Parabens are the most widely used preservatives in cosmetic products. They are used to prevent the growth of fungi and bacteria, to preserve products and greatly extend their shelf life.
Parabens are several distinct chemicals with a similar molecular structure. The four that appear frequently in cosmetics are:
Typically, more than one paraben is used in a product, and they are often used in combination with other types of preservatives. The mixed use of parabens allows manufacturers to use them at lower levels while increasing preservative quality. Methylparaben and propylparaben are the most common of these, each appearing in well over 10,000 of the 25,000 products according to the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Database.
Parabens appear mostly in personal care products that contain significant amounts of water, such as shampoos, conditioners, lotions, facial and shower cleansers and scrubs, However, most major brands of deodorants and antiperspirants do not currently contain parabens.
There is an ongoing debate about the use of parabens and the harm they may,or may not, cause. Some studies indicate that they have been linked to cancer, endocrine disruption, reproductive toxicity, immune-toxicity, neurotoxicity and skin irritation. Of greatest concern is that parabens are known to disrupt hormone function, an effect that is linked to increased risk of breast cancer and reproductive toxicity.
Other studies, such as the one conducted by the Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR), determined that parabens 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%).
Of concern to many is the lack of data on the cumulative effect of multiple parabens in a single product, or for exposure to parabens from several products by a single individual.
Most scientists agree that there is no endocrine- disrupting effect from the use of parabens in cosmetic and personal care products because their ‘estrogen action’ (hormone function) is so weak. In fact, it is 10,000 times weaker than the most potent phytoestrogens (plant estrogens) and 100,000 times less potent than estradiol (the estrogen produced naturally by the body).
What Should You Do?
At this time, the U.S. FDA (Food and Drug Administration) has stated that parabens are safe for use in cosmetics and that there is no reason for consumers to be concerned about the use of cosmetics containing parabens. However, the agency has stated that they continue to evaluate new data in this area. If the FDA determines that a health hazard exists, the agency will advise the industry and the public, and will consider its legal options under the authority of the FD&C Act in protecting the health and welfare of consumers.
In the meantime, there is a definite movement by some cosmetic manufacturers to exclude the use of parabens in the formulation of many common products. Cosmetic manufacturers, particularly those in the natural/organic sector, are seeking effective alternatives to prevent microbial growth in personal care products.
Another approach is to sell products with a shorter shelf life. Companies are either testing new product formulations, or have created ‘Paraben-Free’ products with a shelf life of six months to one full year. The shorter shelf-life appears to be a great solution for now given that most products we use on a daily basis – your favorite lotion, face wash or shampoo – are likely to be used up long before the expiration date.
And so the debate goes on. If you are concerned about parabens, seek out the growing number of ‘Paraben-Free’ products, organic or natural products (these should not have any parabens present), or products containing low levels of parabens – levels ranging from 0.01% to 0.3% – and no more than 25%.
- 10 Paraben-Free Skin Care Products For Soft, Safe Skin (treehugger.com)
- Parabens – Why You Should Avoid Them and How (teresastips.wordpress.com)
- Mercury in Anti-Aging Creams and Skin Lighteners (healthyskinsolutions.com)
- Botanical and Natural Extracts in Cosmetics (healthyskinsolutions.com)
- What’s in my Cosmetic Product? Demystifying the Ingredients (healthyskinsolutions.com)