The Truth About Parabens: Are They Really Bad For You?


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Paraben-free… It’s a term’s used so frequently, it’s only logical to assume that parabens must be harmful. However, there still remains a lot of confusion as to why they’re harmful and if they really are harmful at all. So, to get to the bottom of whether parabens really are something to be completely avoided or perhaps just used with caution, we consulted two world-renowned dermatologists who have their own skincare lines: Dr. Lancer and Dr. Dennis Gross. We asked them everything about parabens, here’s what they had to say…

What are Parabens?

Parabens are a preservative that is often added to beauty products or food to prevent the growth of harmful microbes and make them last longer. Dr. Lancer begins by explaining “Parabens are preservatives that are derived from para-hydroxybenzoic acid (phba), a chemical that’s commonly found in fruits and vegetables.” However, while parabens are naturally occurring in some fruits and vegetables, parabens that are used in skincare products are synthetic.

Parabens have been used in cosmetics for nearly a century, and Dr. Dennis Gross tells us they were first used in beauty products to help “Maintain the freshness and germ-free state of a product. They’re used in very small percentages to prevent bacteria and prolong the shelf-life of a product.” In scientific terms, Dr. Gross says they’re “a collection of parahydroxybenzoates.”

Are Parabens Harmful?

“While parabens help keep skincare products on your bathroom counter for months, or years in some cases, they may also have harmful effects on the body, but generally only in mass quantities,” says Dr. Lancer. He continues, “When parabens enter the body through skin absorption, the chemical remains in the skin’s tissue, which is believed to distort natural hormonal operation. The body can often treat parabens as they would a hormone due to their hormone-mimicking properties.”

Parabens have often been linked to causing cancer, and Dr. Lancer clarifies the link: “The effects that parabens have on the body are most commonly attributed to hormone-mimicking. This means that the body sees and treats the paraben as a hormone, often estrogen. Having an abundance of estrogen can cause an increase in breast cell division, which may lead to the growth of a tumor. However, the quantity necessary for this to happen is high, and evidence directly linking parabens to cancer-causing cells is minimal at this time.”

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Dr. Dennis Gross also agrees, “There’s no evidence that proves parabens are harmful. There was a study that suggested a possible link between parabens and breast cancer but this study lacked convincing data and a control group.” It’s also important to note that the studies that have shown links between parabens and cancer were based on ‘long-chain parabens,’ however, Europe banned these long-chain parabens (isopropylparaben, isobutylparaben, phenylparaben, benzylparaben, and pentylparaben) in 2014, while today the only parabens being used are short-chain parabens, which are mostly considered safe to use.

How to Tell If a Product Contains Parabens

To identify if a product contains parabens, check the ingredient list. However, they won’t always be listed as parabens, Dr. Gross tells us that popular parabens include “Ethylparaben, propylparaben, methylparaben, butylparaben, and heptylparaben. Other parabens that you’ll see less include benzylparaben, isobutylparaben and isopropylparaben.”

Should you Avoid Beauty Products That Contain Parabens?

It seems there is not a simple yes or no answer to this question. Dr. Lancer recommends “Rather than being bad or good, safe paraben use is generally decided upon by the amount ingested. A product is commonly safe to use if it is composed of less than 0.5% parabens. Broken down, having 0.4% of Ethylparaben, 0.4% of Methylparaben, or 0.2% of butylparaben + propylparaben is considered safe. It’s important to note that parabens are some of the least allergenic preservatives available in the market.”

Dr. Dennis Gross notes that while there’s no concrete evidence, in his opinion, he believes “It’s best to play it safe and formulate products without parabens, especially because safe alternatives exist that are equally effective preservatives.” He does also add that “Some studies have shown that parabens can cause ecological harm. Specifically, lab tests have shown that they damage coral.” So, choosing paraben-free products is also an eco-conscious choice.

It’s also important to note that just because a product claims to be paraben-free, this doesn’t mean that it doesn’t contain other potentially harmful ingredients that could irritate your skin. This is one reason that the EU has banned the use of ‘free from’ claims on product packaging – so never be lured in by claims a product is free from a particular ingredient.

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What did we learn? There’s essentially no conclusive evidence to show that the parabens used in beauty products are bad for your health. If you remain skeptical, then check the ingredients list for the parabens listed above to ensure the products you use don’t contain them.

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