What Are Parabens—and Do I Need to Worry About Them?
By Eleni N. Gage Updated: October 12, 2017
These preservatives are common, but health concerns have cropped up.
Parabens have been widely used in products to prevent bacteria growth since the 1950s. “About 85 percent of cosmetics have them,” says Arthur Rich, Ph.D., a cosmetic chemist in Chestnut Ridge, New York. “They’re inexpensive and effective.” New York City dermatologist Fran E. Cook-Bolden explains, “Parabens have a long history of safe use, and that’s why they’re commonplace. New preservatives have less of a proven track record.” In fact, typically, more than one form of the ingredient is used in a product. The most common are butylparaben, methylparaben, and propylparaben. Over the last few years, however, in response to customer concerns, many brands have started to manufacture (and label) paraben-free products, including lotions, lipsticks, shampoos, scrubs, and more.
So What’s the Problem?
In the 1990s, parabens were deemed xenoestrogens―agents that mimic estrogen in the body. “Estrogen disruption” has been linked to breast cancer and reproductive issues. And in 2004 British cancer researcher Philippa Darbre, Ph.D., found parabens present in malignant breast tumors. As a result, experts in many countries are recommending limits on paraben levels in cosmetic products. What’s more, watchdog organizations worry that if parabens can be stored in the body, over time they could have a cumulative effect and pose a health risk.
But here’s the flip side: Critics of the British study point out that noncancerous tissue from healthy breasts wasn’t examined to see if parabens were also present there, and that the presence of parabens in tumors doesn’t prove that they caused the cancer. Other studies have shown parabens to have a very weak estrogenic effect. All this leads to concern about the unknown. Cook-Bolden tells her patients that “so far there’s no scientific evidence to support any link with any form of cancer.” Currently, the amount of parabens in any product is typically quite small. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the World Health Organization consider the chemicals safe at low levels.
The Bottom Line?
There’s reason to be mindful, but no reason to have an all-consuming concern about these chemicals. If it helps you rest easy, use a paraben-free body lotion (which coats a large area of skin). Today there are a number of formulas available from paraben-free brands (see below). Labels that list the preservatives as one of the last four ingredients also indicate that the chemicals are present in very small amounts, says Andrea Kane, editor of Theorganicbeautyexpert.com.
If you want to play it extremely safe, use a few oil-based organic products that don’t contain water (which calls for a preservative). They often come in dark containers with a pump so that light and air don’t degrade them quickly. “With truly natural products, just stay within their use-by date,” says Kane. “It’s like milk―the date is there for a reason.”