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Do consumers think about parabens in cosmetics?

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.parabens cosmetics

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.

Google Trends

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.

Buying behavior

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.

{ 9 comments… add one }

  • Deepa 02/19/2014, 5:47 am

    Hi,

    Some parabens are banned only in Denmark, which is just a special Danish legislation for child products. Norway and Sweden too proposing something same for their country. For rest of the European countries paraben is allowed to use 0.4% and upto 0.8% for all parabens mixture in a formulation.
    This whole idea of marketing a product “something free” like paraben free, SLS free, etc. etc. really backfires at the end. It becomes impossible to use once the perception has made in the media that parabens are harmful. It is till date one of the least dermal sensitizing preservatives. I am hoping one day parabens will do there comeback :)

  • Diana 02/16/2014, 3:18 pm

    If they don’t think about it and are not concerned/aware about it, then they should be! The parabens, dyes, lakes, and pthalates that consume almost ALL big name beauty brands are FILLED with these, and the side-effects are numerous!

    It is so much better to use a quality beauty brand that is luxe, and filled with great ingredients that are actually good for you, and sans the negative stuff! I love brands like LUSH, Glam Girl Naturals(love these brands!!!), and such because they are filled with that quality, and they are free of the harsh chemicals and parabens.

    I would be aware of the brands that are paraben-free- and ask- are they free of pthalates, chemicals, dyes, colors, and other harsh irritants? It seems like a lot to be aware of but trust me, there are THOUSANDS of great quality brands out there that are full of natural properties, free of the chemicals, and full of the glamour and quality that we love!!

    • Perry Romanowski 02/17/2014, 8:31 am

      You should really investigate your claims further. Check and see what SCIENTISTS who actually do research on the subject have to say. There is nothing special about LUSH products or Glam Girl Natural. They are not more special or safer for people to use. But they are perfectly find products and people can be happy to use them. Just don’t fool yourself into thinking they are better for you. They are not.

  • Bruce 02/11/2014, 5:32 pm

    Perry
    If nobody in your audience had heard of parabens to me that would show that they did not care about ingredients. Have they heard of Polysorbate, Xanthan Gum, Carbomer or other common ingredients in cosmetics. there is a huge part of the population that does not care. Being a formulator who does often look more deeply into the hazards (real or implied) of chemicals, a lot of the choices I make, most people would never even notice. To me that is great. It was it was like when my mom would add wheatgerm to hamburger, because she thought it was healthy, and we wouldn’t notice. To me that is where the magic is. Making products that are truly safer, in my assessment, without anybody even realizing.
    But yeah, as we all know, we look way too deep into all this stuff, most just care how it smells, and it they think it works, gotta love the placebo effect.

    Peace
    B

  • Dr C Flower 02/11/2014, 1:14 pm

    I often hear that some European countries have banned parabens in cosmetics. This is not true. It is a ‘factoid’ – a mistake repeated so often people come to believe it without checking the facts.

  • Bob 02/10/2014, 9:17 pm

    Quality and safety are both side of the balance, and they are both essential factors to our products. Sometimes we have to make hard decision to keep balance, especially choosing presevertives.

    For me, I think parabens are safty under the amount of usage, beacuse there’s no clear evidences to make me convince that it is harmful for our health. All the reports I know just suspected them maybe have great potential and possibility to cause cancer or other terrible diseases. To my surprise, because of this, many countries ban them use in cosmetics, especially in many European countries. But I think scientists should do more detial tests on it to make sure whether they are real harm to human body or have great potential to cause diseases if they leave in body long times of accumulation before legislation. We need to give parabens a real explaination, because they are absolutely wonderful presevertives used in cosemetics.

    • Perry Romanowski 02/10/2014, 9:23 pm

      I think it is strange that EU countries have banned them since it was the EU independent scientific body who said that were safe to use.

      • Dene Godfrey 02/12/2014, 2:14 am

        Hi Perry,

        First of all, many thanks for linking ot my parabens articles on PCT! Secondly, whilst it IS true to say that the EU has banned SOME parabens, it is NOT true to state that ALL parabens have been banned. It is extremely important to put this (at the time of writing, forthcoming) ban into context. Only 2 parabens that are actually used in cosmetics are bening banned – isopropylparaben and isobutylparaben. Importantly, the reason for the ban was a LACK of data in support of their safe use, NOT data that proved they were not safe. Bascially, the overall usage of these 2 parabens was so small that it was not economic to spend the amount of money required to carry out the tests that were being demanded and, hence, they will be removed from the positive list at some point soon. Other parabens (e.g. benzylparaben and phenylparaben) were also banned but, as no-one ever used them in cosmetics, this has no effect on the industry.

        • Perry Romanowski 02/12/2014, 7:36 am

          Dene – Thanks for the updated information! That makes more sense

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