More and more companies are marketing their products as “paraben-free.”  What’s the fuss and should you be concerned about parabens when choosing your favorite skincare options?

What are parabens?

Parabens are a group of preservatives used in cosmetics to help keep those products from becoming contaminated with microbial growth (like harmful bacteria or yeast).  They extend the shelf life of a product.  If you make a DIY recipe and don’t use it right away, it could easily become contaminated with “bad bugs,” the kind that can cause infections.  That’s because you’re not adding preservatives to those concoctions.  Almost all of the water-based products you see on the shelf in a store, or order online, contain preservatives to keep them free of growth that would be very unpleasant to discover in your skincare products, and could even harm you.  Parabens are actually one of the least irritating preservatives found in skin care today.  They were named the “non-allergen” of the year in 2019 by the American Contact Dermatitis Society (ACDS)!  This is because parabens are unlikely to cause a skin allergy or irritation, compared to all the preservatives on the market today.

So, why are so many products claiming to be “paraben-free?”  And why do I recommend avoiding parabens in skincare? 

Here’s the scoop:

A study done back in 2004 detected parabens in samples of breast tissue from breast cancer patients.  Parabens were actually found within the cancerous tissue samples collected.  Some types of parabens are known to mimic estrogen, so the concern is that they may be disrupting hormones and possibly increasing the risk of cancer.  There are also some studies that raise concerns about exposure to parabens and male reproductive health. Basically, parabens bind to certain estrogen receptors, and turning on estrogen signals can theoretically contribute to a whole host of issues for men, women and children.  Butylparabens and propylparabens are the most likely to bind to estrogen receptors.  In fact, the EU has banned the use of these 2 preservatives in diaper creams, and reduced their allowed concentrations in a myriad of other cosmetic and personal care products.

We know that parabens are indeed absorbed by the body, mostly through our use of cosmetic or personal care products such as makeup, lotions, hair products and perfumes.  However, we  don’t fully know whether they pose any long-term health risks.  Concerns exist, but no clear link has been demonstrated.  The FDA believes that, so long as they are used in low concentrations, they are probably not doing any harm.  Even well known and respected skincare brands, like Cerave, continue to formulate using parabens in many of their most popular products.

Where I stand:

In the case of parabens, I don’t believe in innocent until proven guilty.  In my opinion, parabens are guilty until proven safe.  I want to see evidence proving that parabens are not causing any significant hormonal disruption before I feel confident recommending paraben-containing products to my patients!  Also, parabens aren’t the only chemicals linked to hormone disruption – there are others used in skincare, household products and in food, so these exposures can add up. I have too many patients struggling with fertility issues, and battling breast cancer.  Given that there are other preservative options available with safety data, I am not ready to take that risk.

Dr. Whitney

You guys asked so many great questions about clean beauty! Check out my responses:

  1. How does Retinol/Retin-A fit into the clean beauty picture?

ANSWER: Retinol is a Vitamin A derivative which is often added to topical skincare products to promote skin renewal, brighten skin tone, reduce acne, and boost your skin’s collagen production. It also functions like an antioxidant to help address free radical damage which leads to visible signs of aging. The term retinoids is most commonly used to cover the class of Vitamin A derivatives which includes over-the-counter retinol and prescription strength Retin-A.  Retinol is probably the most powerful over-the-counter anti-aging ingredient on the market today and has the most impressive data when it comes to truly transforming our skin, provided that we use it consistently over time. I often recommend that my patients who are starting to notice fine lines and wrinkles (typically ages 30+) incorporate an OTC retinol into their nightly skincare routine. Retinol helps to diminish the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles, improves your overall skin tone and appearance and can even help to reverse some of the side effects of sun damage. When applying it, don’t neglect your neck, chest, and eye area. If you are using a retinol to address fine lines and wrinkles, I often tell my patients that they will see the clearest visible results in about 6 months with even more impact after one year. In the case of retinol, in my opinion, natural alternatives just haven’t caught up to the efficacy of safe, consistently effective, synthetic ingredients formulated in a lab. You might see some products containing rosehip seed oil, or beta carotene, with claims that the product has “natural retinol alternatives.” While these ingredients do have some nice benefits for the skin, they aren’t going to deliver comparable results to a synthetic retinol made in a laboratory. I regularly test new products, so if I find a product that changes my mind, I will share that information!

