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The Controversial Danger of Parabens, Sulfates, and Phthalates

April 09 /2018

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Personal care products have a lot of stuff in them. Sometimes that stuff is good. Sometimes it’s total garbage. 🔥🗑

Enter parabens, sulfates, and phthalates.

You’ve probably heard of them, but—if you’re like most of us—chances are good you don’t have a clue what they actually do. Here’s what you need to know about these tricky ingredients and why/how to avoid them.

What Are Parabens Anyway?

No doubt you’re aware that the products you buy have to be “shelf-stable.” (If you’re not familiar with that term, basically it means that stuff needs the ability to sit around for a while and stay in good shape.)

Enter parabens. They’re a type of preservative that does a great job of stopping bacteria growth. They keep your active ingredients stable, so you can “safely” use your products weeks or months after manufacture.
Notice the quotation marks. While parabens are effective at keeping bacteria at bay, there’s another thing they’re good at: mimicking estrogen in your body. If your goal is to live a long and healthy life, that’s not a good thing. And, as you’ll learn, this is a theme contributing to the danger parabens, sulfates, and phthalates, alike.

The Paraben Problem

Parabens act like estrogen in your body. This interferes with the way your hormones function. Doesn’t matter if you’re male or female: this disruption interferes with your reproductive system and may have implications when it comes to cancer risk. 

A 2013 study examined the connection between fertility and a certain paraben (propylparaben, to be exact). The study found an association between decreased fertility and urinary propylparaben. Another study found a similar link between fertility and butylparaben.

What’s even more concerning is that environmental estrogens (like parabens) may contribute to a greater risk of cancer. Currently, there’s not enough research to support a firm cause and effect, but even a small risk of cancer is enough to make parabens a big problem in my book.
So. Parabens are bad. Why are they still allowed in products? The issue is quantity. The amount of parabens in any particular product is unlikely to cause much harm. The problem comes when you’re constantly exposed to parabens on a daily basis. 

Parabens are able to penetrate the skin barrier. Because parabens are so common in so many products, we’re constantly being exposed to them. A CDC study found propylparaben in greater than 92% of Americans tested. Butylparaben was found in 50% of people. Other studies have found parabens in infants, older children, adolescents, and adults, including pregnant women. 

Life stage and gender are irrelevant: parabens are getting into and building up in our systems and in our children’s.


But there’s good news. A 2016 study on adolescent girls found that paraben levels drop quickly when you avoid them. This study tested girls who used paraben-free products for a set amount of time. After just three days the amount of propylparaben dropped by 45%. In other words: if you leave this stuff alone, it’ll leave you alone.

So What’s a Sulfate?

Sulfates - Lather

Sulfates also play a role in how your personal products look and feel. But they’re not a preservative like parabens. Instead, they’re there to give your soaps and shampoos a rich, foamy lather.
You know when you wash your hands with a foamy soap and your hands feel “squeaky clean”? That’s from sulfates, or another type of detergent. They remove dirt and oil, leaving your skin and hair feeling clean and lightweight. 

What’s So Bad About Sulfates?

Who doesn’t like feeling squeaky clean? Well, you can absolutely have too much of a good thing, and in this case sulfates are to blame. They can be far too effective at washing away oils. Your skin needs some oil on it to stay healthy. Strip it all away and you end up with skin that’s dry and irritated. 
The same goes for shampoos. Use too many products with sulfates and you’ll end up with a scalp that’s dry, itchy, and uncomfortable. 
Oh, and don’t get it in your eyes. Massive, massive irritation there. 
But that’s the best-case scenario.

What's so bad about sulfates?

It’s no secret that sodium lauryl sulfate is rough on the skin. That’s why many manufacturers convert it into sodium laureth sulfate. Sodium laureth sulfate is gentler on the skin, making it pretty common in lather-rich products. But there’s more to this process than meets the eye. In some cases a byproduct called 1,4-dioxane is produced during the conversion process. This dangerous contaminant is a carcinogen linked to organ toxicity. This is a Very Very Bad thing.


Does your product contain 1,4-dioxane? Who knows? Manufacturers don’t have to make any indication of it on their labels. The only thing you can do to protect yourself and your family is stay away from any products that list sulfates on their ingredients. 

While you do need to be wary of it in conventional products, this dangerous byproduct can be avoided by sticking to safer organic alternatives.

Okay, So What’s a Phthalate?

Phthalates (pronounced thal-ates) are a huge group of chemicals with a large array of uses. 


Okay. So that description wasn’t super helpful. The problem with describing phthalates is that they’re everywhere. They’re designed to help make plastics less rigid, and you’ll find them in a lot of building materials and food packaging. They also make fragrances last longer in personal care products. 

Phthalates have a lot of different names. Unfortunately, they may not show up on a list of ingredients at all. Manufacturers are allowed to use the word “fragrance” to stand in for any of thousands of different chemicals, phthalates included. 


You don’t always know when you’re being exposed to phthalates, and they’re used almost everywhere. This makes it tough to avoid them. But it’s worth the effort to do so, because they’re linked to some nasty issues.

The Phthalate Problem

Phthalates are associated with a number of issues. Much like parabens, many of these issues have to do with hormone disruptions. This time it’s the men who take on more of the risk. 


Exposure to phthalates has been linked to reproductive issues in adult men. Adult men may experience decreased fertility in response to phthalate exposure. Pregnant women with higher phthalate levels in their bodies may also give birth to boys with a condition associated with low fertility. 


