It's no secret that the "clean" beauty movement has painted many "normal" ingredients in cosmetics in a not-so-positive light. Parabens are without a doubt at the top of this list, to the point where "paraben-free" has become as big of a marketing term as non-comedogenic. For the sake of consumer safety, the thought behind this exclusion is undeniably well-meaning. After all, parabens have been involved in many health-related controveries through the years, some even involving the big C (cancer) and hormone disruption. A lot of people just aren't down to take that risk, which is completely understandable.
However, as a consumer myself, I couldn't help wondering if the issue on parabens is as bad as what some spaces on the internet say it is. I mean, we've all seen the way information spreads online—you just have to take a deep dive sometimes to know the full truth. So, that's precisely what we're about to do. Learn more about this controversial ingredient below:
What are parabens?
Parabens are the most popular synthetic preservatives used in cosmetics, medicines and food. It was first introduced in the 1920s (yes, an entire century ago), and is still widely-used today.
Board-certified dermatologist Dr. Gaile Robredo-Vitas defines parabens as"odorless, tasteless and colorless crystals or white crystalline powder derived from 4-hydroxybenzoic acid or para-hydroxybenzoic acids." Its mouthful of a name aside, hydroxybenzoic acid is actually derived from fruits and vegetables (i.e. berries and onion), where it is naturally occurring.
Why are parabens commonly found in cosmetics?
In cosmetics, preservatives are essential so your products last longer than a few days or weeks. "Without them, products can quickly become contaminated with yeasts, fungi, mold and bacteria leading to spoilage and wastage and even increasing the risk of infection," says Dr. Vitas.
The derm confirms parabens are very efficient as preservatives, thanks to antimicrobial properties that keep fungi and bacteria from infesting your products. Parabens, she adds, also has high chemical stability within a wide range of temperatures and pH levels, and is resistant to hydrolysis.
The most common kind of parabens found in beauty products are methylparaben, ethylparaben, butylparaben, and propylparaben. You'll often find more than one of these together in products in low concentrations (a popular combo being methylparaben and ethylparaben) along with other chemical preservatives to ensure better antimicrobial efficacy.
Next to its function as a preservative, Dr. Vitas states multiple other reasons why parabens are the preservative of choice in most cosmetics: "It doesn't cost much to produce, are effective even at low concentrations, does not discolor or harden, is biodegradable, non-mutagenic and has low incidence of sensitization or allergenic potential."
Why do parabens have a bad reputation?
Despite scientific proof of parabens being effective preservatives, the ingredient has received a bad rep because of several studies. According to Dr. Vitas, these studies suggest that parabens can cause health issues like breast cancer, disruption of the endocrine system, infertility, allergenicity and that it has a negative impact to the environment. That said, she and New York-based board-certified derm Dr. Shereene Idriss both believe that all these claims are inconclusive because of issues in the published data. Here's why:
On the alleged carcinogenicity of parabens
A 2004 study by Dabre et al. reported that parabens are found in the tissues of women with breast cancer, leading many to believe that there's a direct link between cancer and the preservative.
But the issue with this data, Dr. Vitas says, is it merely showed a correlation but could not prove that parabens are what caused the cancer. The tissue of women with breast cancer were also not compared to normal tissue of women who do not have breast cancer, when the latter could very well also have parabens in theirs. Parabens were also said to have been detected in the instruments used in the study, which makes the connection even more doubtful.
Since this study was published, many organizations conducted studies on paraben use to review its safety. These include the National Cancer Institute, Cancer Council Australia, Cosmetic Ingredient Review, European Commission Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety (SCCS), and more. All of them similarly have since stated that the way parabens are being used now makes it unlikely to be linked to cancer.
On the potential effect of parabens on hormone balance
Another popular train of thought about parabens is that it could potentially disrupt your hormones. The commonly cited source here is a study by Routledge et al. in 1998, which suggested that parabens can mimic types of hormones like estrogen. "But when tested, the amount of activity of the parabens were thousands to millions of times weaker than your natural estrogen levels," explains Dr. Idriss in a video. She then points out that the researchers injected very high concentrations of parabens under the surface of rat's skin for this result—something that we don't even do with products containing parabens.
