Are Sulfates, Parabens and Phthalates Really Dangerous?
For the health conscious or natural consumer, the words sulfates, parabens and phthalates, send off instant alarm bells. But what are these chemical compounds and should we really be concerned when they show up in our shampoo or lotion? With the plethora of “natural” products on the market, it can be hard to know if we should really be worried about them showing up in the products we use every day.
What are Sulfates?
Sulfate is formed when sulfuric acid is mixed with other chemicals. In their most common form, they show up as sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) and sodium laureth sulfate (SLES). They are mostly found in shampoos, conditioners, body wash and other personal care products. Their main purpose is to create a thick lather, and they do this by attracting water and oil to efficiently separate the dirt and oil from your hair or skin. Sulfates are generally safe if used as directed (meaning you just wash your hair and don’t try to eat it), however, sulfates may produce unwanted effects. For example, because sulfates are so great at cleaning our skin and hair, it may strip away the hair’s natural oils and moisture leaving it looking dull and feeling lifeless. In addition, it can shorten and the effects of keratin treatments and hair dye. When used on sensitive skin, this may result in skin irritation such as a rash developing.
However, keep in mind that most shampoos, even the sulfate free variety will strip the hair to a certain degree in order to get it clean. This is what we want them to do in fact to get rid of the dust, dirt and pollution that collects in our hair over time.
Takeaway: Sulfates are fine ingredients and there is nothing inherently harmful about using a product with sulfate in it. However, since sulfate free products are gentler on skin and hair, if you have sensitive skin it may be your best option.
What are Parabens?
Parabens are preservatives that are frequently added to many cosmetics and other products to prevent bacteria and fungus overgrowth. They have been a common ingredient since around the 1950’s or so and were seen as necessary since most people stored their cosmetics in the bathroom which is a prime environment for germs to grow. The ick factor is real.
Anyway, around the 1990’s parabens came to be seen as xenoestrogens, or compounds that imitate estrogen hormones in the body and wreak havoc with the existing estrogen produced by the body also known as “estrogen disruption.” By frequently using these products, excess estrogen is absorbed by the body, which creates health issues for women.
Takeaway: While there is a reason to be aware of the scientific findings linking parabens and cancer, there is no need to absolutely steer clear of products containing parabens if you don’t want to. However, until more studies are completed, it’s probably best to err on the side of caution. Try using a paraben free body and face lotion, which since we use these products often and they cover most of our bodies, is probably a solid choice. There are some great options available to try from natural brands. See the full list below.
What are Phthalates?
Phthalates are chemicals that are added to all types of products in order to help plastics pliable and soft. They can be found in everything from cosmetics to food containers and even gulp, in our bodies. That’s right, traces of them have been found in human urine. This is probably due to the fact that they are added to so many products including: detergents, adhesives, solvents, nail polish, hair spray, shampoo, medical supplies including tubing. The last place they are found is particularly scary: our food. meat and dairy products in particular and fast food. They can make their way into our systems in a variety of other ways including plastic containers, cosmetics, dust from carpet, wood flooring or upholstery.
Just how concerned should you be?
Well, in 2008, Congress passed the Consumer Product Safety Bill which included phthalates and banned them from use in children’s products, passed an interim ban on others, and required an in-depth study into the chemicals as a whole. That report which was released in 2014, stated that there is a link between the chemicals and basically every major health concern over the last 20 years. This included links to asthma, ADHD, breast cancer, obesity, type 2 diabetes, neurodevelopment issues, behavioral issues, autism and male fertility problems.
The existing scientific evidence recommends that companies should be very careful in their inclusion of phthalates in their product offerings. In particular, pregnant women and young children are most susceptible to phthalates negative health consequences.
Takeaway: Enough scientific research has been done to determine the harm and negative health effects of phthalates. While it’s not possible to eliminate all exposure to them, it is recommended to find beauty and personal care products that don’t contain them. For a list of phthalate-free products and brands, see below:
The good news is that most of these chemical free products are less harsh and irritating on the hair and skin and smell and feel great! Some are so luxurious you won’t even believe it’s a “natural” product. It’s just a matter of finding what products work best for you. Hopefully this information has demystified these chemicals (without the chemistry degree) and will allow you to make the best choices moving forward.