2. What clean beauty ingredients or products do you recommend for dry, acne prone , sensitive skin?

ANSWER: As I share in Dirty Looks, I would consider addressing these symptoms using a 360 degree approach, including dietary changes, in addition to topical products. We now know that certain foods can trigger acne, including whey protein and skim milk. Many times, internal inflammation, which begins in our gut, manifests externally as sensitive skin, acne, dryness, etc. So, that is where I would begin. In terms of clean beauty products, I would avoid any harsh cleansers or scrubs that will disturb your skin’s gentle natural barrier and healthy microbiome. A gentle cleanser would be a great option. Look for the words “gentle,” “hydrating” or “pH balanced” on the label.  When it comes to exfoliating your skin, make sure to limit any form of exfoliation to twice a week and for sensitive skin, I prefer chemical over physical or manual exfoliants.  Here’s a facebook live I did on exfoliating that you might find helpful. Since your skin is acne prone, you want to look for words like “non-comedogenic”, which means that the product will not clog your pores.

  1. Clean beauty in sunscreen – is this even possible?

ANSWER: This is such a great question because the terms we see advertised on sunscreen bottles can be incredibly confusing. For example, does organic mean natural? Actually, organic sunscreen technically means that the sunscreen includes carbon-based ingredients like oxybenzone and avobenzone. Organic sunscreens, according to dermatologists and chemists, are the chemical sunscreens. In contrast, physical blockers – which are minerals – are inorganic, meaning not-carbon based and include zinc oxide and and/or titanium dioxide. So, you truly have to check the label to know whether your “organic” sunscreen is the type of sunscreen you think you are buying! Some of my favorites, which would be in sync with most definitions of clean beauty, are: Naturopathica UV Defense Cream and ThinkBaby SPF 50+ Sunscreen.

  1. Is xanthan gum safe? It’s in a lot of clean beauty products.

ANSWER: Xanthan gum is a polysaccharide. It’s basically a sugar-based polymer, or chain, produced by bacteria. It’s commonly used in cosmetics, many foods, supplements . . . it can be found in so many ingestible and topical products. It can be a digestive irritant if consumed in large quantities, but overall, based on available studies, it doesn’t appear to pose substantial health concerns. It does not appear to be absorbed into our bloodstream and I have not seen any studies to date that specifically concern me when it comes to topical usage.

  1. Is grape seed oil as a body moisturizer safe for everyday use?

ANSWER: In general, grapeseed oil does appear to be safe based on what we do know, provided that it’s cold-pressed or expeller-pressed. Grapeseed oil might have some beauty benefits due to its Vitamin E and omega-6 fatty acid content. It can be used for oil cleansing and can protect against skin irritation. I would like to see more studies on grapeseed oil usage, particularly with respect to everyday use, though, before I come to a conclusion on whether that’s beneficial.

  1. What do you think about parabens? Cetaphil is so often recommended and I’ve been using it for years but I know there is some concern about parabens.

ANSWER: This is a great question because parabens have been so widely used as a preservative in beauty and skincare products for so many years and now, we are seeing so much attention called to “paraben-free” products. So, the question is, what is the danger here and why are parabens getting so much negative attention? Currently, the US Food and Drug Association and World Health Organization consider parabens to be safe at low levels. The main concerns with parabens surround whether they are hormone disruptors. Specifically, estrogen disruption has been linked to cancer and reproductive issues and the questions surrounding parabens relate to these subject matters. Therefore, many companies are including parabens on their “dirty lists” and emphasize that their products are “paraben-free.” Parabens include Ethylparaben, Butylparaben, Isobutylparaben, Isopropylparaben, Methylparaben, and Propylparaben. I have been very much aligned with the clean beauty space and the direction of clean beauty and I do think that mindfulness is warranted when it comes to paraben use. There are so many options now that are paraben-free that I feel it makes good sense to embrace those products and to move away from products which are made with parabens while further research is done with respect to their safety.

  1. Are essential oils actually good for your skin? I’ve heard conflicting advice.

ANSWER: So many of my patients swear by their essential oils. They can be energizing, relaxing, and everything in between. Diffusing them can be helpful in terms of mindfulness and anxiety reduction, which is very beneficial to the skin. In addition, some people like to use essential oils topically –whether diluted with a carrier oil or already incorporated into skincare products. Importantly, some essential oils are photosensitizing, meaning, you should not put them on your skin if you are going to be out in the sun. Some examples are: bergamot, bitter orange, grapefruit, lemon, lime, verbena, and several others. Be sure to check the information which accompanies your essential oils, as many are labeled photosensitizing! Also, certain essential oils can cause significant irritation when applied to the skin, especially if applied without diluting them first in a carrier oil. In fact, I always recommend diluting them in carrier oils before using them topically on the skin. I think a determination as to skin benefits would really need to be made on a product by product basis because essential oils are used at very different levels and for different reasons in particular products. For example, some companies use very minimal amounts of essential oils for fragrance purposes only whereas some products boast higher concentrations. I always recommend that my patients try a “patch test” if they are trying a new product, meaning that you would want to try the product on a small space on the inside of your arm to determine whether you have a reaction/experience irritation. Due diligence in this area is very important – research your oils before applying topically.

Dr. Whitney

 

@DrWhitneyBowe

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