by Perry Romanowski
If you spend a lot of time on the Internet surfing RSS feeds and social media, you could develop the notion that parabens are dangerous chemicals in cosmetics and that you should avoid products that contain them. Of course, actual science tells a different story and a review of all the scientific evidence by the independent scientists of the EU’s Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety (SCCS) indicates that parabens in cosmetics are harmless. If you want some more in-depth disucssion of the specifics of the safety of parabens in cosmetics, I encourage you to read this excellent series of articles on parabens.
However, as a cosmetic formulator, manufacturer, or marketer the science often doesn’t matter. It is the perception of an ingredient that matters. Often parabens are avoided simply because people believe that consumers overwhelmingly want to avoid chemicals like parabens. If you confine your information to what you’ve read on the Internet or saw on social media you certainly could get the impression that everyone believes parabens are dangerous.
But is that really what people believe?
While I was giving a talk about cosmetics at a college last week I brought up the subject of preservatives and parabens and something interesting happened.
No one knew what I was talking about. Not a single person in the 30+ person audience had heard the notion that parabens were dangerous. In fact, no one had heard the term “Parabens” at all.
Was this reflective of the general consumer or was this an anomoly? I didn’t know but decided to look into it. Afterall, if most consumers are afraid of parabens and will avoid buying products that contain them, it might make sense for people to avoid using them. However, if only a small percentage of consumers have heard of them, is there really any point to avoiding them?
From a formulator’s standpoint parabens are a superior preservative to most other options.
One of the things to look at when investigating the popularity of something is to go to Google trends and see what people have been searching for over time. If you look at the term “Parabens” it appears to have seen an increase since 2004 and is currently nearly at a high for Internet interest. Note, this does not indicate what kind of searches people are doing but just that the term parabens was used in the query. But if you compare this to the term “make up” you’ll see that there are 16 times as much interest in “make up” than parabens. Back in 2006 there was about 15 times as much interest in “make up” as there was in “parabens” so it doesn’t seem to have changed much relative to an interest in makeup.
Of course, if you look at the serach term “surfactants” it was tied with parabens back in 2004, but is now 25 times as popular as the search term surfactant.
The bottom line is that from the Google data, the term ‘paraben’ is definitely on the rise compared to other types of cosmetic chemicals but still of only of slightly more interest now than it was 8 years ago when compared to a general search term.
It’s tough to get information on this type of thing but some estimate that 75 – 90 percent of personal care products contain some parabens. This seems reasonable enough to me. But what are people buying? A quick review of the best selling lotions at Walmart shows that they almost all contain parabens. So, scare stories about parabens don’t seem to have much effect on consumer buying habits…yet.
What do people know?
This is hard to find information on too. Usually, people who collect this information are paid for it and do not share the information freely. But I did find this study published by Datamonitor that said in the US about one third of consumers were concerned about parabens in their cosmetic products. Of course, that means two thirds of people don’t know anything about it. That’s a significant minority but still a minority. The majority of consumers do not know anything (or care) about parabens in cosmetics.
Should you formulate with parabens?
Having parabens in your formulation does not seem to affect sales in the mass market and most of the people who buy cosmetics do not know anything about them. It’s also not a marketing position that can be unique because lots and lots of brands are claiming paraben free. In fact, I believe there will be a backlash when it comes to this anti-paraben sentiment specifically when people learn about the increase in product contamination.
The bottom line is that I would let science guide my formulating efforts and would put out the best performing, safest product that I can. And in the majority of cases, those are cosmetic products that contain parabens.