Consumer demand pumps up supply of paraben-free products
By Jessica Ramakrishnan
Special to the Tribune
June 27, 2007
Beauty junkies may have noticed a new label — “paraben free” or “no parabens” — on their body-care products. In the past, every time you washed your hair or moisturized your face or body, you were likely slathering on parabens, chemicals that act as preservatives for beauty products such as foot cream and hair conditioner. But with research pointing to possible links between the preservatives and breast cancer, parabens have earned a bad reputation.
Beauty firms, particularly those that market their products as natural, are responding to consumer concerns with new paraben-free product formulas, according to Leigh Anne Rowinski, beauty industry expert at IRI, a consumer research group. Manufacturers are turning to alternative preservatives, such as phenoxyethanol and chlorophensin, which ensure products have a reasonably long shelf life — up to two years in many cases — without the health concerns associated with parabens. “The beauty industry has been selling all things ‘pink’ for some time now,” says Rowinski, referring to the pink ribbon-branded products sold to raise breast cancer research funds. “Having been made more aware, consumers are starting to ask more of the products that they are putting on their bodies.”
Despite the lack of conclusive scientific answers, consumers spent $102 million on paraben-free products last year, a 41 percent increase over the $73 million spent in 2005, according to IRI, which tracks brands sold in mass-market drugstores and supermarkets. The range of paraben-free products in the market has grown from basic items such as soaps to luxurious spa-style products such as body scrubs, said Lisa James, founder of the beauty products Web site B-Glowing (b-glowing.com). “It used to be the case that only the ‘granola’ brands avoided parabens and made products that didn’t always perform the way you wanted,” James says. “These products have moved from the dusty corner that everyone avoided in health food shops to high-end boutiques and back to supermarket chains.” The trend shows no sign of abating, says Noelle Wagner, Midwest regional coordinator for Whole Body, the body care section of Whole Foods Markets. Many of the natural supermarket chain’s suppliers are reformulating their products to exclude parabens, she says. Last summer, Whole Foods started to remove parabens from its own body care line, 365. “We can’t say how many people are concerned, but those who do care are buying much more of these products,” Wagner says. Major beauty firms, however, have yet to leap on the no-paraben bandwagon. “We constantly study peer-reviewed scientific publications to stay abreast of the latest developments related to our products,” said an e-mailed statement from a representative of Estee Lauder, which owns brands such as Clinique, Bobbi Brown and MAC. “To date, there have been no conclusive studies [that] confirm a direct link between breast cancer and parabens.”
The Food and Drug Administration, which regulates only color additives in beauty products, says that parabens are safe as long as they do not exceed 25 percent of a product’s formula. Parabens make up a tiny fraction — 0.01 to 0.1 percent — of most product formulations, according to the FDA. While the FDA holds firm to its position, natural-product makers and retailers are not looking back. Whole Foods’ Wagner says the chain is unlikely to add new product lines to its body care aisles if they contain parabens. B-Glowing’s James, who lost her mother to breast cancer, believes that more and more beauty firms will follow suit. “The paraben issue is not going away,” she says. “I would be surprised if any products have parabens in them in the future.”
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Paraben-free beauty cabinet
Although the jury’s out on the effect of parabens, you might prefer to embrace the precautionary principle. Shop carefully and pay attention to labels to create your own paraben-free beauty regime. Paraben-free products are available at stores such as Sephora, which stocks lines such as Skyn ICELAND and Dr. Hauschka, to Wal-Mart, which carries Noah’s Naturals, a no-paraben skin- and hair-care line. Face moisturizers Juice Beauty’s Green Apple Moisturizer SPF 15 ($38, www.juicebeauty.com) contains organic ingredients. For a splurge, try Care by Stella McCartney’s 5 Benefits Moisturising Cream ($76, www.sephora.com).
Rich and exotic with scents such as sandalwood and guava, Pacifica’s Body Butters are dry-skin quenchers ($15.95, www.pacificacandles.com).
John Masters Organics has been paraben-free for more than 15 years. Fans of the line especially love the Honey & Hibiscus Hair Reconstructor ($28, www.johnmasters.com) for its tropical scent and luxurious conditioning effect.
Jurlique’s Ultra Sensitive Facial Cleanser ($42, www.jurlique.com) is a mild cleanser for delicate skin; Burt’s Bees Garden Carrot Complexion Soap ($8,www.burtsbees.com) is a non-drying alternative.
Try Burt’s Bees toners, which contain garden tomato for normal and oily skin or rosewater and glycerin for mature and sensitive skins ($12, www.burtsbees.com).
Merlot, Sauvignon and Cabernet scrubs from French spa brand Caudalie make for a heady exfoliation experience ($32 for a set of three mini treatments, www.sephora.com).
Tom’s of Maine toothpastes (from $1.69, Walgreens) come in teeth whitening and child-use formulas.
Whole Foods’ 365 Shower Gel is a bargain ($1.99, Whole Foods Market). A more exotic pick is Greek brand Korres’ Jasmine Shower Gel ($11, www.sephora.com).
Delicate Ultra-Care Shampoo ($22, www.sidlabhair.com) from Sidlab promises to leaveyour hair clean and silky.
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The paraben controversy
Parabens are widely used to preserve cosmetic and pharmaceutical formulations that contain water and oil, says Suzanne Snedeker, associate director of translational research at Cornell University’s Sprecher Institute for Comparative Cancer Research.
A 2004 paper published in the Journal of Applied Toxicology on the concentration of parabens in breast cancer tumors was the first to get widespread media attention, Snedeker says. “There’s no strict evidence that parabens cause tumors,” she says. “The bulk of papers have found that parabens can act as environmental estrogens and support the growth of tumors.” However, many questions remain unanswered, Snedeker says. Among them are the extent to which parabens support tumor growth and how factors such as multiple exposure and age come into play. “We have some of the dots but not the whole picture,” she says. “You don’t need to fill in every dot to see it all, but ultimately consumers have a choice of how they want to gauge their risk.”
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