If you’ve shopped for beauty products recently, you may have noticed that many shampoos, makeups, lotions, deodorants, and more are starting to take a “paraben-free” marketing angle on their packaging. But what are parabens — and why does it matter whether something is paraben-free or not?
Over the past ten years or so, research has discovered that long-term exposure to parabens found in many beauty and hygiene products may cause health problems. The “paraben-free” label signals to customers that their cosmetics do not contain these harmful chemicals and are safer for regular use.
So, are parabens bad for your skin? The short answer is most likely yes, but the evidence is not yet conclusive. In this article, we’ll cover what parabens are, why you should avoid them, and how you can protect your health in your daily grooming routine.
What Are Parabens?
Adding preservatives to products we use daily, like shampoo, makeup, and skincare, helps to “preserve” these products’ shelf lives. Parabens are a group of artificial chemical preservatives that have been an ingredient in everyday beauty products, food, drinks, and pharmaceuticals since the 1920s. These chemicals stem from para-hydroxybenzoic acid, a natural compound found in produce. The most common types of parabens found in the cosmetic industry include:
What Products Contain Parabens and What Are They Used For?
Parabens are used to protect the consumer by extending the shelf life of cosmetics and preventing the growth of harmful microorganisms within these products, such as mold and bacteria. They are commonly found in shampoos, conditioners, soaps, and skincare products. You can identify them by reading through the ingredients list of any beauty or hygiene product and looking for “paraben” within the chemical names.
Why Are Parabens Harmful?
The primary problem with parabens is that they have similar effects to estrogen and can disrupt hormonal balance in men and women. Whenever you apply shampoo, conditioner, lotion, shower gel, or other paraben-containing products to your skin, the parabens are absorbed rapidly into your system and accumulate in fat tissue over time, potentially leading to higher rates of absorption than may be safe.
The body generally does a good job of naturally getting rid of these chemicals. But science has found that with time, parabens build up in the system and are associated with health problems. Research has shown that these chemicals interfere with the body’s natural hormone-regulating processes, which means they could be harming your reproductive health.
In addition to reproductive health problems, some individuals are allergic to parabens. When applied to the skin, the side effects of parabens, for some, may include hives, flaky skin, itchiness, redness, and irritation. While the FDA continues to allow parabens in skincare and other products, consumers are growing increasingly concerned and are turning to paraben-free alternatives.
Why Are Parabens Bad for the Skin?
So, what do parabens do to your skin, specifically? Methylparaben is a type of paraben that has been linked to increased UV damage, aging effects, inflammation, oxidative stress, and collagen reduction. This preservative can be found in serums, masks, creams, lotions, and more.
Do Parabens Harm Anything Else?
It’s easy to assume that we only harm ourselves by using parabens. But as it turns out, these preservatives are released into the environment whenever they are washed down the drain into the sewage system. Parabens have been found in ocean water, sediment, and fish. Little amounts of butylparaben are enough to kill coral, and a study from 2015 showed that mammals in the coastal waters of the U.S. had high concentrations of parabens in their tissues, leading to high estrogen content and hormone-related health problems.
Studies on Parabens
There is growing evidence that parabens can negatively affect the body.
- Researchers reported recently that parabens could adversely affect reproductive and endocrine (or hormonal) systems in women. [Concentrations of urinary parabens and reproductive hormones in Iranian women: Exposure and risk assessment - PubMed (nih.gov)]
- In a review of men, scientists found exposure to parabens and other endocrine-disrupting chemicals negatively impacted semen quality and sperm DNA integrity. [From Oxidative Stress to Male Infertility: Review of the Associations of Endocrine-Disrupting Chemicals (Bisphenols, Phthalates, and Parabens) with Human Semen Quality - PubMed (nih.gov)]
- Scientists have also linked paraben exposure to increased risks of some cancer types, including thyroid, breast, and prostate. Risk of thyroid cancer and benign nodules associated with exposure to parabens among Chinese adults in Wuhan, China - PubMed (nih.gov).
- Researchers have associated paraben exposure with having a potential impact on gene expression, linking it to having more severe or dangerous cancers. [Environmental Phenol and Paraben Exposure Risks and Their Potential Influence on the Gene Expression Involved in the Prognosis of Prostate Cancer - PubMed (nih.gov)]
- In one study, scientists found higher paraben concentrations in the urine of Latina women who reported frequently using makeup, liquid soaps, and some lotions. The researchers concluded, “Switching to personal care products labeled to be free of phthalates, parabens, triclosan, and BP-3 resulted in lower urine concentrations in Latina adolescents, indicating that exposure can be controlled to some extent by informed product choices.” [Chemicals of concern in personal care products used by women of color in three communities of California - PMC (nih.gov)]
- Even low levels of butylparaben can kill coral, and researchers have detected parabens in bodies of water, fish, and particles on the ocean’s floor. [What Are Parabens, and Why Don’t They Belong in Cosmetics? | Environmental Working Group (ewg.org)]
Diseases and Paraben Products
We go into more detail about the health risks associated with parabens below.
Parabens and Breast Cancer
In multiple studies over the past two decades, researchers have discovered that patients with breast tumors had high concentrations of parabens. This may be attributable to the fact that parabens behave similarly to estrogen, which hormone has also been linked to breast cancer. While there is not currently enough evidence to establish a cause-effect relationship between breast cancer and parabens in the human body, 99% of women with breast tumors in one study had high paraben concentrations in their tissue samples. This correlation is cause for concern.
