Tuesday, April 7, 2009

What are parabens?

The notion of having possible carcinogens in your makeup and skincare (as well as food, hair, and body products) is a disturbing one. Ever since I actually decided to read the ingredients in the products I buy, I've found that parabnes are contained in almost every single one. If you don't know what parabens are, here's a little 411 on the topic. My views in regards to this issue are still a little up in the air, but I'm pretty wary at this point, no matter how small the risks are.


Parabens are a group of chemicals widely used as preservatives in the cosmetic industry. About 90% of all skincare and cosmetic products contain parabens. Preservatives are used to prevent bacterial growth and prolong the shelf-life of products. Typically, more than one paraben is used in a product and they are often used in combination with other types of preservatives. This allows the use of lower levels of parabens while increasing preservative activity. Parabens are widely used because of their efficacy as preservatives, their low cost, their long history of safe use and the unproven efficacy of natural ingredients like grapefruit seed extract.

Here’s a list of the different types of parabens:

- Butylparaben
- Ethylparaben
- Methylparaben
- Propylparaben
- Isopropylparaben
- Benzyl-parahydroxybenzoic acid (p-hydroxybenzoic acid)
- Methyl-parahydroxybenzoic acid (p-hydroxybenzoic acid)
- Ethyl-parahydroxybenzoic acid (p-hydroxybenzoic acid)
- Propyl-parahydroxybenzoic acid (p-hydroxybenzoic acid)
- Butyl-parahydroxybenzoic acid (p-hydroxybenzoic acid)
- Parahydroxybenzoic acid (p-hydroxybenzoic acid)
- Parahydroxybenzoate (p-hydroxybenzoate)

Parabens are used in:

- Cosmetics
- Shampoos
- Commercial moisturizers
- Shaving gels
- Cleansing gels
- Personal lubricants
- Topical pharmaceuticals
- Toothpaste
- Deoderant
- Food items

The controversy

However, controversy over paraben use in skincare and cosmetics has risen due to suggestions that parabens may cause cancer, accumulate in tissue and influence estrogen levels.In 2004, a study was published saying 20 different human breast tumors were tested and parabens found in all of them. However, no one could explain why they were there and whether normal tissue had parabens. The study didn’t determine if the ingredient was the cause of the tumors.

In 2005 the USA FDA (Food and Drug Administration) declared that parabens in the concentrations found in skin care products and cosmetics (up to 25%, but typically 1%) pose no logical risk to the consumer.In 2007, a French study suggested that parabens may accumulate in tissues. In the study, 0.45 mg of parabens was applied to the skin’s surface every 12 hours for 36 hours. The results showed increased quantities of parabens moving across the skin barrier for the first 24 hours. They also showed that parabens applied to the skin had no cumulative effect after 36 hours.

A 2002 study showed that 0.1% butylparaben in the daily diet reduced sperm production. However, this is hundreds of times more than the average skin care product application over the entire body. This means that it is impractical to assume that skincare products can reduce sperm production in humans.

Do All Cosmetic Companies Use Parabens?

Not all cosmetic companies use paraben preservatives and many have announced plans to stop using them now that questions have been raised about their safety.

Alternative Preservatives

Other effective preservatives like DMDM Hydantoin or Kathon have potential safety issues too, while Hydroxymethylglycinate can irritate the skin and the eyes. Other alternatives like grapefruit seed extract, phenoxyethanol, potassium sorbate, sorbic acid, tocopherol (vitamin E), vitamin A (retinyl), vitamin C (ascorbic acid) don’t work too well.


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%.


More reading:

Wikipedia's entry on parabnes

Are parabens really dangerous?

Companies that don't use parabens

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