben-containing formulations.

Consumer choice

The usual line here is ‘choice’. Consumers should be able to make an informed choice about whether they want to purchase paraben-containing cosmetics or not.

However, informed choice is impossible if there is no information. And, although the body of research, particularly animal studies, is growing, there is little evidence to suggest the compounds have any negative health effects on humans.

Furthermore, companies offering ‘free from’ products are inevitably fueling the idea that such ingredients should be avoided.

After all, one could be forgiven for thinking that if such a large number of companies are taking them out of products there must be something wrong with them, right? Well no, not if the rest of that company's brands still contain them.

New anti-paraben consumer

The paraben-free products offered by many of these companies are likely to push more consumers to adopt an anti-paraben stance, in turn making the majority of products offered by the company unacceptable to this new consumer group.

When the tipping point is reached, and the industry is forced to seriously defend its use of an ingredient that is currently supported by large bodies of evidence, the plaintive cry of misinformation and media scare stories may fall on deaf ears.

Clearly, resolutions are not always kept, but the industry may well find itself forced to look the way it deals with contentious ingredients during the course of 2010.

Related topics Formulation & Science

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I also dare to defend Parabens

Posted by Fernando Ibarra,

But is it really necessary to do so?
If we look deeper into the subject I am quite sure that not more than 5% of formulators and scientists have a seriously critical opinion on parabens. And I would dare to say that they have not the biggest influence as we can see that the respected opinion leaders in the field are all here, writing comments to defend parabens. Well, why not?
However I think that every article about it (also the pro-paraben ones) is fuelling the debate, so also the defenders should think about if it is worth putting so much effort into this battle with people, they say, have nothing to say.
There are just a few points that could be seen in a more open way also by the pro-paraben fraction.
First I believe that talking about such ingredients, even criticising them, by no means leads to a serious limitation of raw materials and the flexibility to formulate as I read in one of the comments. I think the opposite is true, because everybody can see, that there are new options coming into the market, not only alternative preservation systems (that, by the way, have been around for decades and have been tested and considered as safe as many listed preservatives by experts), but also new ingredients being brought onto the list of allowed preservatives. Thinking about new ingredients (also alternatives to whatever preservative) is scientific progress and nothing to worry about.
Second I totally agree with Dene, defending the safety of parabens and saying that everybody can read the label - as long as people have the patience of finding one ingredient among many with funny chemical names (for non-chemists this is not so easy maybe). And has everybody ever tried to read labels with grey letters on yellow labels in very small fonts? Not always easy. That's why some manufacturers put such claims on the front, and by the way, if one does a store check, it is quiet difficult to find these products that claim to be paraben free, because there are not many.
And third I think that the free from-labelling not necessarily implies that these ingredients are dangerous. I agree that some people who want to, will believe so. But on the other hand, ever thought that fat or sugar etc. are a danger to health? In fact they are essential components for our nutrition, every human being needs them. But still there are so many food products labelling that they are sugar-free or have only reduced fat content etc. Is that really a problem for for the food industry and are sugar producers or oil mills defending their product and criticizing such labeliing? No, because there is no need for it.
Consumers like product diversity, so let us relax, produce different cosmetics with different (and I agree: with no misleading) claims and labelling - and let the consumer decide what she or he wants to buy.

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I dare to defend parabens!

Posted by Dene Godfrey,

Congratulations, Katie, on an excellent, well-reasoned article. I also concur with many of the comments it has provoked. My main concern is based on the comment of Barbara whose company uses "paraben-free" preservatives to err on the side of caution for customers with problematic skin types. There is not, and never has been any measurable concern about the risks of using parabens on skin. In fact, if you look at the more wide-ranging papers on irritation and sensitisation, by which I mean those that review bodies of work with preservatives rather than just reporting a few cases, you will find that parabens are easily amongst the least likely to elicit a skin response. I would certainly err on the side of caution if you are using potassium sorbate as a "paraben-free" preservative, as studies have demonstrated this to be around 2 - 3 times more likely to cause sensitisation than parabens. Not a lot of people know that!

I would like to emphasise the point about "paraben-free" marketing being misleading. It is an unnecessary label claim (as are all "free-from" claims) as it implies that there is a problem with the ingredient (as clearly argued in the original piece). If people want to use products that do not contain parabens, they can look at the INCI list. That's what it's there for! This applies to any cosmetic ingredient - look at the label - this is how the choice should be made, and not by putting misleading/ambiguous claims on pack copy.

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Who dares to defend parabens?

Posted by marie loden,

Even if there are no risks linked with a potential hazard, the marketing of hazards and the potential scaring of people will increase the credibility of the spokespersons. Furthermore, less shadow will fall on those spokespersons even if they market incorrect information, whereas the opposite is true for those trying to manage potential hazards and fails. They will be remembered and blamed!

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