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What Does "Paraben-Free" and "Sulfate-Free" Makeup Mean?

Worried about makeup ingredients? We're here to help. Learn about paraben-free and sulfate-free makeup

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The scoop on paraben-free and sulfate-free makeup

If you’re an avid makeup user and beauty enthusiast, you’ve probably seen these words—“paraben-free” and “sulfate-free”—without quite understanding what they mean.

As it’s usually local labels and organic brands putting these words on the majority of their product labels, they’ve taken on a natural- and healthy-sounding tone. But are paraben-free and sulfate-free cosmetics that much better for you? Here’s everything you should know about parabens and sulfates.

Why Are Labels Like “Paraben-Free” and “Sulfate-Free” Important?

It’s not easy to support a categorical rejection of parabens and sulfates. They’ve been around a long time and have been used in makeup and many other products for decades.

We’ll do a deep dive in a bit and discuss parabens and sulfates separately. For now, let’s talk about the phenomenon of these words appearing on pretty much everything you find on a beauty aisle—from paraben-free eye makeup to sulfate-free skincare.

The difficulty that arises from the trend is that companies often have to alter traditional formulas to replace parabens and sulfates. While a product label may say that a product is free of parabens or sulfates, it may not necessarily highlight what ingredients have replaced them.

These labels are important, but take them with a grain of salt. Stick to cosmetics with natural or organic component replacements—such as the plant-derived preservative ethylhexylglycerin or palm and coconut oil-derived foaming agent sodium lauryl sulfoacetate (SLSA)—instead of new synthetic materials that may do more damage in the long run.

What Are Parabens and Why Shouldn’t They Be In Cosmetics?

Parabens are chemicals that act as preservatives. They’ve been a common ingredient in bath and hygiene products, skin and hair care solutions, and cosmetics since the 1950s.

Some parabens that you may have encountered before: butylparaben, ethylparaben, methylparaben, and more—any component on an ingredient list with the affix “paraben,” basically. They may also be listed as parahydroxybenzoates.

Why does makeup contain preservatives? The truth is that most of the long shelf life products you consume and apply on your skin every day have preservatives to prevent fungus or bacteria growth. Without them, you would need to finish up that bottle of moisturizer or tube of mascara in a week or two, instead of having months or a year to use it.

What’s the big deal about parabens in makeup? Although there are no conclusive studies that prove correlation beyond any doubt, parabens can mimic the activity of estrogen within the body and have been found in some breast tumors. Some experts have said that this may very indicate that parabens can disrupt hormone system functions, and point to a link between parabens in products and instances of breast cancer.

Less scary but more common effects of using paraben-laden products on your skin include skin irritation especially on the scalp, development of dermatitis, and even premature skin aging.

At the time of this writing, the US FDA has not found the research available as enough evidence to ban parabens. However, the EU has banned or restricted the usage of several parabens.

What Are Sulfates and Why Shouldn’t They Be In Cosmetics?

Like parabens, sulfates are not inherently bad and have been used in common household products for decades. Put simply, sulfates are chemicals known as surfactants or foaming agents.

You may find two common sulfates listed at the back labels of your favorite products: sodium laureth sulfate (SLES) and sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS). Apart from cosmetics, they can be found in body wash, dishwashing liquid, laundry detergent, shampoos, and more.

Why do cosmetics contain sulfates? These chemicals help to build up a lather and remove dirt, grime, and oil. Without them, your face and hair wouldn’t feel as squeaky clean after washing.

What’s the big deal about sulfates in cosmetics? Just because they’re safe doesn’t mean that they won’t cause irritation. Sulfates are amazing at getting the job done but regular use of many sulfate-laden products can strip your hair and skin of natural oils and proteins that make them look healthy and shiny.

This can lead to brittle and dry hair, as well as itchy and flaky scalps. Eye irritation and hairline acne as also fairly common sulfate-based problems. Curly hair is also more likely to frizz, and artificial hair color would be more prone to faster fading.

Should You Stop Using Anything with Parabens and Sulfates?

Products without parabens may not last as long. Avoiding parabens can make you throw unused makeup away more often because the expiration dates will come sooner. People with very oily scalps may need the extra cleansing that sulfates provide, and their hair can feel weighed down when using sulfate-free shampoos.

Bottom line: If you can live a paraben-free and sulfate-free life, why not? However, some people can’t, and that reality isn’t as terrible as advertising makes it appear.

Resources—ByrdieEuropean Commission Press Release DatabaseHealthyishMen's Health, National Center for Biotechnology InformationScientific American, Self