Phthalate exposure is also linked to reduced levels of testosterone and issues with thyroid hormone production. Both men and women can experience low testosterone levels. The same goes for thyroid production. Thyroid hormones are essential for brain development and metabolism. Mess with this system and you’re opening the doors for a slew of other issues.


Pregnant women are also particularly vulnerable to phthalates. Excessive exposure is linked to giving birth to children with behavioral and cognitive problems. 

Why is Stuff With Parabens, Sulfates, and Phthalates for Sale, Anyway?

Why is Stuff With Parabens, Sulfates, and Phthalates for Sale, Anyway?

Parabens, sulfates, and phthalates are bad news. So why are they still for sale?

There’s a number of issues at play. Research into all three chemicals is still ongoing. Government agencies are slow to act and often require a large amount of data before making any decisions. 

There’s also pressure from big business. These ingredients are cheap, easy to get, and are good fits for their intended purposes. Banning them outright could spell big trouble for manufacturers. The danger of parabens, sulfates, and phthalates is excusable to make a quick buck, right?

Getting involved politically is one way to slow or stop the use of these three dangerous chemicals. But as of right now they’re still out there. The best way to protect yourself is to be a savvy, conscientious consumer. 

How to Lower Your Exposure to the Danger of Parabens, Sulfates, and Phthalates

Shop smart to lower your risk. Here’s how to avoid each of these dangerous ingredients.

Parabens

You’re most likely to find parabens in products that are made with water. Look for products without water to reduce the need for preservatives. Bar soaps are a good example of this. 

Of course, that doesn’t mean you need to give up on water-based products altogether. There are plenty of safe, natural preservatives out there. Look for grapefruit-seed extract, jojoba, honey, and vitamins A, C, and E. All of these ingredients extend a product’s shelf-life safely and naturally.
Finally, read your ingredient labels closely. Don’t just grab an item that says “paraben-free”. Pay attention to what’s really going on inside. 

toxic beauty products

Sulfates:

The strategy for avoiding sulfates is relatively simple: if a product lists sulfates on their ingredients list, don’t use them! Look out for sodium lauryl sulfatesodium laureth sulfate, and sodium alkyl sulfate to start.

If you’re used to using products with sulfates, switching to sulfate-free alternatives can be surprising. Go ahead and say goodbye to that impressive lather you’re used to. Believe me, it’s going to be okay.

Remember: that lather is actually stripping your body of what it needs to stay at its best. Embrace the new sensation with the knowledge that you’re moving towards a healthier you.

Phthalates:

Avoiding phthalates is a little trickier than avoiding parabens and sulfates. That’s because they’re basically EVERYWHERE.

We’re talking “toys, vinyl flooring and wall covering, detergents, lubricating oils, food packaging, pharmaceuticals, blood bags and tubing, and personal care products, such as nail polish, hair sprays, aftershave lotions, soaps, shampoos, perfumes,” just to name a few.

Fortunately, many retailers are waking up to the dangers of these dangerous chemicals. The Home Depot, Lowe’s, and Lumber Liquidators all agreed to stop selling flooring with phthalates. Retailers like Walmart, Target, and CVS are working to remove phthalates from cleaning products. Continuing to put pressure on retailers will keep this trend moving in the right direction.

Much of the phthalates we interact with come from food. Avoiding fast and processed foods can help limit your exposure. Cook more and eat out less.
Finally, be meticulous in which personal products you buy. If you see “fragrance” or “parfum” on a label, put that product down and slowly back away.

Finally, be meticulous in which personal products you buy. If you see "fragrance" or "parfum" on a label, put that product down and slowly back away.

There’s no way to tell what’s inside, and it’s likely to contain phthalates. Look for products that are specifically labeled “fragrance-free.” Not “unscented” — these products often just use other chemicals to cover up any smells. 

A Note on Greenwashing

Let’s go back to my trip to the store. All those products proclaiming that they’re free of parabens, sulfates, and phthalates. A beautiful sight, yes?
Welllllll… kinda. It’s nice to see products that help you stay more aware of what you’re putting in your body. But on the other hand, this makes it easy to become a victim of greenwashing.

Greenwashing happens when a company claims to be natural, safe, or environmentally friendly. They seem good on the outside, but in reality, they’re simply jumping on a marketing bandwagon to get your business.
Think back to phthalates. Remember, companies often slip phthalates under the “fragrance” label. Even if though that body wash is claims to be “phthalate-free,” those nasty suckers could still be lurking in the ingredients. They might just be hiding out under “fragrance.”

And those sulfate and paraben-free products? There’s no guarantee they’re free of dozens of other harmful and toxic ingredients.

As awareness for safe personal care grows, more and more companies are going to jump on board for a piece of the pie. Don’t fall for marketing gimmicks. Avoid the dangers of parabens, sulfates, phthalates, and other problematic ingredients. Stick to safe natural and organic products from businesses committed to your health.

Are Parabens, Sulfates, and Phthalates Controversial? Not Really

These chemicals are often described as controversial, but are they really? They’re unnecessary additions that can cause big problems. There’s a clear danger of parabens, sulfates, and phthalates. And, with so many alternatives available, it’s easy to see why so many people are switching away from these ingredients.

What are your thoughts on these three chemicals? Have you taken steps to keep them out of your daily routine? Let me know about it in the comments below!

Want to learn more about dangerous ingredients? Sign up for our Free “Dirty Dozen” PDF.

Waves and Smiles (sans-Sulfates),

Amy

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