Clean Up: Parabens and Sodium Benzoate

Sunday, January 06, 2013

Not long before New Year's, I finally decided to look up what "parabens" were. Since I began my search for my favorite organic lip balm and ended up making my own, I have become more and more aware of what sorts of chemicals go into everyday cosmetic products. The natural next step to thinking "what am I putting on my lips" was "what am I putting on my skin?"

Now, I'm not a big cosmetics girl. In fact, I've never been too knowledgeable about any type of body or beauty care, most probably because I've always found "better" places to spend my money. In college, I stumbled upon a body lotion scent I really enjoyed from Bath & Body Works and I've pretty much been getting my body lotions from them ever since.

Well, I read about parabens, alright. Methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben. They're basically additives put in lotions, shampoos and hair products to keep bacteria at bay. While it hasn't been proven that parabens cause cancer, intact paraben have been found in breast cancer tumors of 19 out of 20 patients studied (in a 2004 UK study). What's more is parabens have been linked to endocrine disruption, elevated levels of estrogen, reproductive toxicity ... The FDA is continuing to study the effects of parabens on health and in the meantime have ruled them harmless in small doses. But they're EVERYWHERE, which means the small percentages that show up in one lotion or shampoo becomes compounded, especially for those of us who use multiple moisturizers and beauty products layered atop one another.

After reading about parabens, I rushed to my bathroom to skim labels. I found them in all of my lotions, including Kiehl's and the Body Shop, which have very "green" and organic reputations. They were in my Bath & Body Works lotions, all 11 bottles I had lying around. I was kind of devastated, because I've grown attached to certain scents, but my most recently bought bottles already went back to the store and will be replaced with a paraben-free lotion. Parabens are in my daily moisturizer, too.

Other keywords that popped up while I was reading about parabens were "sodium benzoate" and "dimethicone." Sodium benzoate is another chemical preservative found in both body products and foods (sodas, pickles, salsa, juices). The worry with sodium benzoate is that when it's mixed with ascorbic acid (or vitamin C), benzene (a carcinogen) can form. Another article I read said sodium benzoate itself is a carcinogen, but it seems like a premature statement. Currently, the amount allowed in foods is said to be harmless, but the FDA does not oversee cosmetics and body products.

"Dimethicone" is a word I've seen again and again, almost as much as I've seen the word "paraben." Dimethicone (and its siblings cyclomethicone, dimethiconol, phenyl trimethicone) does not appear to be carcinogenic, however it seems to have the same effects as petroleum, which is it traps everything in (and out, thus serving as an excellent moisturizer) ... which ultimately means it inhibits the skin's natural processes. It, like petroleum, is non-biodegradable and can cause a dependency on it because it makes your skin drier in the long run (have you ever noticed how you NEED to reapply Chapstick or Vaseline once you've applied it once, or else your lips become even more chapped?). So while dimethicone hasn't been ruled unhealthy, it's bioaccumulative and not the best option in terms of long-term use or environmental friendliness. (Petroleum and mineral oils, however, are a different story and is suspected to block estrogen and damage one's immune system, among other things.)

I did a basic search on the internet and have found that St. Ives is the most consumer-friendly (aka inexpensive) line that is paraben-free and fairly natural. I was also surprised to find no parabens in my Oil of Olay night cream. Other brands that are fairly accessible with paraben-free options are: Nature's Gate, Avalon Organics, Burt's Bees, Kiss My Face. And like I said before, I was disappointed to find that many Kiehl's lotions and moisturizers contain parabens, as do the creams from Body Shop.

I do consider myself fairly conscious of the environment, but I'm definitely not a tree hugger or an organic/vegan enthusiast. I just think it's important to think about what you're putting in your body, and how the corners that corporations have cut over the years in order to make money might be taking a toll on us. And while I know I can't eliminate some of these harmful chemicals from my life, I'm going to try to minimize their presence in the ways that I can. It is my hope that more and more companies will roll out more natural products in the coming years.

More resources:
Sodium Benzoate
Petroleum and mineral oils

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  1. Thank you for this article. I recently found out that Bath and Body Works lotions/body washes have parbens in them. You mentioned that they now have a paraben free line. I can't seem to find that. Any help in the direction would be helpful. I too have a closet full of lotions that I haven't opened and would want to exchange. Thanks!

    1. Hi, thanks for the comment! The last time I checked, their body butters (the ones that come in the round tubs) were paraben-free, but unfortunately, they're the priciest kind of lotion that Bath and Body Works has in the store and aren't available in every scent that Bath and Body Works carries. You won't be able to do a product-for-product exchange if you have the regular body lotions, unfortunately, but you should be able to do a return and get most of your money back (that's what I did). I hope that helps!

  2. It's not just parabens. Methylparaben isn't that bad, propylparaben and butylparaben are worse, for example.

  3. I'm actually allergic to parabens, and benzoic acid/sodium benzoate. It's in everything, and really hard to find alternatives. You mentioned some brands that claim to be paraben free, and yes...their ingredients lists don't contain the word "paraben" but that doesn't mean they don't contain sodium benzoate or similar. You really have to look. Be sure to check the labels for Burts Bees for example. And sodium benzoate is a type of paraben (it's a salt derived from them).



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