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Organic Alternatives to Common Synthetics

April 22, 2009 Reviewed by admin 2 Comments

In honor of Earth Day, TIA has been thinking, eating, and applying all things organic. It is estimated that nearly 60% of what we put on our skin, the body's largest organ, makes its way into our internal systems. Now consider just how much of what goes on our skin eventually goes down the drain. For the health of our bodies and our environment, we need to be doubly aware of the cosmetic choices we make. And so, here is a round-up of healthful substitutes for a few commonly used cosmetic synthetics to help make going organic easier than ever.


What is it? Parabens are used as antimicrobial chemical preservatives in thousands of cosmetics, personal care products, pharmaceutical products, and food. Including parabens in a formula extends the product's shelf life by preventing the growth of harmful microorganisms, especially molds and yeast. You'll see them listed on ingredients labels as one of six commonly used forms: Methylparaben, Ethylparaben, p-Propylparaben, Isobutylparaben, n-Butylparaben, and Benzylparaben. Because parabens are derived from benzoic acid (a chemical that occurs naturally in plants), they are sometimes found in "natural" products.

Why should you avoid it? Parabens can be absorbed by the gastrointestinal tract or the blood, metabolized, and eventually excreted in the urine. Scientific studies indicate that these chemicals can not only be absorbed through the skin, but can also persist and accumulate in their original form in bodily tissues. Starting in the late '90's, there have been reports that parabens demonstrate estrogenic-like activity in rodent tests and in human breast cancer cells in the lab. Then in 2004, English researchers studying breast tumors identified samples of parabens, which appeared to have originated from a topical source (such as deodorants, anti-perspirants, or creams).

Thus, parabens have joined PCBs (polychlorinated byphenyls) and OCPs (organochlorine pesticides) on the list of environmental estrogenic chemicals that can potentially accumulate in the human breast. Many environmental-health scientists consider parabens to be hormonally disruptive (causing hormone levels to go haywire). The extensive evidence over the years makes a compelling case for taking precautions, though there has been no definitive link drawn from parabens to cancer. The Cosmetic Ingredient Review (an industry-sponsored organization) has determined that parabens are safe as used in cosmetics, and the FDA's current stance is that there is no reason for consumers to be concerned about health hazards from parabens in cosmetics. At any rate, parabens can do damage to marine life when they flow from sewage systems into the ecosystem.

What should you look for instead? Any water-based product will require some form of preservative to limit microbial and bacterial growth, but there are plenty of alternatives to parabens and synthetics. Many natural substances offer limited antibacterial benefits, which, when used in the right combinations, can be adequate substitutes for chemical preservatives like parabens. Sugar and milk enzymes (glucose oxidase or lactoperoxidase) both absorb bacteria-causing oxygen. Certain essential oils and vitamins can help ward off some forms of bacteria, but they must be in high concentrations for long term preservation, thus increasing the risk for skin irritation. (In spite of their antimicrobial properties, lemon and grapefruit may wreak havoc on hormonal balance and are not approved for cosmetic use in Europe and Japan.)

Mineral Oil

What is it? Also known as paraffin oil or Nujol, mineral oil is an inexpensive petrochemical byproduct made from petroleum. Because of its ability to cut through grease and dirt, mineral oil is commonly used to remove makeup. Its colorless, odorless, and binding properties make it a popular moisturizing ingredient in body lotions, face creams, lip balms, and all sorts of emollients. Mineral oil softens the skin by holding in water. In fact, mineral oil (enhanced with fragrance) makes up the base of baby oil, baby creams, and baby lotions.

Why should you avoid it? Although mineral oil has a good safety profile, its moisturizing benefits come at the cost of a few adverse side effects. By locking in moisture, mineral oil forms an impenetrable film over skin that traps in toxins and hinders normal skin respiration. Not only does it create a heavy feeling, but it can also plug up pores and lead to breakouts. A recent study pointed out that it is industrial grade, not cosmetic grade, mineral oil that is "comedogenic" (meaning that it causes blackheads and whiteheads). Nonetheless, skin needs to take in oxygen and release carbon dioxide in order to appear healthy, and mineral oil tends to interfere with the body's own natural moisturizing mechanism, leading to sensitive skin that dries and chaps easily.

