What’s the Real Deal with Parabens?
More and more companies are marketing their products as “paraben-free.” What’s the fuss and should you be concerned about parabens when choosing your favorite skincare options?
What are parabens?
Parabens are a group of preservatives used in cosmetics to help keep those products from becoming contaminated with microbial growth (like harmful bacteria or yeast). They extend the shelf life of a product. If you make a DIY recipe and don’t use it right away, it could easily become contaminated with “bad bugs,” the kind that can cause infections. That’s because you’re not adding preservatives to those concoctions. Almost all of the water-based products you see on the shelf in a store, or order online, contain preservatives to keep them free of growth that would be very unpleasant to discover in your skincare products, and could even harm you. Parabens are actually one of the least irritating preservatives found in skin care today. They were named the “non-allergen” of the year in 2019 by the American Contact Dermatitis Society (ACDS)! This is because parabens are unlikely to cause a skin allergy or irritation, compared to all the preservatives on the market today.
So, why are so many products claiming to be “paraben-free?” And why do I recommend avoiding parabens in skincare?
Here’s the scoop:
A study done back in 2004 detected parabens in samples of breast tissue from breast cancer patients. Parabens were actually found within the cancerous tissue samples collected. Some types of parabens are known to mimic estrogen, so the concern is that they may be disrupting hormones and possibly increasing the risk of cancer. There are also some studies that raise concerns about exposure to parabens and male reproductive health. Basically, parabens bind to certain estrogen receptors, and turning on estrogen signals can theoretically contribute to a whole host of issues for men, women and children. Butylparabens and propylparabens are the most likely to bind to estrogen receptors. In fact, the EU has banned the use of these 2 preservatives in diaper creams, and reduced their allowed concentrations in a myriad of other cosmetic and personal care products.
We know that parabens are indeed absorbed by the body, mostly through our use of cosmetic or personal care products such as makeup, lotions, hair products and perfumes. However, we don’t fully know whether they pose any long-term health risks. Concerns exist, but no clear link has been demonstrated. The FDA believes that, so long as they are used in low concentrations, they are probably not doing any harm. Even well known and respected skincare brands, like Cerave, continue to formulate using parabens in many of their most popular products.
Where I stand:
In the case of parabens, I don’t believe in innocent until proven guilty. In my opinion, parabens are guilty until proven safe. I want to see evidence proving that parabens are not causing any significant hormonal disruption before I feel confident recommending paraben-containing products to my patients! Also, parabens aren’t the only chemicals linked to hormone disruption – there are others used in skincare, household products and in food, so these exposures can add up. I have too many patients struggling with fertility issues, and battling breast cancer. Given that there are other preservative options available with safety data, I am not ready to take that risk.