How synthetic preservatives harm the environment
Synthetic preservatives are essential chemicals found in products that contain large amounts of water to stop the growth of mould and bacteria. Most liquid personal care products are usually between 60-95% water with a smidge of active ingredients. That means there's a whole lot of synthetic preservatives being washed down our drains every single day.
Which synthetic preservatives are most commonly used?
Popular synthetic preservatives in cosmetics and personal care items include:
- BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole)
- BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene)
Do synthetic preservatives have any health side effects?
Yes, lots! A number of synthetic preservatives have been banned in certain countries due to their carcinogenic and toxic properties. However, regulating and testing cosmetics is a tricky thing for governments to stay on top of - especially with products available from other countries being sold online.
Parabens have fallen out of favour with consumers due to a study that found concentrations of methylparaben in breast tumours. While this research didn't prove that parabens can cause cancer, it lead to many buyers looking for products without paraben preservatives. The U.N. Environment Programme has identified parabens as endocrine-disrupting chemicals.
Isothiazolinone was named the 2013 Allergen of the Year. Methylisothiazolinone has been credited with causing an epidemic of allergic contact dermatitis.
Phenoxyethanol has taken the place of parabens after they became an unpopular additive. Phenoxyethanol may cause central nervous system damage in infants so it's advised to avoid if you're pregnant, breastfeeding or using the product on babies and toddlers.
Formaldehyde isn't just used to embalm dead bodies but as a preservative in liquid personal care products too. It's officially listed as a carcinogen.
Butylated hydroxyanisole is a synthetic antioxidant. It’s used to preserve lipsticks and moisturisers. BHA is listed as a possible human carcinogen and endocrine disruptor.
Butylated hydroxytoluene is also a cosmetic synthetic preservative, similar to BHA. Long-term exposure to high doses of BHT is toxic in mice and rats causing liver, lung, thyroid and kidney problems. BHT can also act as a tumour promoter in certain situations.
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Do synthetic preservatives have environmental impacts?
Again, yes, lots!
Parabens have been linked to ecological harm. Low levels of butylparaben can kill coral, according to laboratory tests. Parabens have been detected in surface waters, fish and sediments. A number of chlorinated paraben byproducts can form when parabens are combined with chlorinated tap water.
According to data from the European Union Ecolabel program, isothiazolinone is a substance that has high chronic toxicity to aquatic life.
Phthalates may pose risks to natural ecosystems. Some phthalates are bioaccumulative and have been detected in aquatic organisms. Certain phthalates have been shown to be toxic to aquatic organisms and may cause long-term adverse effects in aquatic environments. Studies suggest phthalates may have endocrine-disrupting effects in fish. This means birds and mammals (including humans) may suffer impacts from food chain exposure.
Formaldehyde is at least readily biodegradable. However, EPA testing shows it has moderate acute toxicity to aquatic life.
Butylated hydroxyanisole is listed as a chemical of potential concern under the Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North-East Atlantic. This is due to its toxicity to aquatic organisms and potential to bioaccumulate.
Butylated hydroxytoluene is classed by the United Nations Environment Program assessment to have a moderate to high potential for bioaccumulation in aquatic species.
The easiest way to avoid synthetic preservatives is to stop paying for water. Products that have little to no water usually don't need synthetic preservatives to stop mould from growing. You can add the water yourself when you need to and avoid synthetic preservatives all together.