10 Things No One Ever Tells You About: Parabens and Sulfates

Michelle Grossman
10 Things No One Ever Tells You About: Parabens and Sulfates
Photo: PeopleImages/Getty Images

Over the past five years or so, “parabens” and “sulfates” have become huge buzzwords in beauty—but it seems like nobody ever tells us the reason. Why are parabens bad for you?

We know we’re supposed to avoid them like the plague and tons of beauty products now include that in their marketing, but we’re still not sure if we should give in to the “sulfate-free” and “paraben-free” hype.

Here’s the real down-low on parabens and sulfates

1. They’re chemicals found in beauty products

Parabens are chemicals that have been used since the 1950s to prevent bacteria and act as a preservative in deodorants, lotions, lipsticks, shampoos, scrubs, and more. Sulfates are effective cleansing and foaming agents that can be found in toothpaste, shampoo, and body washes, among other products.

MORE: 16 Best Clean Beauty Products to Kickstart Your Natural Routine

2. There’s a chance that they’re harmful

Studies have shown that some parabens can mimic the activity of the hormone estrogen in the body’s cells, and while estrogenic activity is associated with certain forms of breast cancer, parabens have been found present in breast tumors. Sulfates are concerning because they were found to break down proteins, which can lead to a degenerative effect on the cell membranes. Sulfates were also found to leave residue in the heart, lungs, and brain.

3. But, it hasn’t been proven

However, so far there is no scientific evidence to prove that parabens have any link to cancer, and The Cosmetic Ingredient Review recognizes sulfates as safe up to a maximum concentration of 50 percent if they are properly rinsed off the skin.

4. You can still take the “safe not sorry” route

If you’re weary about taking a chance using products that contain these chemicals, then don’t! There’s a wide range of beauty products that are paraben- and sulfate-free—even at the drugstore.

5. Sulfates are bad for your hair

They can cause a number of problems for your hair including drying, irritating your scalp, fading your color, and even hair loss.

6. However, sulfate-free products aren’t necessarily better

Sulfates are really good at getting rid of any build up in your hair, and with that they also take away natural oils  and can leave your hair rough and dry. However, just because a product is sulfate-free, doesn’t mean you still won’t run into these problems. Many beauty companies have swapped out sulfates for other chemicals, which can sometimes even be worse. To ensure that sulfate-free products won’t further damage your hair, look for products that use fruit or vegetable-based cleansing ingredients.

MORE: The Definitive Guide to the Best Hair Products That Leave Out Sulfates and Silicones

7. Sulfates can be easily identified

Sulfate is the ingredient that causes shampoos to lather. If your shampoo lathers, it contains sulfates. For a foolproof way to know if your product contains sulfates, you’ll see “sulfate” listed pretty high up on the ingredients label.

8. Parabens are a little trickier to notice

While the most common parabens also have “paraben” in their name—butylparaben, methylparaben, and propylparaben—they can also be listed as Alkyl parahydroxy benzoates.

9. There are alternatives

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.

10. Use in moderation

No matter what, chemicals are chemicals. Everything is best used in moderation so it’s always a good idea to switch up your beauty routine and rotate between different products.

Originally published October 2014. Updated May 2017.