Parabens: Should I be afraid of them in my skincare products?
We have all seen at least one ‘paraben-free’ label on recent cosmetic products, but why? Over the years, parabens were painted as the beauty industry’s dirty ingredient - often described as a carcinogenic ingredient. And we understand why. The global consumer shift to a more natural and ethical lifestyle is prompting skincare brands to be accountable in the source and properties of their ingredients. Consumers have the right to know what’s inside their daily products. However, parabens are not something to be afraid of. You will find that in current research, these ingredients’ benefits outweigh the speculation.
What are Parabens?
Parabens are a group of chemical preservatives used to prevent the growth of microorganisms in most cosmetic products. Their antimicrobial properties give products a longer shelf-life while ensuring that harmful organisms cannot thrive. These chemicals can be found in many makeup and skincare products like lotions, foundations, creams, and deodorants. Some common parabens you may have noticed on your label are methylparaben, propylparaben, and butylparaben.
Why do parabens get a bad reputation?
A study was published in the 2004 issue of the Journal of Applied Toxicology found that 18 of 20 tumor samples contained small amounts of parabens. From this research, parabens were widely assumed as ‘carcinogenic’, or cancer-causing chemicals. Parabens are known to be most popularly linked to antiperspirants and breast cancer due to their weak estrogen-like properties. However, the study did not prove that parabens were the cause of breast cancer at all.
The American Cancer Society points out that the study did not show that parabens contributed to the development of breast cancer. The institute has concluded that there is no substantial evidence that links antiperspirants and parabens to cancer development. Parabens do not negatively affect the body’s hormone production in the way we think it does. The European Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety (SCCS) reports, “In laboratory test systems and in animals, some hormone-like activity has been demonstrated for parabens, but this activity is thousands to millions of times weaker than the activity of natural hormones.” Research into the health effects of parabens in humans has yet to be concluded.
What are the safety measures in place for parabens?
While there is no present conclusion on the possible effects of parabens, there are consumer safety measures in place. The SCCS suggests that 8g of parabens per kg of a cosmetic product, with no single paraben having a higher concentration than 4 g/kg is safe for consumer use. Smaller molecules (i.e. methyl-and ethylparaben) are considered safe, while longer molecules (i.e. propyl- and butylparaben) are safe in lower levels. The U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) currently has no special laws for parabens outside of current cosmetic regulations. In 2016, the FDA has classified methyl and propyl parabens as ‘GRAS’ or ‘Generally Regarded As Safe’ by medical and toxicological experts. Scientists are continuing to conduct research and monitor the effects of parabens in the body.
There is no substantial evidence linking the presence of parabens to cancer development in the body. The level of parabens in single products is relatively small and should not pose health hazards. While studies have found that parabens can mimic estrogen, its activity is significantly weaker than hormone activity in therapies, birth control pills, and our own bodies. Skincare products containing parabens are safely regulated and quite common. Parabens are used in small amounts to preserve cosmetic products and prevent the growth of harmful bacteria and fungi that can infect the skin. In conclusion, the decision to opt for ‘paraben-free’ skincare products really comes down to the consumer’s personal desires and needs.
"Parabens in Cosmetics", U.S. Food & Drug Association. 2020.
"Parabens used in cosmetics", European Commission Scientific Committees.
"Antiprespirants and Breast Cancer Risk" American Cancer Society. 2014.