What Are Parabens?
Parabens are chemical preservatives that are used in food, cosmetics, and skincare products in order to prevent the growth of bacteria in those products. Without preservatives products are very susceptible to contamination. Not only are parabens the most commonly used preservative in skincare products, they also have the best safety record when it comes to preservatives, and have been used since the 1920s in skincare products. Parabens are found in very low levels in skincare products, from 0.01% to 0.3%, and usually a combination of preservatives are used in order to provide the best protection from bacteria, mold, and fungi. But the safety of a few parabens – methylparaben, propylparaben, and butylparaben – have been called into question.
The Controversy Over Parabens
In recent years concerns have arisen over parabens. The concerns include that parabens may cause allergic reactions, disrupt our body’s hormones (parabens are said to mimic estrogen in the body), and even contribute to breast cancer. Theoretically it is thought that parabens build up in our bodies over time since so many products contain them. Even if a given product contains just a small amount of parabens it is thought that this is enough over time to contribute to significant health problems.
In regards to allergic reactions there are actually “natural” preservatives that are more likely to cause allergic reactions than parabens. These include Vitamin E, tea tree oil, thyme essential oil, and phenoxyethanol. If you do think that parabens are causing your allergic reaction than a dermatologist can do a patch test to check.
The greater concern over the use of parabens has to do with a link between parabens and breast cancer. Starting in 2002 a number of studies looked into a possible link between underarm deodorants with parabens and breast cancer. Though some of the studies found that there were high concentrations of parabens in human breast cancer tumors there has never been a conclusive link between parabens and cancer. These studies for instance did not look at paraben levels in normal, non-cancer, tissues in order to offer a comparison. In 2005 a study concluded that there was no way that the maximum daily exposure to parabens could increase one’s risk of cancer.
In 1984, 2003, and 2005 the Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR), an industry-sponsored organization which reviews cosmetic ingredient safety and publishes its results in open, peer-reviewed literature, investigated the safety of parabens. All three times the CIR concluded that parabens were safe as long as they did not constitute more than 25% of a product’s content. Once again let me point out that parabens are found in levels ranging from 0.01% to 0.3% in skincare products. Additionally, the FDA has determined that parabens are safe for use in cosmetic products.
How To Determine If The Product You Have Has Parabens
Parabens are actually very easy to identify on your skincare product label since they all end with “paraben”. You’ll find them at the very bottom of the list of ingredients. Skincare products that are paraben-free usually list that somewhere on the front of their label. If you do choose to go the paraben free route keep in mind that these products will spoil quicker than those with chemical preservatives in them. Look for expiration dates, and if the product doesn’t have an expiration date call the manufacturer (by law the manufacturer’s phone number must be on the label) to find out the product’s shelf life.
Sources and Further Reading
- Are Preservatives Safe in Skin Care? Dr. Leslie Baumann The Skin Guru Yahoo! Health April 9, 2009
- Are Paraben Free Beauty Products Safer? New Beauty Winter-Spring 2009, pages 56-60
- Cosmetic Ingredient Review website . Look up ingredients individually to see the CIR’s findings.
- FDA’s article about parabens
- What Are Parabens? Real Simple February 2010