What’s the Deal With Sulfates, Parabens and 5-Free Nail Polishes

by Kristen Kerstner
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Sulfates and parabens are not new terms, and yet, other than knowing they are bad, you probably know very little about these chemicals everyone seems to be talking about. Most likely, you own a handful of products that proudly display “sulfate-free,” and “paraben-free” labels, and these labels are what have led you to knowingly nod when anyone in your general vicinity utters either of these names. Here is a somewhat simplified explanation of some of the chemicals you’ve heard of, but that you may not actually know anything about.

Parabens and 5-Free Nail Polishes - Fresh Print

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In the simplest terms, sulfates are a salt or a compound of sulphuric acid. They are used as cleansers and can be found in most hair and skin care products.

Why they have a bad rep:

There is a laundry list of reasons why sulfates are chemicals to avoid, starting with the claim that they are so good at cleaning that they are responsible for stripping the colour from dyed hair. They are also said to be the components in your cleansers that are causing your skin irritation, and that they may lead to hair loss. The most serious claims would be that they can cause cancer, cataracts, as well as kidney and liver failure.

Things to Consider:

There is very little research, if any, to support these claims. Heating tools, the sun, and water can all be responsible for stripping the colour for your hair, and since sulfates can be found in most shampoos, it seems a bit unlikely that they are alone responsible for hair loss. As far as skin irritation goes, products that effect your friend won’t necessarily effect you. Just like anything else, you have to test your tolerance to different products to find what works for you.

Parabens and 5-Free Nail Polishes - Fresh Print

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Parabens are generally used as a preservative in cosmetic and hair care products, the most commonly used ones being methylparaben, butylparaben, and propylparaben. Canada doesn’t have any restriction on the use of parabens, and in addition to being used as preservatives, they are also used (usually undisclosed) as an ingredient in many perfumes and body sprays.

Why they have a bad rep:

Like sulfates, parabens are also said to be cancer-causing. Paraben compounds mimic estrogen and in high doses can potentially alter your body’s hormone production. Parabens are also potentially responsible for some cases of testicular cancer and lowering sperm counts, and they  may also lead to early aging of your skin.

Things to consider:

In addition to cosmetics, parabens can also be found in food, and according to the Breast Cancer Fund, “parabens have been found in almost all urine samples examined from demographically diverse samples of U.S. adults.” They are easily absorbed into our skin, and you will find them in most of the products you use every day. They are basically impossible to eliminate from your life, but if you are looking for parabens in any of your beauty products, you’ll find them towards the end of the list of ingredients. Remember that despite these claims, a lot more research has to go into this before anyone can definitively say whether parabens are really harmful or not.

Parabens and 5-Free Nail Polishes - Fresh Print

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5-Free Nail Polish:

I don’t know about you, but seeing “5-Free” products on the market was something entirely new to me, but this is potentially the next thing everyone will make a big deal out of. I’m sure if “5- free” were seen as more than just a nail polish issue we’d probably hear more about it, but over the past few years 3-Free nail polishes started hitting the shelves. 3-Free nail polishes are free of dibutyl phthalate (DBP), toluene, and formaldehyde, and now with 5-Free nail polishes you can now add formaldehyde resin and camphor to the list. 

Why they have a bad rep:

Formaldehyde and formaldehyde resin function as a nail strengthener, but unfortunately formaldehyde resin is an allergen that can cause inflammation. Camphor is a natural ingredient, but in large doses can cause dizziness, nausea, and headaches, and can also be toxic.

Things to consider:

Okay, you may not have known the names of all the chemicals that are in your collection of nail polish, but you probably knew they weren’t the most natural things. The three chemicals excluded from 3-Free formulas are often referred to as the “toxic trio,” and yet people are probably more likely to worry about picking up sulfate free soap than they are likely to worry about the chemicals in their nail polish.

If you think about it, we use and do things that are bad for us all the time. Most people don’t know about 3- or 5- free nail polishes because we know there are chemicals in nail polish, and we don’t care. Soaps, shampoos and lotions on the other hand are constantly marketed to us as things that are natural, or at least have natural elements, including things like fruits, coconut, or shea butter. The list goes on. The point isn’t that you shouldn’t care that these chemicals are in your everyday products, but rather that you should be aware of your own reaction to these products, as well as the beauty industry’s part in making you feel like you should be buying “sulfate free” and “paraben free” products. Products that don’t have these ingredients don’t necessarily make them any more natural, and in most cases these chemicals are just being replaced with different ones. For now, the jury seems to be out on whether these chemicals are really that bad for you, so make sure to stay informed and aware of your body.

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