We've all seen ads proclaiming that a skincare product is "free-from" some particular ingredient: a brilliant scare tactic that implies that the product is now safer because it is "free-from" that particular ingredient. Let's take the commonly used, most studied class of preservatives called parabens, for example.
To prevent contamination, all water-based products (which include the vast majority of facial and body moisturizers) require a preservative. Without one, mold and bacteria spoils the product in less than two weeks.
Stories in the media accuse parabens of having negative health effects, of being harmful endocrine disrupting chemicals. Yes, parabens may have estrogenic activity. But their estrogenic activity is magnitudes weaker that the natural phytoestrogens found in soy products, flaxseed, and tomatoes - foods we consume every day. Fact is, parabens have not been proven to be toxic in human beings when used in approved doses of less than 1%.
A poorly designed 2014 British study found parabens in breast tumor tissue samples. The author herself clarified that the study never concluded that the parabens caused the tumors. Media and consumer advocacy groups created a firestorm, perpetuating this erroneous conclusion. Fake news! A completely unnecessary consumer demand for paraben-free products was born.
But the one important question remains, one that consumers are unlikely to even think to ask. What alternative preservative is being used in those skincare products that are "free-from" parabens? Has the paraben preservative been replaced with DMDM Hydantoin, a formaldehyde-releasing preservative (not terrible unless you have an allergy to it or are eczema-prone)? Or is phenoxyethanol or iodopropynl butylcarbamate being used? The safety of these chemicals is not as well documented at that of parabens as they are all less studied alternatives.
A skincare product with "free-from" on the label may tell you what's NOT in the product, but it says nothing about the safety of the product. Don't be fooled!