We’ve all seen the “paraben free” claims cluttering skincare and personal care products. Parabens are preservatives that have been used help skincare products maintain a longer shelf life since the mid 1980s, and have become ubiquitous, showing up in shampoo, moisturizer, toothpaste, shaving gel, makeup, and even food. But the ingredient seems to have come under attack in recent years.
Brands are touting paraben free products, but their exclusion might not be necessary. The questions remain, are parabens harmful and, if not, why are we so afraid of them?
Why are we so afraid of parabens?
The fear of parabens can be traced back to a 2007 French study published in Experimental Dermatology that concluded that repeated applications of products containing parabens could lead to a build up in the skin and, eventually, body tissues. In the study, a reasonable amount (0.45 mg) of parabens was applied to the skin every 12 hours for 36 hours. For the first 24 hours, increased quantities of parabens moved across the skin barrier. But parabens applied to the skin had no cumulative effect after a day and a half, which suggests that, after 36 hours, they don’t build up after all.
In a study in the Journal of Steroid Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, researchers made the claim that parabens can bind to estrogen receptors in in MCF-7 breast cancer cells. The study suggested that parabens, like those found in skincare, increased the growth of breast cancer cells and were actually found within the cells themselves.
But the study came to its conclusions slathering participants in thousands of times the amount of parabens a normal person would be exposed to by their everyday skincare routine. Another study subjected fish to ingesting between 100 mg/kg and 300 mg/kg doses of parabens, which resulted in a increase in estrogenic gene expression. The only catch is, that amounts to about 15,000 mg of parabens in the average American woman, which is far more than any cosmetic or combination of cosmetics regularly used could supply.
So, are parabens bad for you?
Not according to the Food and Drug Administration. The FDA released its stance on paraben use in a statement in 2007. The statement described the primary types of parabens used in cosmetics (methylparaben, propylparaben, and butylparaben) and decreed them safe. The Cosmetic Ingredient Review concluded that parabens were acceptable at levels up to 25 percent, and when the statement was published, the average cosmetic product contained 0.01 percent to 0.03 percent.
They cited a study in Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology that concluded that, based on a person using a typical daily amount of cosmetics containing parabens, it was implausible that they could have the estrogenic effect associated with the breast cancer studies.
An independent report concluded that parabens rarely cause allergic reaction as well. The study, published in 2000, concludes that it’s because of their efficacy in combating fungus and bacteria in products that parabens are still the number one preservative in use.
Another study, specifically regarding propyl paraben, states that there is no risk of accumulation of the paraben through absorption in the gastrointestinal tract or the skin. It’s relatively non-toxic, although the study does point out that it can be slightly irritating to the skin.
Though there is research to suggest that parabens can be harmful, those studies were conducted under such extreme conditions that it’s difficult to apply their findings to everyday usage. Don’t fall for another product selling point. That “paraben free” label may be nice, but parabens won’t cause you any damage – unless, of course, you’re part of the tiny contigent with allergic sensitivity.