According to the First Report on Carcinogens from the U.S. Government, untreated and mildly treated mineral oils are known to be a human carcinogen. The mineral oil used in cosmetics and personal care products, however, has been refined to meet precise specifications. Though claims of carcinogens in cosmetic mineral oil are most likely unfounded, mineral oil has been known to cause petrochemical hypersensitivity, triggering serious allergic reactions. Mineral oil is also believed to to cause photosensitivity (encouraging sun damage).

What should you look for instead? Substitute with any number of natural emollients that do more than hydrate temporarily by preventing the moisture in skin from evaporating. Superior moisturizers contain essential fatty acids and herbs that help to fortify the skin's natural lipid moisture barrier and protect it from environmental elements. Wax esters, such as jojoba, candelilla, and carnauba, are excellent oil-soluble alternatives. Beeswax, in particular, has the same moisturizing properties as mineral oil without the potential for buildup and breakouts. Other natural emollient ingredients include fatty alcohols (cetyl, stearyl, oleyl, lauryl), triglyceride esters (cocao, shea, and karite butters), polyhydric alcohol esters (sorbitol, glycerin, mannitol), and phospholipids (lecithin).


What is it? Sodium lauryl sulfate and its close chemical cousin ammonium lauryl sulfate are sudsy components widely used in cleansers and shampoos. Manufacturers like sulfates because they are inexpensive detergents (chemically known as surfactants) with excellent foam-building abilities. Sodium lauryl sulfate, found in the vast majority of non-organic shampoos, is often disguised in pseudo-natural cosmetics under the description "comes from coconut."

Why should you avoid it? Although sulfates are great for working up a lather, they are not so great for your hair, your health, or the environment. Sulfates can strip the hair and scalp of essential oils, drying out your skin and follicles. Sodium lauryl sulfate can cause allergic reactions, eye irritation, skin rashes, hair loss, and scalp scurf (similar to dandruff). Its threat to eye health can be very severe, causing corneal damage if the eyes are not irrigated immediately. Sulfates can also trigger the formation of carcinogenic nitrosamines during the manufacturing process and in interactions with other nitrogen-bearing ingredients within the same formulation. Though experimental studies have found them to be independently non-carcinogenic, their ability to cause extreme epidermal mutations warrants further study.

In its final report on the safety of sodium lauryl sulfate, the Journal of the American College of Toxicology notes that this ingredient has a "degenerative effect on the cell membranes because of its protein-denaturing properties." Worse still, the journal reported that "high levels of skin penetration may occur at even low use concentration." This rapid absorption is worrisome since other studies have indicated that sodium lauryl sulfate can, after entering from the skin, leave residual levels in the heart, liver, lungs, and brain. Additional research suggests that sodium lauryl sulfate may be damaging to the immune system, particularly within the skin, causing skin layers to separate and inflame as proteins are denatured.

What should you look for instead? Unfortunately, many of the gentler detergents used in place of sulfates pose their own risks. These ethoxylated detergents, such as sodium laureth sulfate, cocamide DEA, and lauramide DEA (found under the terms PEG, polyethylene, -eth, or -oxynol) are frequently contaminated with a probable human carcinogen. The best alternatives to sulfates are coconut or sunflower extracts (decyl or lauryl glucosides) which gently froth. Glycerine and glucosides are derived from corn and sugar, and though they won't create the same level of lather, they will provide the same level of clean with less product. Your hair and the environment will thank you.

See also:

What is it: natural preservative alternatives to phenoxyethanol and parabens

Natural preservatives round-up

Estrogen in my face cream?

Ingredients to avoid according to You Being Beautiful

  • April 23, 2009

    by copley

    Thank you for that information, Susan. Parabens are certainly a controversial matter, but the jury is still out, like you said. Our hope is that more natural, less dicey preservatives will one day replace parabens and phenoxyethanol.

  • April 22, 2009

    by Susan

    I cut ( and pasted the following excerpt in response to the paraben dilemma. I have felt confused over this ongoing question to buy paraben-free. I still don't feel resolved over the issue.

    I am health-conscious and environmentally conscientious so I do take this matter seriously. Hannah, the founder of SkinActives raises some logical points. I would love to read comments from others.


