From Dr Hannah Sivak
Manufactroversy is a term coined by Harriet Hall, MD (see skeptic.com) to designate a manufactured controversy “created by junk science, dishonest researchers, professional misconduct, outright fraud, lies, misrepresentations, irresponsible reporting, unfortunate media publicity, poor judgment, celebrities who think they are wiser than the whole of medical science, and a few maverick doctors who ought to know better.”
I would like to apply this lovely new word to the issue of preservatives. Jonatan asked me to write yet again about how parabens are safe. I am not very keen in revisiting this subject, because in a manufactroversy, no matter how often you demonstrate that X is safe, whatever you say will be taken by the converted as further proof that there is a conspiracy to hide the dangers of X. In the years since the paraben wars started, many people have made lots of money thanks to this manufactroversy: manufacturers are selling powerful synthetic preservatives as “natural extracts”, skin care companies are selling “paraben free products” and shady “non-profits” have invented false toxicity indexes.
What are parabens? They are synthetic chemicals used in skin care and food that imitate natural antimicrobials like methylparaben (present in blueberries). It is not easy to find antimicrobials suitable for use in skin care, because the main requirement is that they will be active on bacteria and mold but harmless to humans. The manufactroversy was started with a weak scientific paper and was spread via mass emails has resulted in the industry scrambling to find alternatives to parabens. Although reasonable substitutes were devised for use in creams (see our European base cream) we at SAS stuck to parabens in water based serums because we could not find a safe, effective alternative.
Parabens have a very slight “estrogenic activity”, meaning that they bind to estrogen receptors with very low affinity (1,000 to 1,000,000 times below the potency of 17β-estradiol). This is important for women who have breast cancer that responds to estrogen. For these women, it may be useful to avoid plant chemicals with relatively high affinity for estrogen receptors, including diosgenin, daidzein, resveratrol, kaempferol, naringenin, phloretin and many others (before worrying about parabens), but talk to your MD if you are worried.
Although parabens are not particularly allergenic, a very small section of the population may become allergic to parabens. This is not very common, and is one of the reasons why parabens are such desirable preservatives. Another is that they are absorbed into the body but are quickly broken down, with the breakdown products eliminated through the urine.
The European Union Directorate for Consumers Affairs in the meeting of 12/14/10 issued yet another report to the effect that parabens are safe for use in skin care products. (SCCS Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety, Opinion on parabens, 14 December 2010). In short (the opinion is 35 pages long), the committee examined very carefully all the evidence available, including new research that had been solicited in previous opinions.
The issues considered included
1) The relationship between the use of parabens in deodorants and the development of breast cancer.
2) The potential in vitro and in vivo endocrine modifying effects of parabens, in particular estrogenic/anti-androgenic activities
3) The toxicokinetics (dermal absorption and biotransformation) of the different
The committee “considers the use of parabens as preservatives in finished cosmetic products safe to the consumer, as long as the sum of their individual concentrations does not exceed recommended concentrations”.
The trouble with non-existent preservatives
No matter how many references, appendices and pages there may be in the carefully considered SCCS opinion regarding parabens, how come I am sure that some people will still be buying products with non-existent “Japanese honeysuckle extract” or “grapefruit extract” as preservative?
What’s wrong with a non-existent preservative? The skin care product still has to be on the shelf for a few months, and somebody will open it and take a bit with a never-clean-enough finger, so the manufacturers had to add something to the product to prevent bacteria and mold from growing on it. If they say their product is paraben-free, how did they manage it? Would an extract made from Japanese honeysuckle prevent growth or microorganisms?
The chemistry of Japanese honeysuckle flowers is not a mystery. A thorough chemical analysis will not reveal any potent chemicals with the power to keep your skin care products safe from bacteria and mold. The same is true for grapefruit seeds, meaning that any such chemicals were introduced by the manufacturers with the aim to fool the consumer.
This is what happens when your force the formulators to stop using safe preservatives: you end up with unknown chemicals in your skin care products, and with unknown chemicals come unknown dangers. This is not to excuse the formulators, or the companies selling the mystery preservatives, or the marketing people pushing for unsafe alternatives to avoid alienating the “unknowing populace”. Our first priority is product safety - so whether you are purchasing Ready to Use products, or making your own, you can be confident in knowing that our actives and products are safe and effective.