What the Heck Are Parabens and Should I be Concerned?
Updated: Jul 22
Many products have been advertising that they are now paraben free. Many consumers have heard the word ‘paraben’ and have a sense that it is bad, and they should not buy products with them in it. But, what are they, why were they in our skin care and beauty products, and why did some companies decide to remove them?
According to Harvard Health, the average woman uses 12 different beauty products every day. This can include deodorants, cleansers, conditioners, hair dyes, products with fragrances, make up, scented lotions, and nail polish. However, within each of these personal care products lies hundreds of ingredients and chemicals.
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) defines parabens as "a group of chemicals widely used as artificial preservatives in cosmetic and body care products since the 1920s. Since cosmetics contain ingredients that can biodegrade, these chemicals are added to prevent and reduce the growth of harmful bacteria and mold, increasing the shelf life of the product.”
Why Did Some Companies Decide to Remove Them?
There is not conclusive evidence about most chemicals used in beauty care products and their effects on the human body. However, there are researchers who have tried to study the effects on the human body. In 2004, a British study found traces of five parabens in the breast tissue of 19 out of 20 women studied. The study didn't prove that parabens can cause cancer but identified that the parabens were able to penetrate the skin and remain within tissue. A 2016 study from the University of California-Berkeley found that low doses of butylparaben, previously not considered harmful, worked in conjunction with other cell receptors to switch on cancer genes and increased the growth of breast cancer cells.
Parabens are believed to disrupt hormone function by mimicking estrogen. This means that some ingredients and chemicals in products, like parabens, can imitate and "look like" hormones naturally produced by the body. Too much estrogen can trigger an increase in breast cell division and growth of tumors, which is why paraben use has been linked to breast cancer and reproductive issues. Moreover, studies have detected parabens in nearly all urine samples taken from adults in the U.S., regardless of demographic.
In 2014, the EU banned some parabens and this is really when the outrage against them peaked in the US. When the U.S. did not respond by removing parabens right away, many organizations, like the American Cancer Society, put out statements that the data about parabens' harm to humans was limited, writing that “there are also many other compounds in the environment that mimic naturally produced estrogen... although at this time there are no clear health risks from parabens in food, drugs, cosmetics, and skin care products, people concerned about exposure to parabens can avoid products containing them."
Are Some Companies Still Using Parabens in their Products?
Yes. I even found some in my own bathroom prior to writing this article.
The most common beauty products that parabens are found in are shampoo, face cleanser, body wash, body lotion, and foundation. The most commonly found parabens are butylparaben, methylparaben and propylparaben. When looking at the ingredients list on beauty and personal care products, look for anything ending in –paraben. One resource for learning more about a particular product’s safety is the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep cosmetic database.
There are changes happening in the personal care product industry. CVS stated they would remove parabens, phthalates and the most prevalent formaldehyde donors from their extensive line of store brand beauty and personal care products.
The evidence is not clear on the cumulative effects of daily use of products. If you prefer to take trade out a few personal care products with some without parabens and other potentially harmful chemicals, check out these four product swaps:
1. Acure’s Brightening Facial Scrub ($9.99): One of my favorite scrubs that I use twice a week to aid in getting rid of dead skin on my face.
2. Pacha Soap Co.’s Oatmeal Whipped Soap Scrub ($10.99): Pacha Soap Co. is leaping Bunny Certified, and joined the Net Zero 2030 campaign. Their whipped soaps are gentle enough for everyday use, or for a fun at-home spa day.
3. Desert Essence’s 100% Pure Jojoba Oil ($13.99): Jojoba oil is perfect for multi-use, including use as a makeup remover, body moisturizer, and hair oil. Bonus points for it being certified Non-GMO.
4. Alaffia’s Everyday Coconut Shampoo (14.99): Made with virgin coconut oil and fair trade shea butter, it is simple yet effective! This is perfect for someone looking for no synthetic fragrances.