If you’re like most shoppers, you probably read every label closely to see exactly what ingredients are going on your face, and into your body. And if you’ve been browsing the beauty aisle, you’ve seen many products advertising themselves as “paraben free” – along with sulfate free, oxybenzone free and gluten free. But the one ingredient that seems to be under the most scrutiny are parabens. But what exactly are parabens, are they dangerous and should you avoid them in beauty products?
What Are Parabens?
Parabens belong to a family of preservatives that have been used since the 1950s. According to The New York Times, they were introduced after bacteria-contaminated facial lotions caused a small outbreak of blindness. They help to keep formulas free from bacteria, mold and fungi. Parabens help extend the shelf life of items containing water. Because parabens are odorless, colorless and inexpensive, they were widely adopted by food, pharmaceutical and cosmetics companies. According to the American Cancer Society, parabens are often used in conjunction with other types of preservatives to better protect against a broad range of microorganisms.
Where Are Parabens Found?
Parabens are found in a wide range of products from shampoos, to face creams, serums and shower gels as well as baby lotion. They are also found in toothpaste and deodorant, as well as some pharmaceuticals. They also crop up in food and beverages. The most common parabens are butylparaben, methylparaben, and propylparaben. The American Chemical Society estimates that parabens are in about 85% of personal care products. They enter the body through the skin, from ingestion as well as inhalation.
Why Are Parabens Controversial?
According to the Breast Cancer Prevention Partners, parabens mimic estrogen in the body and are endocrine disruptors. As the group explains, “studies have shown that parabens can affect the mechanisms of normal breast cells and potentially influence their abnormal growth, leading to increased risk for breast cancer.” The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics (CSC) reports that parabens have also been linked to reproductive, immunological, neurological and skin irritation problems.
In 2004, British cancer researcher Philippa Darbre, Ph.D., found parabens in cancerous breast tumors, leading people to question whether parabens contributed to cancer. But one issue that critics have raised with Dr. Darbre’s research is that non-cancerous breast tissue was not examined for the study to see if it also had traces of parabens. As BreastCancer.org points out, “Parabens have been found in breast tissue and breast cancers, but this really doesn’t mean much. Parabens have been found in many other tissues because of their wide use.”
Whether or not the parabens caused the cancer, Dr. Darbre’s study showed that parabens penetrate the skin and hang around in our bodies. For many consumers, this was troubling enough to demand that companies stop using parabens and find an alternative preservative. Her findings led many countries to limit the amount of parabens used in cosmetics. The EU, for example, has banned five types of parabens, citing possible risks to human health—-especially in products designed for children.
The Food and Drug Administration as well as the World Health Organization have deemed parabens safe as only trace amounts of them are found in products. The FDA states on its website that “At this time, we do not have information showing that parabens as they are used in cosmetics have an effect on human health.” The FDA says it will continue to look into the safety of parabens.
Butcritics point out how ubiquitous paraben-containing products are. They make the case that constant exposure, even to trace amounts, can all add up, which is cause for concern. The long term impact of parabens is still being examined.
What Are Cosmetics Companies Doing About Parabens?
For some consumers, any trace of doubt about safety is enough to propel them to avoid parabens, and request that companies stop using them as well. Many cosmetics companies have responded to consumer pressure and fears by removing parabens from its products. Some companies, such as Beautycounter, have never used them in the first place. Beautycounter has published its “The Never List,” which details “more than 1,500 questionable or harmful chemicals that we never use as ingredients in our products.” The Never List includes parabens as well as formaldehyde, another preservative, and hydroquinone, a skin lightener.
Big box retailers such as Target make it easy for consumers to search for paraben free products, as well as Whole Foods and Amazon, which stock paraben free brands such as Tom’s of Maine, Dr. Bronner’s, Burt’s Bees, JASON and KISS MY FACE. Sephora has also taken steps to help customers find paraben free products with its green “Clean at Sephora” badge. Products with this symbol are formulated without parabens, formaldehydes, sulfates SLS and SLES, phthalates, mineral oil, retinyl palmitate, oxybenzone, coal tar, hydroquinone, triclosan and triclocarban.
