What Are Parabens & Why Are We So Afraid of Them?

What are parabens, and why are they used in cosmetics?

Parabens are a family of related chemicals that are commonly used as preservatives in cosmetic products. Preservatives may be used in cosmetics to prevent the growth of harmful bacteria and mold, in order to protect both the products and consumers.

The parabens used most commonly in cosmetics are methylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben, and ethylparaben.

Product ingredient labels typically list more than one paraben in a product, and parabens are often used in combination with other types of preservatives to better protect against a broad range of microorganisms.

What kinds of products contain parabens?

Parabens are used in a wide variety of cosmetics, as well as in foods and drugs. Cosmetics that may contain parabens include makeup, moisturizers, hair care products, and shaving products, among others. Many major brands of deodorants do not currently contain parabens, although some may.

Cosmetics sold to consumers in stores or online must have a list of ingredients, each listed by its common or usual name. This is important information for consumers who want to find out whether a product contains an ingredient they wish to avoid. Parabens are usually easy to identify by their name, such as methylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben, or ethylparaben.

Does FDA regulate the use of preservatives in cosmetics?

FDA doesn’t have special rules that apply only to preservatives in cosmetics. The law treats preservatives in cosmetics the same as other cosmetic ingredients.

Under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FD&C Act), cosmetic products and ingredients, other than color additives, do not need FDA approval before they go on the market.

However, it is against the law to market a cosmetic in interstate commerce if it is adulterated or misbranded. This means, for example, that cosmetics must be safe for consumers when used according to directions on the label or in the customary way, and they must be properly labeled.

FDA can take action against a cosmetic on the market that does not comply with the laws we enforce. However, to take action against a cosmetic for safety reasons, we must have reliable scientific information showing that the product is harmful when consumers use it according to directions on the label or in the customary way.

Why are parabens thought to be bad for us?

While the FDA continues to conduct research regarding the effects of various Parbens on our health, other organizations have conducted their own studies to come up with the following conclusions.

‘Parabens allow products to survive for months, even years, in our bathroom cabinet; however when you use these products, they can also enter your body through your skin’, explains Tom Oliver, Nutritionist & Personal Trainer.

In 2004, a British study found traces of five parabens in the breast tissue of 19 out of 20 women studied. The study didn’t prove that parabens can cause cancer but identified that the parabens were able to penetrate the skin and remain within tissue.

Parabens are believed to disrupt hormone function by mimicking oestrogen. Too much oestrogen can trigger an increase in breast cell division and growth of tumours, which is why paraben use has been linked to breast cancer and reproductive issues.

Why are parabens bad for the environment?

Parabens aren’t just bad for humans, they impact the environment too. ‘A scientific study reported that parabens have been found for the first time in the bodies of marine mammals’, reveals Tom, ‘Researchers believe that it is likely these parabens come from products we use that are washed into the sewage system and released into the environment.’

So we should stop using parabens ASAP, right? 

Don’t panic. It’s important to note that the percentage of preservative in a formulation is generally very small.

‘It’s difficult to say if parabens are categorically “bad” for us,’ says Michelle, ‘but there are many other preservatives now available so it’s no longer necessary to use them. 

‘Manufacturers are creating new and effective preservatives all the time so there is a greater choice currently available.’

Some people assume that paraben-free and natural products are simply not as effective. ‘Paraben is cheap to mass-market,’ explains Tom, ‘but there are so many synthetic-free products on the market that are just as effective, I don’t see the need of using artificial ingredients which can cause irritation and stress, especially to sensitive skin types.’

The conclusion? Make an educated decision about what you put on your skin.

The term ‘paraben-free’ isn’t always the final answer. 

Tom warns that we should remain sceptical. ‘Although it looks as though many beauty companies are responding to the public’s concerns about parabens, some may be merely “greenwashing” – a term used when a “paraben-free” company markets themselves as a natural alternative, when in fact they contain other synthetic ingredients that may cause harm or irritation to the skin.’

In general, never take marketing and adverts at face value. With so much information available, it’s easy to educate ourselves on the label content of our beauty products. 

For an approved preservative listing, refer to ECOCERT – a certification body for the development of standards in natural and organic cosmetics.

FDA article
ELLE article
Paula’s Choice article
EWG article

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