3 Things You Need to Know About Sulfates and Parabens

Know about sulfates and parabens, which are widely used in the beauty and home care product market. Are they safe or not?
Parabens in products
Are sulfates and parabens safe? Image courtesy: Adobe Stock
Published: 21 Jul 2023, 05:08 pm IST
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Conscientious consumers are on a constant quest to use products that are kinder, gentler, and safer. This is especially true for cosmetics, lotions and hair care products. If it’s used on your skin or scalp, you want it to be good for you. Sulfates and parabens have been used in products since the 1920s and 1930s.

Sulfates are essentially detergents, commonly used in shampoos, soaps, cleansers and toothpaste. Parabens are preservatives that help prevent the growth of mold and bacteria. They give products a longer shelf life and make them safer while you’re using them.

You can understand the value of both for the products they’re used in. The question is: How safe are they?

The questionable safety of sulfates and parabens is why many consumers and many product manufacturers have moved away from them. If you’re trying to decide whether you should use them or not, you’ll want to weigh the facts. Here are three things you need to know about them so you can decide for yourself.

1. Sulfates May Damage More Than They Clean

Sulfates are surfactants. That simply means they have properties that attract both oil and water, binding oil and grease and removing them as you rinse. Plus, they’re responsible for those great suds you get when you lather up.

That sounds perfect, right? You want to wash away the oils and grime from your scalp or skin. But in the process of washing away oils, your over-dry skin ramps up oil production to compensate. Stripping oils also leaves your hair dry, brittle, and lackluster. This is especially true if your hair is already damaged or color treated.

Sulfates do the opposite of what a sulfate-free infusion hair treatment can do for you. Chock full of natural oils, vitamins, and antioxidants, such hair masks can restore the moisture your scalp and strands need. They can help you maintain the balance you need for lovely locks, rather than destroy it.

It’s the same with your skin. Using soaps and cleansers with sulfates will dry out those oily spots for sure. But oil will return with a vengeance, leaving you teeter-tottering between dry flakes and a slick shine you’d rather not have.
Using shampoos, conditioners, and cleansers without sulfates will keep your scalp and skin in a constant state of equilibrium. Glowing skin and healthy hair need the right amount of moisture and oils that sulfates can’t deliver. So rather than engaging in the battle between oil and dryness every day, keep everything in neutral territory.

2. Parabens Affect Your Hormones

Parabens may keep bacteria from growing in that tub of moisturizer you use every day. But beware the effect they may be having on your hormones. They are little disruptors to your endocrine system, wreaking potentially significant hormonal havoc.

Parabens are used in an astonishing number of products. Your bathroom and laundry room are rife with them. So is your kitchen. Parabens are used as preservatives in many foods and beverages and even occur naturally in some wines and fruit juices. They can be consumed or absorbed through the skin. Because they are ubiquitous, most people’s endocrine systems are full of them.

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Parabens are estrogen copycats. Just as some women choose estrogen-free birth control to reduce their breast cancer risk, they choose paraben-free products as well. But before you assume these compounds don’t affect men, think again. Research indicates parabens can lower testosterone and affect the production level, normalcy, and strength of sperm. Regardless of gender, there’s evidence that they affect reproductive health, fertility, and even fetal development.

If some links have been established between serious health issues and parabens, why are they allowed in products? There are limits on the amount of parabens used in product formulations, presumably to keep them at safe levels. The major concern should be the cumulative effect of using or consuming so many products containing them. Any time you can find a product without parabens, you might want to use it to replace one that contains them.

3. There Are Alternatives to Sulfates and Parabens

The jury may still be out on some of the negative claims about parabens. But most claims related to the detrimental effects of sulfates are solid. You also now understand why the benefits of both in products led to their use in products for a century. If you decide to forgo them in your beauty routine, there are some great alternatives.

Most people equate a big lather with cleanliness, and that lather is a sulfate trait. However, there are shampoos, conditioners, and cleansers that will still deliver the suds without the harshest sulfates. They provide more gentle cleansing of the oils and impurities you’re trying to remove without upsetting the balance of healthy hair, scalp, and skin.

Paraben replacements are a little more challenging. The fact is that parabens are remarkable preservatives, even in small amounts. Some paraben-free cosmetics and other products don’t hold up long without developing some sort of mold, bacteria, or fungus. You may therefore need to change your expectations about product longevity.

Many products will indicate the maximum number of months they should be used after opening. The lengthier the expiration date, the more likely it contains more parabens compared to products with briefer ones. If you want to safely avoid parabens, you may find yourself purchasing products more frequently.

When researching products that are sulfate- and paraben-free, delve into the ingredients list. You want to make sure a potential alternative doesn’t contain chemicals (e.g., formaldehyde) that are worse than what you’re trying to avoid.

As more manufacturers move away from using sulfates and parabens, research on the safety of alternatives is growing as well.

Decide for Yourself

If you want to pivot away from products containing sulfates and parabens, you aren’t alone. While they are both approved for safe use, you may decide they aren’t the best options for you. Weigh the credible research and facts, avoid the hype, and find something that works for you and your health.

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