What are Parabens? The Case for Looking at Your Personal Product Ingredients
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 and beauty products, and why did some companies decide to remove them?
According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), “Parabens are 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 in beauty care products. However, there are some 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 more recent study (2016) from the University of California-Berkeley study 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 oestrogen. Too much oestrogen can trigger an increase in breast cell division and growth of tumours, 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; 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 Large organizations like the American Cancer Society, put out statements that the data about parabens’ harm to humans was limited, writing: “There are also many other compounds in the environment that mimic naturally produced estrogen.”
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 your beauty product, look for anything ending in –paraben. Some good news, 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. 
Vox’s article put it perfectly, “We will likely never conclusively know the effects of years of daily use of these chemicals. It’s impossible to study in a controlled way, and the sheer number of ingredients we use on a daily basis makes it difficult to ever pinpoint a toxic smoking gun.” One of my favorite resources for learning more about a particular product’s safety is the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep cosmetic database.
Citations:  https://www.ewg.org/californiacosmetics/parabens  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14745841  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4858398/  https://www.elle.com/uk/beauty/skin/articles/a36356/what-are-parabens/  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17185273  https://cvshealth.com/newsroom/press-releases/cvs-health-takes-major-step-address-chemicals-consumer-concern  https://www.vox.com/the-goods/2018/9/18/17866150/natural-clean-beauty-products-feinstein-cosmetics-bill-fda