Parabens. It’s seen as a dirty word amongst the “natural beauty” movement and the “mainstream” cosmetics industry is trying its best to ignore it, right? Because of parabens, many people are spending more money than ever on cosmetics and personal care products to avoid those scary-sounding paraben ingredients.
Today I want to step (mostly) aside from the quibble over whose scientific paraben research was more inaccurate, to examine the bigger question; who really benefits from the fears surrounding parabens?
To get at the answer, we need to do some digging. You may have noticed the unbelievable number of very expensive “natural beauty” paraben-free organic natural companies that have sprung up over the past couple of years. They charge you an arm and a leg for beautifully coloured, luxuriously scented containers of goop with names such as “thermal spa minerals bath elixir” “cleansing water mist” and “nourishing body souffle.”
Paraben free products are not necessarily being marketed by ethical companies.
Okay, so some of you are thinking “what is going on? Has she been paid to say this?”
I am an independent researcher, sitting at home writing this, and I look at all the information I can get my hands on and I base my conclusion on the information I find.
Here’s some things you need to know about the people telling you to avoid parabens:
1. The “natural beauty” companies who are selling the paraben free products are operating on a much higher profit margin than conventional companies. It doesn’t cost them more money to avoid putting an ingredient in a product because they’re not replacing parabens with something else that costs more. Here’s an analogy: Think of a cake, if you made a cake without chocolate powder, so it was a plain flavoured cake, would it cost you more to make that cake, or a cake which used chocolate powder? When all the other ingredients stayed the same, the chocolate cake would cost more to make. So why is the plain cake costing so much more to buy? Why are the paraben free products costing up to ten times more than their paraben-containing counterparts? It’s very profitable to make paraben-free products.
2. The “big beauty companies” that some sensationalist self-styled “health journalists” are criticizing? Most of them are benefiting from the paraben myth in some way. Here’s a list of well-known beauty companies who have at least one product that they’re marketing as paraben free:
Clarins, Clinique, Ojon, Pureology (and by extension, L’Oreal), Dead Sea Spa, Aveda, Morrocan Oil, Vaseline, Revlon, Dr Organic, Physician’s Formula, Burt’s Bees, Bare Escentuals (and Bare Minerals), L’Occitane, Origins.
This is where the biggest money behind the anti-paraben hype is overtly coming from, but that doesn’t mean they’re the only people making megabucks from scaring you away from parabens.
3. A lot of the smaller start-up companies (such as all the new startup sellers of natural, paraben-free, organic, very expensive products) don’t have to list their board of directors or key shareholders, particularly if they’re not floated on the stock exchange or aren’t incorporated. This means that, to start a smaller start-up company that makes big bucks from the current “natural beauty” craze, a larger company can finance it for a share of the profits, guide product development and marketing, then step back and let the smaller company turn a profit – who then repay a percentage of that to the larger company. We’ve seen this time and again on Dragon’s Den, you think they’re the only people doing it? Everyone in business with investment capital is doing it! If the smaller company goes bankrupt (such as “organic skincare” company Davina Peace… they had a waiting list of clients when they launched in 2010. You can find Davina Peace halfway down this list of insolvent companies in administration in 2012, along with the date of insolvency), the larger company washes their hands of the whole thing because it was nothing to do with them. If anything, they end up on the list of creditors (people owed money). If and when the current “natural skincare” craze ends, and the consumers start looking for something else, the larger company comes out of this beauty trend totally unscathed, with their reputation in tact when everyone goes back to buying “normal” stuff again. It is impossible to know behind the scenes who is financing and guiding these companies. It is impossible to know if any company is truly independent because corporate accounting strategies are inscrutable. Smaller companies are less accountable than larger ones.
4. You know whose products still contain parabens? The Body Shop! They’re an independent company not affiliated to any others, they are all about “natural” skincare and beauty, but their products are still packed with parabens. Why? Because they want to kill you? Uh, reality check, if cosmetics companies kill their customers, who’s going to be left alive to buy cosmetics? They use parabens because the evidence for the current paraben-noia is flimsy, it all comes from studies where at least one of the same people were involved, they all use very small sample sizes (the latest one, the one that “proves” parabens are dangerous? 40 participants. All in Britain. That’s 0.0000000006% of the world’s population (or 0.000000012% of the population of America). And the researcher was forced to conclude that parabens are “only part of the bigger picture” which is scientist speak for “I’ve spent nearly a decade of my life barking up the wrong tree.” Why was this conclusion made? Well 7 of the 40 participants didn’t even use any cosmetics in the underarm area, so they weren’t getting any parabens from those products and yet the tissue samples still contained parabens. No deodorant, no body lotion… do you know anyone who doesn’t use any deodorant, any lotion, anything at all under their arms, who ALSO wears face cream or make-up? Who bathes regularly?? I don’t. These things tend to come in groups – people who don’t use deodorant (including natural ones) or body lotion tend not to use other products. Such as shower gel. And that’s if we totally ignore her first study on the effect of parabens, published in January 2004, which had a sample of twenty participants (also in Britain) and didn’t have a control group (a group of people who didn’t have cancer, or who didn’t use parabens, for example, to check if their paraben level was the same), which is the study everyone keeps misquoting.
