The Truth About Parabens in Cosmetics

A derm shares whether they're actually harmful.

The green beauty space is prompting us to take a closer look at the ingredients in our products. After all, if you're going to slather your face with sunscreen, it's probably worth knowing whether it contains a known carcinogen like benzene or not. Perhaps one of the most prevalent — and dubious — ingredients used in cosmetics is parabens. But what are parabens, anyway? This is a question that many dermatologists get asked quite often — and rightfully so. "Parabens are a group of chemicals used as preservatives in skincare, makeup, and hair care products," says Dr. Blair Murphy-Rose, MD, FAAD, a board-certified dermatologist. "Water-based products can grow bacteria, mold, and other microorganisms that are harmful when applied to skin and hair — preservatives, like parabens and others, work to prevent this growth." Despite their benefits, parabens became a subject of debate in 2000 when scientists suggested that they might be endocrine disruptors; meaning, when absorbed by the body, they can mimic our natural hormones and/or alter their production. Since then, everyone from skincare professionals, to consumers, to "clean" beauty advocates, has taken interest in the controversial ingredient.

Below, we discuss everything there is to know about parabens in cosmetics, including whether they're actually deserving of their bad rap.

Are Parabens Safe?

Research has, is, and will continue to be done on the safety of parabens with regards to their long-term health effects. Still, there is no clear evidence that shows they are dangerous. According to Dr. Murphy-Rose, "Parabens have the potential to be harmful. Data suggests that parabens can disrupt hormones in the body which may increase the risk of some cancers, particularly breast cancer. They may also be harmful to reproductive organs, potentially affecting fertility and birth outcomes, as well as interfering with the body's natural production of hormones."

Numerous studies and data from bio-monitoring surveys demonstrate that parabens from skincare products do enter the body. "One 2006 study found parabens in urine samples taken from adults in the US," says Dr. Murphy-Rose. "The chemicals are absorbed through the skin, enter the bloodstream, and are eventually excreted in the urine. Many studies have shown markedly higher levels of parabens in the urine of people who use cosmetics regularly, compared to counterparts who do not."

Interestingly, five different parabens (isopropylparaben, isobutylparaben, phenylparaben, benzylparaben, and pentylparaben) have been completely banned in the EU, while others are strictly regulated because they are believed to be endocrine disruptors. "Long-chain parabens have shown the highest potential for harm, these include propylparaben, isopropylparaben, isobutylparaben and butylparaben," Dr. Murphy-Rose tells us.

In September 2020, California became the first state in the country to ban the use of isobutylparaben and butylparaben in cosmetics and personal care products in the Toxic-Free Cosmetics Act. "While we cannot definitively say that all parabens are harmful, avoidance of products containing parabens, or even a reduction of use, seems wise since there are good alternatives that can be used as effective preservatives," says Dr. Murphy-Rose.

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How Can I Check My Products for Parabens?

If you're concerned about parabens and other chemical preservatives in your cosmetics, the best thing to do is check the labels on any beauty products you buy. Most cosmetic companies clearly state whether their products contain parabens or any other type of chemical used in preservatives. Methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben, and butylparaben are common parabens found in several products including shampoo, toothpaste, shaving cream, and even food.

Are There Any Paraben Alternatives?

With so much uncertainty surrounding the safety of products containing parabens, it's totally understandable if you'd rather stay clear of parabens altogether. But don't worry, that doesn't mean you have to swear off cosmetics products forever. In fact, there are a ton of paraben-free options on the market. Check your ingredient label for common paraben alternatives, such as phenoxyethanol, sodium benzoate, benzoic acid, and benzyl alcohol. "If formulated properly, products that do not contain parabens can be safely preserved," says Dr. Murphy Rose.

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