Other cosmetics companies are sticking with parabens, pointing out that they have been used effectively for decades and don’t cause skin irritation. On Paula’s Choice website, the company gives the ingredient a “good” rating and says that the information about parabens is “conflicting and polarizing.” As they point out, parabens are derived naturally from plants in the form of p-hydroxybenzoic acid (PHBA), a chemical that breaks down to become parabens for a plant’s own protection. Paula’s Choice’s position is that “some research indicates they are safe as used in cosmetics and are preferred over other preservatives to keep a formula stable.” They also argue that studies looking into parabens use a 100% concentration, while most products only use a tiny amount, such as 1% or less.
Are Parabens Bad for the Environment?
Parabens also pose a potential environmental threat as well. The American Chemical Society reported in 2015 that parabens were showing up in the tissues of marine mammals, including dolphins, sea otters and polar bears and scientists are examining whether they also work as hormone disruptors in wildlife. The parabens most likely ended up in the ocean through the sewage system.
What Are Alternatives to Parabens?
If you’re concerned about the potential effects of parabens, there are plenty of options for paraben free products. A product that is listed as “paraben free” means it has swapped a paraben for another type of preservative. Look out for ingredients such as ethylhexylglycerin (a plant-derived preservative) or phenoxyethanol, which is naturally derived ether alcohol.
Paraben Free Moisturizer
Cetaphil Daily Facial Moisturizer – Cetaphil’s moisturizer is gentle, long lasting and free of parabens as well as lanolin. It is suitable for all skin types.
L’Oréal Paris Age Perfect Rosy Tone Fragrance Free Face Moisturizer – Fans love that this cream gives users a little bit of a rosy glow. It’s formulated with Imperial Peony and LHA.
Olay Total Effects Whip Fragrance Free Facial Moisturize – The whipped texture gives this cream a light as air texture that is also hydrating.
Formulyst Super Hyaluronic Water Moisturizer – This oil free formula is packed with multiple types of hyaluronic acid, a super moisturizing ingredient that can hold up to 1,000 times its weight in water. It works as a moisture magnet by drawing water to the skin.
Formulyst Anti-Aging Night Cream – Wrinkles are no match for this cream which delivers retinol at a high concentration to improve the look of fine lines, crow’s feet and dark spots, leaving skin looking smoother and fuller. A dose of safflower seed and jojoba oil leave skin nourished and well-hydrated.
Paraben Free Body Lotion
Honest Company Face + Body Lotion, Fragrance Free – This hydrating body lotion is powered by naturally derived oils, aloe and calendula to soothe and moisturize.
Neutrogena Hydro Boost Fragrance Free Body Gel Cream – Hyaluronic acid is the key ingredient in this lightweight body lotion that is moisturizing without feeling greasy.
Burt’s Bees Fragrance Free Shea Butter and Vitamin E Body Lotion – What makes this body lotion ultra moisturizing is a cocktail of shea butter and vitamin E along with calming calendula and chamomile.
Paraben Free Face Wash
La Roche Posay Effaclar Clarifying Oil-Free Cleansing Towelettes for Oily Skin Face Wipes – If you like the convenience of a facial wipe, these from La Roche Posay are formulated with thermal spring water and are gentle enough for sensitive skin.
Neutrogena Oil-Free Acne Face Wash Cream Cleanser – Salicylic acid helps prevent acne breakouts, and the cleanser also works to keep oil production under control.
Formulyst Gentle Foaming Cleanser – This ultra-gentle foaming cleanser whisks away dirt, sweat and makeup without overdrying the skin or stripping of it of essential oils. Skin is left feeling soft and supple thanks to nourishing rosehip seed oil as well as vitamins A, C and E.
Formulyst Clarifying AHA Cleanser – Give skin a deep but gentle cleanse thanks to this formula, which is spiked with alpha hydroxy acids (AHA) derived from citrus and botanical extracts. These acids work by dissolving dead skin cells and drawing out impurities from the pores to reveal smooth, refreshed skin.