Parabens and Allergies
In addition to breast cancer, parabens have also been linked to contact dermatitis — a condition that causes bumps and itchy red patches when paraben products are applied directly to the skin. However, these reactions are rare and tend to occur in people with eczema or sensitive skin. If you are prone to rashes or skin sensitivity, it may be best to opt for a paraben-free lotion or paraben-free moisturizer instead, but if this isn’t possible, make sure you test your tolerance with a small patch test before use.
Parabens and Reproductive Health
As we’ve mentioned, parabens can weakly imitate the female estrogen hormone and create imbalances that lead to reproductive issues. One study on rats has shown that a particular type of paraben, butylparaben, can lower testosterone levels in men, potentially reducing sperm count and increasing cancer risk. In a human study, the same paraben was linked to decreased menstrual cycle length and lower overall fertility. High concentrations of butylparaben in the woman’s urine increased the odds of pre-term birth and even low birth weights.
Why Does the FDA Allow Parabens?
Unfortunately, the FDA does not have special regulations for cosmetic preservatives. Under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, cosmetic products do not require FDA approval before going to market, with the exception of color additives. In other words, the FDA does not test cosmetics before they are made available for purchase, and parabens are considered just another ingredient in cosmetic products. However, the FDA does require these products to be labeled honestly.
If the FDA receives convincing data (or large, well-done studies) that parabens in general or individually used in cosmetics (which includes skincare) are a health hazard, the agency can take legal action to protect consumers’ health and welfare. One of those actions is to pull products off the market. The FDA has not yet deemed parabens in cosmetic products unsafe for human use. However, the agency is looking into the matter.
Parabens and the CDC
While the CDC has not called paraben absorption a cause for concern, CDC scientists have “found methylparaben and propylparaben in the urine of most of the people tested, indicating widespread exposure to these parabens in the U.S. population.”
If your cosmetics contain parabens, don’t worry — it’s never too late to swap them out for skincare without parabens. Paraben-free cosmetics are much more affordable and widely available than ever and can be found everywhere, from drug stores to high-end beauty suppliers. Here are some paraben-free bran
Men’s and women’s skincare products
- Thrive Causemetics
Makeup and women’s skincare products
Shampoo, toothpaste, deodorant, hair care, body wash, sunscreen, skincare products
- Morrocco Method
Shampoo, conditioner, hair dye, skin and body care, hair restoration, and styling products
- Burt’s Bees
Lip care, makeup, skincare, baby care products
- Real Purity
Cosmetics, bath and body care, hair care, skincare products
While these products are formulated with safe, natural ingredients, always be sure to read the labels to make sure they are truly paraben-free. Some shampoo brands, for example, pledge to be paraben-free whenever possible, which means that most of their products are safe — but some still have parabens.
What To Look for on a Label
Some product manufacturers have eliminated parabens and other potentially unhealthy additives from their brands. But if you’ve committed to skincare without parabens, it’s important to understand how to interpret ingredient lists on cosmetic labels. Simply looking for terms like “clean” or “green” might not mean a product is paraben-free. Products without any parabens will be labeled specifically as being “paraben-free” or “no parabens.”
To be sure, glance over the ingredients list and look for the top-three most common parabens: butylparaben, methylparaben, and propylparaben. The FDA requires that cosmetics sold in stores or online have a list of ingredients using the common name, and parabens are included. Watch out for parahydroxybenzoate as well — this is synonymous with parabens.
One skincare line that does not include parabens states clearly on its website DefenAge Clean Beauty Brand “You will not find parabens, fragrances, phthalates, formaldehyde, hydroquinone, mineral oil, or gluten in DefenAge’s skincare products.”
What Is Paraben-Free? Safe Preservatives in Beauty Products
After reading all this, you may feel skeptical about what’s being added to your cosmetics in place of parabens. Rest assured that paraben substitutes have been deemed generally safe, including:
- Essential oils: Although not as effective a preservative as parabens, these are a safer and more natural alternative to chemicals for preventing the growth of microorganisms. Products that use essential oils as a preservative, however, will have a shorter shelf life.
- Phenoxyethanol: Phenoxyethanol is an ethyl alcohol-derived preservative and food additive. It sounds like a scary chemical name, but phenoxyethanol occurs naturally in substances like green tea and chicory. It is considered a safe and effective synthetic preservative and has been FDA-approved for use in food and cosmetics in small amounts.
- Sodium benzoate: This ingredient name might also spook you, but it’s actually a completely natural and safe preservative for food and cosmetics. In fact, you likely eat phenoxyethanol every day in salad dressing, fruit spreads, and more.
The Benefits of Paraben-Free Cosmetics
Using skincare without parabens will do more than just help you avoid diseases and allergic reactions. You may also experience:
- Younger-looking skin: Anti-aging products sold in drug stores often contain parabens like methylparaben, which may have an aging effect. It has been linked to a reduction in collagen content that keeps your skin young and supple.
- Healthier hair: Using a shampoo with parabens can irritate your scalp and cause an accumulation of the preservative in your blood and urine. Additionally, they can cause your hair to dry out, fade, and even fall out.
- Happier planet: We mentioned earlier that parabens are ecologically damaging. By avoiding parabens, you help protect marine life from harmful effects.
Want to Know More? DefenAge Has You Covered
We hope you feel a little more informed about parabens and confident in your ability to choose better skincare products. If you’d like to read more articles like this, visit our anti-aging blog for more skincare tips.