5. Research is driven by funding. Without funding, people don’t research things. Every job in science has to be paid for and accounted for. Researchers have to justify why they need money in most fields. By studying parabens, an oncologist (for example) would no longer need to depend on funding from public health bodies (such as the nearly-bankrupt British NHS, Britain being the country where all of the research on parabens was carried out by the same lead author) or charities specialising in cancer research, and instead, that researcher could open up a huge avenue of funding for the university they work for, from cosmetics companies (or subsidiary research institutes funded by straw-man companies funded by cosmetics companies) who stand to gain from the results – if those results mean they can sell more paraben-free products. Additionally, these big companies don’t require the results to be very rigorous (unlike health organizations) as long as they’re sensational. Just like the beauty blogger who sells her scruples for a free mascara, the researcher claims that “all opinions are my own” although in science-speak, that’s “the research method was robust.” For good measure, the researcher could get other people they know to peer-review it (everyone in the same field knows each other). This is sadly how a lot of corporate-relevant scientific research is being done nowadays – fund a university, they can claim they’re independent, the company might even guide the university’s researchers about sharing the results with the world to get maximum impact but because it came from a university lab, we believe every word as infallible. This is how many people get a PhD these days! It all depends how financially malleable the researchers are, but there are hints that this happens all over academia, especially in the research areas most relevant to the pharmaceutical, nutritional and cosmetics industries. If the research had showed parabens were not implicated in cancer, the cosmetics companies would gain less overall. When was the last time a newspaper ran a story that said “fresh broccoli doesn’t cause cancer” (for example)? It doesn’t sell products.
So what, exactly am I trying to say, and who do I think I am that I can say this? Just like animal testing, the truth behind these “natural beauty” companies is surrounded by a mystique of obfuscation, corporate financial backing and bad science… which makes them no better than the regular cosmetics companies. I wrote this because I value honesty and I was compelled to show that you don’t need to spend large amounts of money on “paraben free” products. These companies are cashing in on our biggest fears.
I think that in order to really get to the heart of the paraben issue, we’ve got to examine why we react so strongly to allegations that products are dangerous: Fear.
The Role Of Fear
We fear cancer more than anything else because we feel powerless, most of us know someone who has died of cancer. Breast cancer is terrifying because we don’t know why some people get it and others don’t. We don’t know why cancer seems to be getting more common than ever before. Personally, I believe it’s down to processed food; I think there’s something about all those condiments, sauces, ready meals and so on. But that doesn’t net an attention grabbing headline, that’s never going to produce viral content, so nobody writes about it or researches it for long because they can’t get funding. Research is driven by funding – especially at universities. Who funds research? Companies who stand to gain from it!
Look at the recent evidence linking bacon to cancer. What was the public’s response? Oh, I love bacon, I’m never going to stop eating bacon! It hardly made the news for a week before disappearing! These are the same people avoiding cigarettes and parabens! The reason I wanted the world to know what fuels the paraben myth is because people think that if they avoid parabens they get some kind of points, that they can then use to smoke, drink and eat bacon. It doesn’t work like that. The things you eat, drink and smoke are the real culprits here.
Japanese women have a lower incidence of breast cancer than anyone else in the world because of their diet. Tokyo is a very polluted urban environment; have you ever been there? Huge skyscrapers, people’s living space is tiny, ventilation is complicated, and yet those women are getting breast cancer less often than women living in the Great Plains. Do Japanese women use parabens? Of course they do! They may use some “traditional Japanese” products, but when was the last time you used a “traditional” product of your own nationality? The only traditional English beauty product I use is rosewater from the supermarket (the stuff in the beauty shop is full of alcohol – which DOES cause cancer when ingested), and if I’m honest, I don’t use it as often as I should.
By avoiding parabens, consumers are being given a false sense of control, a false sense of security, a false sense of everything’s fine. Clearly, everything is not fine. Vegetarians and meat eaters are getting cancer at similar rates. Natural organic homeopaths are getting cancer at the same rate as people using branded products full of parabens and “chemicals.” The lie is that we are safe if we avoid parabens and other molecules labeled as “nasties.” We are not safe. None of us are. That’s the truth about parabens: You can avoid any ingredient with more than ten letters in the name as much as you like, it’s not going to help you. All this is doing is letting the real culprits get away with murder for longer while the cosmetics companies get even richer than ever from people’s fear.
Cosmetics companies are experts in using fear to sell products – fear of looking old, fear of really being old… those anti-ageing creams are cashing in on people’s fear of mortality. Fear of being ugly, of not looking attractive… make-up cashes in on people’s fear of being alone, people’s fear of rejection. The cosmetics industry has a long track record of subtly using fear to motivate women to buy their products. I’m not telling you to start buying products full of parabens, or to stop buying cosmetics; you should look how you want to, but you need to be aware of the truth about parabens. Avoiding parabens is not going to save you. We will all get old. We will all be alone sometimes. We will all die one day. And that’s the real truth about parabens. It’s a shame everyone’s so busy being scared of parabens to understand what’s really at play here.