Are Parabens Really Safe to Use?
Parabens have attracted a lot of negative attention lately. You’ll find paraben-free products throughout the skincare, hair care, and makeup aisles.
But, what exactly are parabens? And what’s so bad about them that their absence is worth calling out?
Here, we’ll dive into why parabens are in so many products to begin with, as well as why some people and companies avoid them altogether.Shop Clean, Vegan Beauty Products
What are parabens?
Parabens belong to a group of man-made chemicals that are used as preservatives in a wide array of cosmetic products. Simply put, they help extend a product’s shelf life so that the moisturizer on the shelf isn’t actually a pot of plant oils and butters festering with harmful bacteria. Nobody wants that.
In chemical terms, parabens are a series parahydroxybenzoates, or esters of parahydroxybenzoic acid. In addition to fighting off microorganisms, they also help keep active ingredients stable. The parabens used in skincare, cosmetic, and personal care products are synthetic, but they mimic a chemical that exists in nature. Some plants, including blueberries, carrots, cucumbers, olives, and strawberries, produce natural parabens, presumably due to their antimicrobial properties.
Since the 1950s, parabens have been the industry’s preservative of choice in both luxury and drugstore beauty markets. Part of the reason is that they are cheap to produce. Plus, parabens are versatile and therefore able to be used in different types of product formulas. The most common parabens are butylparaben, methylparaben, ethylparaben, and propylparaben.
Are parabens dangerous to human health?
Obviously, keeping cosmetic products safe from harmful microorganisms is important. But, just like triclosan, a preservative used in soaps and detergents, parabens’ safety is under scrutiny. So just how safe are they to use on our skin? Sadly, there is no clear answer.
One of the biggest concerns about parabens is that the chemicals have the potential to act like estrogen, which is associated with the development of breast cancer. One study of 20 patients found traces of parabens in breast cancer tissue in 19 women. While this shows that the preservatives can be absorbed into our bodies, there was no conclusive evidence linking parabens to an increased risk for breast cancer.
Only about two percent of people have a paraben allergy, but it can cause allergic contact dermatitis—redness, rashes, hives, flaking, itchy skin—in those that have one. Research suggests that parabens could negatively impact the role of testosterone in prenatal male development.
But the suggested risk is enough that more consumers are boycotting parabens, making way for the rise of cosmetics labeled “paraben-free.”
Are parabens bad for the environment?
A growing body of evidence suggests that parabens may be bad for the environment, too.
Studies have found parabens in urban streams, rivers, drinking water, and agricultural soil at low levels. One study found parabens in eight species of marine mammals collected from coastal waters in Florida, California, Washington, and Alaska. But further research is needed to better understand the impact that this could have on the planet and animals.
Do any countries ban parabens?
According to the Food and Drug Administration, parabens are safe to use as a preservative in cosmetics. But, if strong evidence indicates the ingredient is a consumer health hazard, then it’s possible that it could be banned.
Five types of parabens are banned in the EU—isopropylparaben, isobutylparaben, phenylparaben, benzylparaben, and pentylparaben—while there is a maximum cap of 8 grams per kilogram of cosmetic product.
What products contain parabens?
Parabens are cheap and versatile, thus they are present in an array of cosmetic products and personal care items, including makeup, sunscreen, hair care, moisturizers, serums, deodorants, shaving products, toothpaste, and body wash.
But parabens aren’t limited to the beauty market. The food industry uses them for their antimicrobial effects, too, in products such as candies, cereals, beer, jams, pickles, and soft drinks. They are also frequently used as a preservative in topical dermatological medications.
How to avoid parabens
If you’d prefer to avoid parabens in light of the safety concerns, you’re not alone. Here at Kinder Beauty and other clean beauty sellers, parabens are banned outright. Thankfully, since it’s become a selling point in recent years, paraben-free products are also becoming more common in stores. Most companies will state that their product is paraben-free right on the front of the bottle whereas, with others, you might need to read the ingredients. In this case, keep an eye out for anything with the suffix “-paraben.”Shop Paraben-free Beauty Products
Are paraben-free products safe to use? Yes, as long as you listen to the expiration date on the packaging. An opened and used product that’s past its prime may harbor bad bacteria, plus it may be dried out and less effective when used. You may also want to opt for moisturizers packaged in bottles with pumps, rather than pots or jars, as your fingers could transfer bacteria to the product. (Of course, you should always wash your hands thoroughly before using a product that you dip your digits into.) Some natural products will indicate that the product is best used within a certain window of its production date, and this should be listened to, too.
There are natural alternatives to parabens. Sodium benzoate, which is widely used as a pickling agent, can help extend the shelf-life of skincare and beauty products. Research shows that certain essential oils and plant extracts have antimicrobial potential, but their use in cosmetics remains challenging.
However, the beauty industry is always advancing, so down the line, it’s possible that parabens will be replaced by an ingredient that’s safer for people, the planet, and marine mammals.
Parabens are used as a preservative in a wide array of cosmetic products, helping to prevent the growth of mold and bacteria. There is mounting evidence that they may have adverse effects on human health and the planet, but for now, they remain legal in the US, with some limitations in the EU.
Due to this growing concern surrounding this type of preservative, avoiding them to be safe is easier than ever thanks to the rise of paraben-free products and retailers that completely eschew the ingredients.
Kat Smith is a New York City-based writer and editor who loves digging deep into sustainable fashion, beauty, food, and other lifestyle-related topics.
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