For a clearer point of comparison Dr. Idriss states that phytoestrogens, which are in many food items like soy and edamame, are actually 10,000 times more potent hormones than the parabens involved in this study. The same also goes for a major component in birth control, ethinyl estradiol, which is millions of times more potent. In fact, methylparaben specifically is 2.5 million times weaker than it.
But the biggest difference between these and parabens? People eat phytoestrogen-containing food and birth control pills, while cosmetics with parabens are only applied on the surface of the skin. "You're really comparing apples to steak. They're not comparable at all," the doctor stresses.
Other issues in popular anti-paraben studies
Aside from the ones stated above, Dr. Vitas mentions that another issue with paraben studies are the high doses used: "Some studies used high concentrations of parabens (sometimes up to 100%) and did not take into consideration how parabens were being utilized in cosmetics—in concentrations much less than 1%."
In her discussion about the ingredient, Dr. Idriss states an even lower number, saying that parabens can only take up a maximum of 0.03% (sometimes even 0.01%) in product formulations, which is significantly less than what researchers used in their studies.
Lastly, Dr. Vitas thinks it's important to note that parabens were injected or fed to lab animals in other studies. They were not applied on the skin, as regular cosmetics or skincare are used.
So should we avoid parabens?
If it's possible to formulate products without parabens, then should we just avoid them anyway? You can, but you don't have to.
Dr. Vitas explains, "I honestly think that [the fear of parabens] is blown out of proportion with parabens being victims of well-meaning but incomplete and misleading information about the possible side effects they may cause when used inappropriately or in very high concentrations."
She adds that institutions such as US FDA Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR), the European Commission and the Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety (SCCS) have repeatedly reviewed the issues related to parabens to ensure their safety. Their findings deem parabens safe as preservatives for food, medications and cosmetics when used at a concentration of up to 0.4% and up to 0.8% when a combination of two or more parabens are used.
But aren't parabens banned in the EU?
Only a total five types of parabens are banned in the European Union for use in cosmetics: Isopropylparaben, isobutylparaben, phenylparaben, benzylparaben, and pentylparaben. The reason being there is not enough data that certifies that they're safe.
On the other hand, the usual parabens in cosmetics like methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben, and butylparaben are still considered as safe "as repeatedly confirmed" by the SCCS. They are also deemed the "most efficient preservatives."
"In Europe, propylparaben and butylparaben are considered safe as long as the sum of their individual concentrations does not exceed 0.14%, due to the 'weak endocrine-modifying potential and quantitative risk assessment,'" Dr. Vitas specifies.
These same recommendations and guidelines on paraben use have also been adopted by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations' Cosmetics Committee in 2014.
To summarize: Is it safe to use products with parabens regularly?
"In my opinion, as with many things we eat, drink or apply, it's the dose that makes the poison," explains Dr. Vitas. "The amount of parabens used in skincare products are all below the threshold that many health institutions have set."
Avoiding parabens is not a must in Dr. Idriss' book either. "If you're very sensitive, you can be sensitive to many different ingredients like fragrances or certain alcohols or other kinds of preservatives like phenoxyethanol. It doesn't mean that you're just sensitive to parabens," she explains. "It's easy to have a name [to] hold on to that you say, 'I don't want any of this' without knowing the full story."
In the end, it still boils down to personal choice. And for us, no one should be forcing you to use something with an ingredient you don't like. It's your right as a consumer to choose the products you buy and the ingredients you expose yourself to. In this case, the existence of paraben-free products grants you with that choice. You can limit your usage of parabens to a few products, too, just to be a extra cautious.
But right now, no hard evidence suggests absolute danger in using regulated cosmetics with parabens. Until something proves otherwise, you're free to benefit from its shelf life-prolonging perks with no worries.
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