LinkedIn is a social networking site where I have been introduced to a wealth of great minds in many areas of expertise, including cosmetics and personal care products. Recent discussions in several groups I belong to prompted me to contact Dene Godfrey, who I interviewed via email for this post.
What is your background?
I have been involved with preservatives for cosmetics since 1981, from both technical and commercial angles. I have a degree in chemistry. I worked for one of the largest manufacturers of parabens from 1992 – 2002, and I currently work for a UK company involved in the distribution of ingredients for cosmetics, health care and food. I am responsible for developing and selling preservation systems.
What are preservatives and why are they needed?
Preservatives, in the cosmetics sense, are chemicals (and EVERYTHING is a chemical, whether natural or synthetic) that kill, or inhibit the growth of bacteria and fungi. Virtually all cosmetic products are able to support the growth of these bugs unless a preservative is added to prevent this. Bugs in your cosmetic can not only spoil the product (mold on the surface of your skin cream , for example) but they can be damaging to your health. One type of bacteria (called Pseudomonas aeruginosa) can cause permanent blindness if it gets in the eyes.
Is there such a thing as an “all natural” preservative? If yes, please elaborate. If not, why?
There IS such a thing as an all-natural preservative – nature is full of them. Most plants have some form of protection against microbial attack. The problem is that many of these systems are only stable when the plant is alive and flourishing. Once they are harvested, the chemical composition can change dramatically. Also, the components of the protective system in any one plant species can vary greatly and depend upon many different factors – the part of the plant being harvested; the time of year; the location of the plant (even plants of the same species situated a few miles apart can have very different compositions). This gives us a big problem for cosmetics, because the system would need to be the same every time and, if there is so much potential variation, this is just not possible. There are some preservatives that claim to be natural, but this claim can mean any one of many things as there is no absolute definition of “natural”. Some people will accept a synthetic, and identical version of a naturally occurring chemical – this is sometimes referred to as “nature-identical”. Some people accept a slight chemical modification to the chemical extracted from nature, known “nature-derived”. There is no simple answer to this question!
What do you feel is the most common misconception in regards to preservatives?
The most common misconception about preservatives is that they are all dangerous! This is not the case. Whilst, as with any chemical, there are risks involved in their use, these risks are extremely low. Preservatives tend to be a special case because they are used to kill (microbial) cells. This mean that they have some potential to damage any living cell. For this reason, preservatives are very tightly regulated in the European Union, and there is a relatively short list of ones that are permitted for use in cosmetics. All these permitted preservatives have been very carefully evaluated for safety by a group of independent experts appointed by the EU Commission. These preservatives are also the ones most frequently used in the USA. Only a very tiny proportion of the population are unfortunate enough to develop any sort of skin reaction to preservatives.
Are parabens related to breast cancer?
There is absolutely no evidence of any connection between parabens and breast cancer. I could give an extremely long and boring explanation in excessive detail as to why this is the case, but it is much easier just to state that none of the leading breast cancer research organizations accept any link – and you can check this out, as they all have statements about parabens on their web sites! And you are unlikely to accuse these organizations of bias!
Are there scientific data/facts to back up parabens are unsafe in cosmetics/personal care products?
As I said in an earlier answer, preservatives are assessed for safety in the EU by a very rigorous process. At the time of writing, these experts are completely convinced that methylparaben and ethylparaben are safe for use in cosmetics. These experts were a little concerned that there was not quite enough data to enable them to give the same unequivocal clean bill of health for propylparaben or butylparaben, and they asked that further work be carried out. This does NOT mean that they consider these two parabens to be unsafe – just that they need a little more information to make sure of this. These studies will soon be complete, and most people within the industry expect them to be judged as safe for continued use in cosmetics.
Absorption rates of cosmetics/personal care products vary based on a variety of factors. Are there studies that prove parabens are absorbed by the epidermis, dermis and hypodermis and then into the bloodstream?
There is no doubt that parabens can be absorbed through the skin, The main area of disagreement is about the quantity. The most recent study on butylparaben showed that only very small amounts actually were absorbed. You must bear`in mind that absorption through skin is not necessarily a bad thing – it all depends on what the chemical gets up to whilst it is inside the body! There are many studies that show parabens to be excreted in urine, which reduces the likelihood of them ending up hanging around in our tissues and being able to cause any ill effects.
A common statement found on the internet, “Parabens are oestrogenic” – What does this mean?
When something is described as being “oestrogenic”, it means that it can bind to oestrogen receptors in the body in a similar manner to that of natural oestrogen. However, it is very important to understand that this ability to bind to these receptors does not mean that the chemical behaves in exactly the same way as natural oestrogens, ie it is not necessarily an oestrogen mimic. It is misleading to state that parabens are oestrogenic, because most studies (all bar one, as far I know) have failed to find any measurable oestrogenic activity for either methylparaben or ethylparaben, and the oestrogenic activity detected for butylparaben was actually 100,000 times weaker than the natural oestrogen used for comparison. It may also help to put this in context when you find out that this extremely weak effect was obtained by using a dose of butylparaben around 20,000 times higher than anyone could come into contact with by using cosmetics! When I say “weak”, I mean “WEAK”!
What would you like to see happen to educate the consumer in regards to preservatives?
I don’t have any desire specifically related to preservatives, because there are so many common statements and internet myths about many cosmetic ingredients in general that are anything between misleading and downright lies that I would like to see consumer being made aware of.
The major ones are:
“natural is safe” – this is not always true – snake venom, digitalis (foxglove), many species of mushrooms are just a few examples and natural is not automatically better than synthetic in any general sense.
“synthetic is dangerous” – again, not always true – we are in daily contact with hundreds of synthetic chemicals, most of which do us no harm at the levels to which we are exposed.
“your body is exposed to 515 chemicals every day” – whilst this may be true, it doesn’t really mean anything. The implication is that this is bad but, in reality, numbers can’t harm you – there is no difference in safety between 5 chemicals and 5 million chemicals. It all depends on exactly what those chemicals are. There may only be one harmful chemical present; there may be none. This is a very sneaky way to scare consumers with no scientific justification.
Any closing statements you’d like to make?
There is a lot of misinformation out there, especially on the internet. I can try to give a lot of advice on what to look out for, but there isn’t the room here, so I will concentrate on a few things to look out for when visiting a cosmetics web site:
– If they use the term “toxic chemicals” more than 3 or 4 times, treat any information they give with great caution.
– If they imply that you can eat their products because they are so natural, please don’t ever do this, as there is a strong possibility that they would make you ill.
– If they mention that their products have a low score on the Skin Deep database – This database is no guide to safety of ANY cosmetic, despite the claims to the contrary. Because they only take the hazard of the ingredients into consideration (with no assessment of the risk) the information is meaningless. I know that a lot of people believe in Skin Deep, but they are very clever at scaring people – that’s how they get donations to keep them in business. It is a fact that it may be safer to be exposed to a low level of a product rated 10 on Skin Deep than to be exposed to high levels of a product rated 0! That is why risk has to be assessed in order to gauge the safety of a product.
I want to thank Dene for his time and sharing his knowledge on preservatives in cosmetics. What did you think about this interview? Dene noted he is happy to engage in any questions, feedback or comments, if you wish.
I’m a firm believer in complete transparency and it is more important to educate you, the savvy consumer, on ingredients as opposed to providing information that is not fact based. Y’all are smart cookies. It is the responsibility of the manufacturer to make sure they am giving straight and honest as opposed to false and misleading information about the ingredients found in their personal care products. Isn’t that what it’s all about?