What Are Parabens? 5 Facts to Consider About Their Potential Harm

Preservatives seem rather necessary to the safety of cosmetics, yet they’ve become quite a controversy over the past few years. Parabens are nowadays considered as bad ingredients, generating a buzz in the cosmetic industry. But what are parabens exactly and should you steer clear of them?

The debate has been building among cosmetic manufacturers, scientists, and product safety regulators, dividing them on the subject of parabens and their potential harm. We have used these ubiquitous chemicals for almost 70 years, so are they actually harmful to the health of cosmetic consumers? Parabens might not deserve their bad reputation, so let’s get on with some surprising facts.

what are parabens


What Are Parabens?

Parabens are a specific group of chemicals used predominantly as preservatives in cosmetics. They’re probably in every personal care product you own, from deodorants and shower gels to body creams and mascara. Their No. 1 purpose is to effectively prevent the growth of microorganisms in cosmetics.

Without preservatives like parabens, your toner, cleanser, foundation, or blush would become a teeming environment for bacteria, fungus, and mold. You would not be able to use them because these microorganisms are harmful to eyes, skin, and mucous membranes. Therefore, our premise is that parabens are not the enemy. Let’s dig a little deeper.

So Should We Avoid Parabens?

The one-word answer is no. This is not first time a media frenzy has made consumers confused about what they should feel and do about a particular subject. In spite of the buzz surrounding parabens, the global cosmetic regulatory organizations and the published studies are making the answer even clearer.

Fact#1 The small amounts of parabens used in personal care items do not pose a significant health risk. According to research, there is no legitimate reason for consumers to avoid cosmetics that contain parabens.

It turns out that parabens are fully metabolized before they enter the blood stream. Anything that the body metabolizes can then pass through the body with ease. A review of the estrogenic activity of parabens concluded that it was impossible for parabens to increase the risk associated with exposure to estrogenic chemicals. You heard that right: Impossible.

Harmless in Cosmetic Products

There are several common parabens found in cosmetic products. Isobutylparaben, butylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben, and methylparaben are just some of them. Following a 2004 research study (more about it below), the media mistakenly associated breast cancer with parabens. It turned out that metabolites (and not the parabens themselves) were detected in samples of breast cancer tissue.

But don’t jump to conclusions! After the public’s panic over parabens, the leading researcher of the 2004 study talked about the media-drawn connection between parabens and cancer. His statement was quite clear: “No claim was made that the presence of parabens had caused the breast cancers.” Even the author of the original research refutes the scare tactics that try to convince the public that parabens are bad ingredients.

Fact #2 In fact, the extensive global research that followed has demonstrated that the body has not trouble breaking down the parabens, metabolizing them and then harmlessly excreting them.

Another cause for suspicion, the media said, was that parabens are phytoestrogens. Phytoestrogens are known to produce a weak estrogenic effect on the body. However, the follow-up studies showed that the tiny levels of parabens in skin care have nothing on the other phytoestrogens that naturally occur in food.

Fact #3 According to in-vivo testing, the effect of parabens was 10,000 times weaker than the one of naturally occurring phytoestrogens. Foods and medicines we consume on a regular basis often contain phytoestrogens.

Parabens vs. “Natural” Ingredients

Our perception of plants vs synthetic ingredients can often cause a misguided understanding of the situation. Most of us think plants equal benign, while synthetic ingredients (often misbranded as “chemicals”) are always worthy of our suspicion. In reality, all ingredients are composed of chemicals, which changes the shift a bit.

Fact #4 Ironically, many “natural” brands that avoid parabens have to resort to using even more synthetic preservatives. The result is a flagrant contradiction to their own marketing, which leads us to think parabens aren’t quite the devil they’ve been portrayed to be.

Scientific Safety Assessments of Parabens

People made many claims about parabens without any reputable evidence. Obviously, public opinion should form around solid research. This can only be done with multiple large studies presenting repeatable evidence. In the case of parabens, this has yet to happen.

The American Cancer Society has showed that the 2004 study was not just misunderstood by the public, but it wasn’t even large enough to yield significant results. Researchers found just 20 samples that contained traces of parabens in breast cancer cells. At the same time, the study did not prove a cause-effect relationship between parabens and breast cancer in any way.

The ACS believes that breast cancer development is more likely to be related to the estrogens created by the body and those resulting from hormone replacement. Many everyday products contain parabens as preservatives. The 2004 study did not disclose the source of the parabens they found.

Fact #5 So far, studies have not proved any direct association between parabens and health problems. At this time, scientists are fairly confident in saying that parabens pose no clear health risks.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) also studied the effects of parabens in response to the concern over their potential link to breast cancer and estrogenic effect. Just like the ACS, the FDA found that, given the small amounts of parabens used in cosmetics, they are safe. They also said that the current scientific evidence gives consumers no reason to be concerned about the use of products containing parabens.

The Bottom Line?

The truth is that there is an exhaustive amount of scientific and medical studies that demonstrate the safety of parabens in skin care and cosmetic products. Therefore, think twice the next time you read a story that indicates how unsafe parabens are. Be a sensible consumer and remember the facts you’ve learned. You might be worse off trying all of the so-called “natural” cosmetics. So do a bit of research before you believe any media-generated buzz.

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William E. Eubanks

I'm one of the main writers on the site; mostly dealing with environmental news and ways to live green. My goal is to educate others about this great planet, and the ways we can help to protect it.

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