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How easy is it to be in a supermarket and not be attracted to glossy tubes of creams, moisturizing lotions (a different kind for every part of the body), shampoos, conditioners, scrubs and peels, all colourfully and slickly packaged? Several rows in every convenience store are now devoted to cosmetics that promise personal and body care. But if you were to turn over each of these and skim through the fine print, which lists the ingredients— something most of us seldom do—it doesn’t take long to find out that despite touting the presence of “natural ingredients" (pomegranate, walnut extract, lemon zest), many of these beauty products have one thing in common. In short, they’re all concoctions that contain those age-old preservatives—a wide range of chemicals that end with the names sulfate and paraben.

Understanding the sulfate-paraben link

Sulfates and parabens have been inextricably linked to the growth of the cosmetic industry for 70 years, when sulfates were first used in cosmetics. In the early 1950s, parabens were touted as a cost-effective chemical preservative. Cosmetics manufactured before the widespread use of parabens were found to be contaminated with bacteria and believed to be unsafe, causing outbreaks of rashes, pimples, even blindness. Since then, parabens have been popular.

“Parabens are much more prevalent than sulfates and their primary purpose is to increase the shelf life of your cosmetics, preventing the growth of fungus and bacteria. Sulfates were used in cosmetics even earlier, in the 1930s, and have the qualities of a good detergent. They are found in shampoos and soaps, with the primary purpose of cleansing more effectively," says Soumya Panda, clinical dermatologist at the KPC Medical College and Hospital in Kolkata and editor-elect of the Indian Journal Of Dermatology, Venereology And Leprology.

“Today, if a cosmetic product is water-based, then it definitely employs parabens," adds Dr Panda.

If your shampoo builds up into an incredibly soapy lather, leaving your hair squeaky clean, in all probability it has a high concentration of sulfates. Used commonly in soaps, shampoos and hair dyes, some products have a higher concentration that tends to strip the skin and hair of its natural oils, says Hema Sathish, cosmetic dermatologist, Sanche Skin and Laser Clinic, Madurai. “It could be anything between 0.1% to as much as 29% in concentration. Milder cleansers use less quantities of the sulfates," she adds.

Government regulatory boards across the world have sought to restrict the use of chemicals in cosmetics. In 2006, the European Union and the European Scientific Committee on Consumer Products concluded that parabens can be used safely in cosmetics only in concentrations ranging from 0.4-0.8%, while Danish authorities banned these chemicals in cosmetics used for children under three years.

Potential health hazards

The more the sulfates in your cosmetics, the frizzier and drier your hair/skin becomes. But these aren’t the only concerns. A combination of ethyl and methyl parabens can reduce the skin’s ability to breathe, says Dr Sathish. This, in turn, can cause an outbreak of pimples and rashes owing to blocked pores.

Dermatologists believe that regardless of age or skin type, constant exposure to parabens and sulfates is the leading cause of allergic reactions. “When sulfates are used in larger quantities, they can cause skin irritation, dryness and itching," says Dr Sathish. All of these are symptoms typical of allergic reactions.

“I have observed that allergic reactions to these products is very high in India," says Dr Panda, who believes that the cumulative effect is more to blame. “When every cosmetic product we use employs these chemicals, our exposure to them over time can rise, building up a toxic load that could have repercussions."

Given the ability of parabens to be absorbed into the skin and the body system, a build-up of parabens has been found to disrupt the flow of oestrogen, a critical hormone in a woman’s body, says Dr Panda. A study, published in 2002 in the Journal Of Steroid Biochemistry And Molecular Biology, established that four parabens in particular—methylparaben, ethylparaben, n-propylparaben and n-butylparaben—act as endocrine disruptors, making women more vulnerable to breast and ovarian cancers.

Limit their use

If most of our beauty products have sulfates and parabens, what can we do for a reprieve? Looking for paraben- and sulfate-free alternatives may be time-consuming and expensive, but it’s not impossible. You could opt for entirely natural products (herbal washes or home-made natural rinses and moisturizers). Reducing the frequency of exposure to sulfates and parabens (by using cosmetics and shampoos minimally) can help too.

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