Paraben Paranoia: The Truth About This Cosmetic Preservative

Are your favorite beauty products a cause for concern? It depends who you ask. Here’s what you should know about the paraben debate.

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You’re strolling through the cosmetics aisle picking up essentials like shampoo and body lotion as well as some new makeup to play with: a brighter foundation and new palette of eyeshadow colors. As you reach for the products to test them on your skin, you noticing something. Some of the products have large labels on their packaging proclaiming that they are “paraben free.” But what is a paraben, anyway? You may have heard phrases like “no parabens” and “no dyes” in commercials, but unless you pay a lot of attention to the news around chemicals, you may not know that parabens are preservatives used in many beauty products. BPA (bisphenol A, a chemical that is contained in some plastics) has become a household name since it was discovered to have harmful health effects. Parabens, it seems, are following a similar path toward infamy, although many people still aren’t 100 percent sure what they are. Your skin is your largest organ, and anything that you put on it is absorbed into your body. Just like you want to know what you’re putting in your body when it comes to the food you eat, it’s critical to know what you’re putting on your body when selecting cosmetics and beauty products. Knowing what ingredients are in your cosmetics is an important first step. Some people say there is a paraben paranoia and that consumers are needlessly avoiding these additives. Others say that the caution is well founded. We’ve got the facts about parabens for you, so that the next time you’re in the beauty aisle you can make an informed decision that is right for you and your family.

What are parabens?

Parabens are artificial chemical compounds that are used as preservatives in cosmetics and foods. They are mainly found in health and beauty products, where they are used in things like lotion, sunscreen, shaving cream, foundation, lipstick, and even toothpaste.     The companies that manufacture these products use parabens because the compounds can keep bacteria and fungi from developing, thereby keeping the products fresh for longer according to Ronald Citron, a product developer who has formulated everything from cosmetics to cleaning products. He explains the complex science in lay terms: “A paraben is an antimicrobial used to fight the growth of molds and certain bacteria in cosmetic and some food products.” Of course, no one wants mold or fungus in their beauty products, so it makes sense that a preservative would have to be used. Unfortunately, in the case of parabens, the preservatives might pose a bigger risk than the problem they are supposed to be solving.

A Long History and a Troubled Present

Parabens are not a new innovation in the cosmetic industry. In fact, they have been used for about 80 years to preserve food and beauty products. Since parabens were developed in the 1930s, their use has become pervasive. A study published in the journal Skin Therapy Letter, whose audience is primarily skincare professionals, found that parabens are used in about 44 percent of cosmetics, including everything from hand soap to hair spray. Many proponents of parabens point to their long history of use as evidence of their safety. After all, if they were causing health concerns, people argue, we would have figured it out decades ago. One organization that says that parabens are safe is the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which decides what chemicals are banned from foods, medicines, and cosmetics in the United States. According the the FDA, cosmetic ingredients do not need to have approval before they go on the market, which means that chemicals like parabens don’t have to be proven to be safe before beauty products containing them reach the shelves. The FDA does have the ability to ban substances that have conclusively been shown to be harmful, but this isn’t always easy to do, according to the FDA website. “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,” the FDA’s site explains. The agency hasn’t banned parabens, which means that it has not seen conclusive evidence that the additives are harmful. However, there has been enough public concern that the FDA dedicated an entire page to addressing the public’s paraben concerns. The section of the page titled “Are parabens safe as they’re used in cosmetics? Are they linked to breast cancer or other health problems?” reads:

FDA scientists continue to review published studies on the safety of parabens. At this time, we do not have information showing that parabens as they are used in cosmetics have an effect on human health. …FDA will continue to evaluate new data in this area. If we determine that a health hazard exists, we will advise the industry and the public, and will consider the agency’s legal options … to protect the health and welfare of consumers.

But other government agencies have taken a different stance. In 2014, the European Commission banned five types of parabens in the European Union and set limits on the concentrations allowable for other parabens. “We have shown once again that the safety of consumers is paramount in every decision we take. Preservatives in cosmetics serve a valuable function ensuring that the products we use on a daily basis are free from pathogens. We need however to ensure that the preservatives guarantee the maximum degree of protection. With these measures consumers can be reassured that their cosmetics are safe,” Neven Mimica, European Commissioner for Consumer Policy, said in a 2014 press release.

What are the health concerns around parabens?

The FDA doesn’t consider parabens harmful, but the European Union has moved to ban them. So what are health concerns that have gotten so many people so worked up? It turns out there are quite a few. One of the relatively minor health concerns around parabens is that a significant portion of people are allergic to them. Citron, the product developer, said that he stopped using parabens in cosmetic products because 5 to 15 percent of the population is allergic. That sensitivity can present itself as itching, redness, and other skin conditions. This is why cosmetics companies often advise people to test a product on a small patch of their skin before applying over a larger area. The big concern about parabens is much more sinister than allergic reactions, however. Parabens have been found to act as endocrine disruptors, throwing the body’s hormone regulation systems out of whack. “These are substances that interrupt the signals your body needs to regulate hormones including reproductive hormones,” says Tara Nayak, a naturopathic doctor.   A recent study found that parabens may “have more endocrine disrupting effects than previously thought.” The researchers found that exposure to the paraben butylparaben caused issues in the reproductive systems of male and female rats, reducing sperm quality and producing changes to the rats’ ovaries and breasts.     study published in 2010 found that few parabens could be detected in blood and urine. However, the study cautioned that the chemicals still could be affecting our bodies even after they are metabolized and broken down. Paraben metabolites may play a role in the endocrine disruption seen in experimental animals and studies are needed to determine human levels of parabens and metabolites,” the study’s authors wrote.