    Parabens the Complete Story

    (note: our Canvas cream contains parabens, our European cream does not. We think both creams are great)

    I was not very keen in writing (for the 20th time?) about parabens, but the advertising campaigns by pressure groups are powerful enough to keep clients asking about them. At the risk of propagating the false information (apparently, when you answer a false claim, the original message is reinforced!) I am revisiting the subject yet again.
    Parabens are a group of the alkyl esters of p-hydroxybenzoic acid and include methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben, isobutylparaben and isopropylparaben. Some parabens are present in nature, e.g. methylparaben is found in blueberry.
    Parabens, or their salts, are widely used as preservatives in cosmetics, toiletries, and pharmaceuticals due to their relatively low toxicity and a long history of safe use.

    When it comes to the accusations made on parabens, they vary but mostly they are accused of disrupting our physiology (because they resemble estrogen) and causing cancer.

    1) They are estrogenic

    The "problem" boils down to receptors and signals. Estrogens are endogenous hormones which we need for our bodies to function nicely.

    The theory pushed by pressure groups is that synthetic chemicals like parabens mimic estrogens in structure and function, fooling our body into thinking they are actually estrogens and disrupting our physiology.

    To say that everything resembles everything else is a trivial and useless statement. What matters is how close the resemblance is, and in cases involving cellular receptors, this resemblance can be measured using affinity assays.

    Estrogens exert their influence through receptors located on the surface of the cells programmed to respond to them. The system works because the receptor and hormone "fit" each other, because of the shape and local electrical charges (or lack of them) of the areas of the proteins that will come into contact. When the receptor and hormone come into contact, a series of biochemical events starts which depend on what the receptor-hormone pair is.

    Even if a molecule does not fit the receptor, you can "push" the events by adding huge amounts of the chemical being tested. The lower the resemblance is, the lower the affinity and the higher the concentration that will be required to fool the receptor. Even if the chemical is very different from the hormone that fits it naturally, increasing the concentration enough can change the environment of the cell membrane in such a way that stuff will happen.

    Our normal diet contains natural chemicals with estrogenic activity that is orders of magnitude higher than that of synthetic estrogenic chemicals. Also, lifestyle choices can markedly change the concentrations of endogenous hormones. For example, fat tissue produces estrogen, and weight gain increases the risk of breast cancer.

    Some natural chemicals with estrogenic activity are anethole, apigenin, coumarin, estradiol (in hops, American ginseng), kaempferol (in onion, garlic, cabbage), naringenin (cashews, grapefruit).

    2) They cause cancer
    I think the idea is that parabens would cause cancer or promote the growth of tumors that respond to estrogen because of their estrogenic activity.
    A huge number of chemicals, natural and synthetic, can cause cancer when "piled" on the test animals in huge quantities. The question is whether those quantities have anything to do with normal life, because otherwise the concept of what is carcinogenic loses any meaning. In the words of Paracelsus (1493-1541, a.k.a. the father of toxicology), the poison is in the dose. Or "All things are poison and nothing is without poison, only the dose permits something not to be poisonous." Even water can be deadly if overconsumed.

    The danger of listening to pressure groups
    The pressure on the industry is pushing many companies to eliminate parabens, so that they can advertise a product as "parabens free".

    You may ask "what's the problem in that, better safe than sorry". But the need to use preservatives to prevent danger of infection by dangerous bacteria and molds remains unchanged. The result of is the very rapid introduction of new preservatives that do not have the safety record exhibited by parabens.

    The sunscreen scare led many people to stop using them, and who knows how many skin cancers have resulted from that. What can you expect from a "parabens-free" industry? Unknown side effects caused by preservatives introduced into the market in the rush to get rid of parabens, plus infections caused by products formulated with insufficient preservatives.

    Also of interest

    Bruce Ames and Lois Swirsky Gold. Paracelsus to Parascience: the environmental cancer distraction. Mutation Research/Fundamental and Molecular Mechanisms of Mutagenesis 447: 3-13.
    Find it here:

    Gilbert Ross (2006) A perspective on the safety of cosmetic products: a position paper of the American Council on Science and Health. International Journal of Toxicology, 25: 269-277.

    Jeffrey B Harborne (2001) 25 years of chemical ecology. Nat. Prod. Rep. 18: 361-379.
    Find it here:


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