Parabens – what are they and what’s all the fuss

Parabens have shot to the top of the beauty community’s consciousness seemingly out of nowhere over the past few years.  It’s a chemical that is in the vast majority of beauty and personal care products, which is why a lot of people are concerned over its effects.

What are parabens?  Parabens are preservatives widely used in beauty and personal care products.  They often appear on the ingredients label as methylparaben, propylparaben, and butylparaben, and there’s typically more than one in a product.  Manufacturers have also come up with names for combination of parabens (example – phenonip is a blend of five different parabens and phenoxyethanol).  Preservatives are used in products that have a significant amount of water to prevent microbial growth, thus prolonging the shelf life of a product and preserving the integrity of the product for a longer period.

What’s the controversy?  Parabens have been found in breast tumors.  They disrupt hormone function by mimicking estrogen and binding to estrogen receptors on cells.  Additionally, they increase the expression of genes regulated by a form of estrogen, and those genes have been shown to cause human breast tumor cells to grow.  (Read more here.)  However, the amount in each product is said to be safe.  From the FDA website:

 The Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) reviewed the safety of methylparaben, propylparaben, and butylparaben in 1984 and concluded they were safe for use in cosmetic products at levels up to 25%. Typically parabens are used at levels ranging from 0.01 to 0.3%. (Link)

What’s all the fuss?   So, if parabens occur in such low levels in products, what’s the big deal?  We’ve been using products with parabens our entire lives (parabens are in baby lotions and other baby products) and continue to use a bevy of products with parabens daily.  The incidence of breast cancer has been on the rise.  However, there has been no conclusive link between the use of beauty/personal care products with parabens to breast cancer, so the jury is still out.

What’s the takeaway?   The choice to avoid products with parabens is an individual one.  There are increasingly more beauty and personal care products on the market that are marketed as paraben-free, so we as consumers can more easily make the choice to go paraben-free or more natural.

I haven’t cut out every product with parabens, but for skincare  products such as shampoo/conditioner, soap, body lotion, sunscreen, lip balm, etc. – essentially products that sit on the skin directly – I try to go paraben free.  Categories I’m working on transitioning over to be paraben-free are foundations and tinted moisturizers – again, products that sit on the skin and get absorbed.  There is talk that if manufacturers don’t use parabens as preservatives, they will find another preservative to use, which could potentially be hazardous to our health.  To make the choice easier, I just try to find brands that avoid parabens completely and are entirely in the natural skincare/personal care space and start from there.

What do you think about this?  Are you trying to go paraben free?  

One comment

  1. Mimi

    wow this is great info! I had no idea that parabens are linked to breast cancer. I’m still trying to use organic products – I actually like my Rahua hair spray altho it is a very mild hold…

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