Is there a cancer concern?

Many people are concerned about the potential cancer-causing effects of parabens. They have been associated particularly closely with breast cancer. But what does the science say? There are a few reasons that parabens have been associated with cancer. One is the fact that these compounds are endocrine disruptors and are known to affect the levels of reproductive hormones in our bodies. “An imbalance of reproductive hormones can definitely put someone at a higher risk for certain cancers,” says Nayak. Parabens are also xenoestrogens, meaning that they mimic the hormone estrogen in the body, according to holistic practitioner Joelle Cafaro. “Too much estrogen can cause breast and ovarian cancer as well as produce female characteristics in males,” she says. According to the American Cancer Society, intake of parabens is a “possible concern.” “Estrogen is a female hormone known to cause breast cells (both normal and cancerous) to grow and divide,” the society writes on its website. “And some conditions that increase the body’s exposure to estrogen (like not having children, late menopause, obesity, etc.) have been linked to an increased risk of breast cancer. Therefore, being exposed to chemicals that mimic estrogen could possibly increase your cancer risk. This connection was taken more seriously after one study found parabens in breast cancer tumors, but that study did not show whether parabens contributed to the tumors’ growth, according to the American Cancer Society. The American Cancer Society is clear that the science is still inconclusive about a connection between parabens and cancer. “So far, studies have not shown any direct link between parabens and any health problems, including breast cancer. There are also many other compounds in the environment that mimic naturally produced estrogen,” the society writes.

Should you avoid parabens?

Given all the conflicting and inconclusive evidence about the health impact of parabens, it might be a good idea to avoid products containing parabens, at least until the science can tell us more. “Since the safety of parabens has not been proven or disproven, I ?recommend?? using products that are paraben free until more definitive answers are found,” Cafaro says. “Paraben-free products are not difficult to find and many name brand products are labeled paraben free.” The effects of parabens are thought to build up over time according to Nayak, so even taking steps to reduce your exposure could be beneficial. “If your detoxification system is already taxed, it may be harder to deal with substances like parabens,” she says. Nayak does not believe that parabens are the sole cause of cancer or any other health issues, but she says that being mindful of your exposure is generally a healthy practice. That’s why she limits her own exposure to parabens. “Parabens may be a piece to the puzzle, therefore it’s worth cutting them out as a part of a plan to clean up [dietary] and environmental exposures in general,” she says. When it comes to eliminating parabens, pay particularly close attention to products like sunscreen and body lotion that you apply in large quantities. Also, be aware of other products that may contain parabens. Although they are most commonly found in cosmetics, they can also be found in food and even antibacterial cleaning products.

Does paraben free really mean safe?

Cutting our exposure to chemicals can be a very daunting process. It’s tempting to just reach for products that proclaim that they are paraben free. But skincare expert Janice Rosenthal warns there could be other nasty and dangerous chemicals hiding behind paraben-free proclamations. “The public alarm about the effects of parabens has created a new audience of buyers with above-average awareness of the dangers of parabens,” she says. “Sadly, however, the press has not publicized the dangers of other chemical preservatives. This lack of information has led to the consumer being lulled into a false sense of security when using ‘paraben-free’ skincare or haircare products.” In fact, paraben-free products can use formaldehyde and other harsh chemicals as preservatives, Rosenthal says. “Essentially, making the change to all-natural products is the only way to go if you are serious about protecting your health,” Rosenthal says. Cafaro suggests switching from mainstream brands to natural brands found in health and natural food stores. “Look for products that are preservative free or that use an alternative preservative such as vitamin C (ascorbic acid) and vitamin E (tocopheryl acetate),” she says. Choosing a cosmetic routine that meets your needs is hard enough, and incorporating a commitment to avoid common chemicals can seem like a lot of work. However, minimizing your exposure to these chemicals definitely won’t harm you, and it could have positive long-term impacts on your health. So the next time you’re in the cosmetics aisle, take a few extra minutes to find products that are either preservative free or use all-natural preservatives. Doing so will allow you to rest a little easier and enjoy your makeup and skincare products to the fullest, knowing your beauty routine isn’t putting your health at risk.

Kelly Burch
Kelly Burch is a freelance journalist who has written for The Washington Post, Cosmo, and more. She specializes in health and mental health content as well as stories about families. When she's not writing she is getting lost in the woods of New Hampshire, where she lives. Connect on Facebook or find out more at her website.