Parabens: Are They Really That Bad?

Image source: @slimesunday

Parabens are the "Voldemort" of ingredients - the paraben-free label is popping up everywhere. But do we really understand why we’re being told to avoid Parabens like the plague? I'll be honest - before writing this piece, I didn't. After doing some research, I realized that the subject is not as cut and dry as I thought. 

What are they?

Parabens are an inexpensive and effective class of chemicals used as preservatives in the majority of personal care products, including lotions, shampoos, toothpastes, makeup, and more. “About 85% of cosmetics have them,” says Arthur Rich, Ph.D., a cosmetic chemist in Chestnut Ridge, New York. Not having a preservative in a product, or having an under-preserved product, could result in bacterial contamination.

So what’s the problem?

Parabens have proven to be incredibly effective at keeping bacteria at bay. But unfortunately, there’s been overwhelming concern that parabens disrupt our hormonal system and cause cancer and effect fertility. In the 1990s, parabens were deemed xenoestrogens―agents that mimic estrogen in the body, and thus resulting in “endocrine disruption.” Endocrine disruption is basically the disruption of the normal function of the hormone system, and our hormone system is the key to driving the proper functioning of our body.

So why aren’t they banned?

A popular study done in 2004 found parabens present in malignant breast tumors, and another study in 2015 found that parabens may be more harmful than previously thought. But, the results of these studies have been widely debated. While there is reason for concern, no research has been conclusive enough to convince the FDA to regulate the use of parabens (although the EU has banned the use of Parabens in 2014). The thought here is that the current research does not show how the small amounts of parabens used in cosmetics pose a significant risk to health. The studies that show harmful effects are done at elevated concentrations in the laboratory, and the parabens are directly applied to cells in a dish rather than to the skin. Parabens are used in much lower concentrations in personal care products, so the jury's still out on how much harm they’re actually doing. “There is no real proven association between hormone disruption and parabens, and the studies have been blown out of proportion by the media,” NYC-based dermatologist Dr. Joshua Zeichner tells Mirra. Additionally, Dr. Zeichner tells Mirra that “the risk of a paraben allergy is really low. If you’re not using a paraben, you’re using a paraben alternative which may be a lot more sensitizing to the skin. And paraben-free does not necessarily mean ‘natural,’ so be careful with that. Most paraben alternatives are still chemicals. But it really is a personal preference.”


So, should you worry about the parabens in your makeup, lotion, shaving cream, soap and shampoo? The answer is a clear maybe. We still have a lot of questions. It’s clear that there is definitely room for some concern, especially given that the EU has taken measures to ban the ingredient. If you’re like me and you feel unsettled by the lack of conclusive research on either end of this debate, you might opt for well-formulated paraben-free products that use non-sensitizing paraben alternatives (best of both worlds, IMHO). I’m obsessed with Drunk Elephant skincare and Glossier makeup at the moment. I think that the most important thing you can do for yourself (and your body) is to be informed, and to be your own advocate. If a product doesn’t contain parabens, what does it contain instead?

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