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What are Sulfates and Parabens and Why Should I Care?

What are Sulfates and Parabens anyway?

We’re all pretty aware of the harmful toxins and chemicals we’re not meant to put inside our body. Organic, fresh, local ingredients are what dominate our thinking when it comes to food.

Therefore, doesn’t it follow that what we put on our skin and hair should also be fresh and organic- free of chemicals?

When it comes to hair products, we’re much less informed. And though we seem to understand that ‘no parabens’ and ‘no sulfates’ is a good thing, not many of us (myself included before researching this post) are informed about the reasons why.

How many of you have seen the popular signs indicating ‘no parabens, no toxins, no sulphates’ popularly painted across the packaging of our favourite kids’ products?

Admittedly, I have actively searched them out not knowing exactly what these can do to my kids and what harmful effects they could actually have. I’ve also not really sought out paraben- free and sulfate-free alternatives if I’m honest and just simply accepted that ‘paraben free’ means what it says on the label.

Well, if you’re like me, you may want to become more informed before you buy your next hair product that doesn’t contain sulfates and parabens so you know exactly why you’re paying the extra £6 for the ‘vegan-friendly’ stuff over your favourite drugstore brand.

What are Parabens?

Parabens are a family of chemical preservatives that are used to prevent the growth of harmful bacteria and mold in perishable goods. They basically prolong the shelf life of our products.

Most of our beauty products contain parabens: toothpastes, deodorant, shampoos, skin lotion and makeup amongst other things.

So go check the ingredient list on the back of your beauty products and you’ll see parabens go by multiple names: methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben and isobutylparaben. But don’t just go by the label ‘no parabens’. Look at the packaging in detail to find out what are parabens and what do they do. Sneakily, these toxins can be disguised by names such as : Alkyl parahydroxy benzoates but they’re still every bit as much a paraben.

Why do parabens have such a bad rep?

In short, parabens are known to disrupt hormone function, an effect that has been linked to increased risk of breast cancer and our ability to reproduce. How? Well, numerous studies have shown that parabens can mimic the activity involved in the production of estrogen in the body’s cells which can lead to an increased risk of tumours. A 2004 British study even found the presence of parabens in 9 out of 10 breast tumours sampled.

Okay so the situation isn’t as bad as it could be. The amount of parabens in each product is safely controlled by the EU safety standards. And children under three especially are targeted.  But it’s the cumulative effect of multiple products that can be harmful.

Are there alternatives to sulfates and parabens that aren’t harmful to us?

Nowadays, many natural and organic health care products have found alternatives to prolonging the shelf life of their products. But sometimes, these can be even more harmful to our skin or hair.

In general, never take marketing and adverts at face value. With so much information available, it’s easy to educate ourselves on the label content of our beauty products.

If you’re looking to steer clear of products that contain parabens, opt for ones that use ingredients such as ethylhexylglycerin (which is plant-derived) or phenoxyethanol, another alternative to parabens, a naturally derived ether alcohol.

For your information, the Breast Cancer Action group has compiled a list of approved paraben-free companies.


What are Sulfates?

The most common sulfate-based ingredients found in personal care products are sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) and sodium laureth ether sulfate (SLES), commonly known as sodium laureth sulfate. You can find them in soaps, shampoos, laundry detergents, dish detergent, toothpaste, bath bombs and more. Anything that gives you a lather.

Because that is the main use for SLS and SLES. It’s to create lather, giving a stronger impression of cleaning power. While sulfates aren’t “bad” for you, there’s a lot of controversy behind it.

Why are sulfates bad?

The highest risk of using products with SLS and SLES is irritation to your eyes, skin, mouth, and lungs. For people with sensitive skin, sulfates can also clog pores and cause acne. In the 90’s sulfates got a bad rep because they were believed to be carcinogenic because they are petroleum-based. This has since been disproved and the most harmful effect that has been proven is still skin, eye and mouth irritation made worse after prolonged exposure.

Some of the controversy also has to do with how sulfates are disposed of because they get washed down the drain through our sewage systems and can affect marine life.

Are there alternatives to sulfates and parabens?

Going sulfate-free depends on your concerns. If you’re worried about skin irritation and know that sulfate products are the cause, you can look for products that say sulphate-free or don’t list SLS or SLES in their ingredients. How sulfates affect your skin may also depend on the brand and manufacturer. Not all sources are the same.

It’s important to remember not all sulfates are bad. When they’re used in conditioners, they can actually help make hair smoother, softer, and visibly healthier.

Also, manufacturers haven’t been able to find proper alternatives for the foamy action that sulphates give to say, toothpaste. You can still use alternatives such as oils, olive oil, coconut oil etc to eliminate bacteria but you still won’t get the soapy-suds effect.

Still, there are alternatives.

For cleaning skin and hair: Opt for solid and oil-based soaps and shampoos rather than liquid. Some products to consider include African black soap and body cleansing oils.

For cleaning products: You can make cleaning products using diluted white vinegar. If you find vinegar unpleasant, try lemon juice. As long as you can ventilate your space while cleaning, there should be no irritation.


So, there you have it. Switching to products free from sulfates and parabens isn’t as straightforward as it seems. Parabens no. Sulfates, you can be choosy. Stay informed. Don’t just accept the labels you see which claim to be ‘free of everything and its brother’ but know your ingredients and what you can accept to be applied to your skin and hair.

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