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Read the Label: Parabens

July 23, 2014

Photo: Ilan Rubin/Trunk Archive

You don’t even realize how many personal care and beauty products you use everyday, from that glob of toothpaste in the morning to makeup wipes to clean the day’s grime off at night. With these little rituals, we’re putting hundreds of different chemicals onto and into our bodies daily. Shouldn’t you know what some of those things are? In this column, we chat with cosmetic chemists, doctors, and other experts to dive deep into the ingredient lists of your favorite products.

Name: Parabens.

Otherwise known as: methylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben, ethylparaben, isobutylparaben

What they do: Parabens are antimicrobials that protect cosmetics and other products from contamination and help to extend shelf life. They’re often used in combination with other preservatives.

Where you’ll find them: Body lotions, face creams, makeup, mascara, shampoo, conditioner, styling products, antiperspirants and deodorants, shaving products, nail care products, and other health items. 

Potential side effects: Methyl- and propylparaben can be mild skin irritants, though most people do not experience any side effects. 

Safety profile: Parabens are rumored to be linked to breast cancer. According to Randy Schueller, a cosmetic chemist and the founder of The Beauty Brains, this notion stems from a 2004 study that showed parabens were present in human breast tumors. However, the study was criticized because it did not prove causation between paraben load and cancer formation, just that the chemicals were there. The study’s scientists didn’t test healthy tissue for the presence of parabens as a comparison, but the study results were still sufficient to prompt other scientists to look more closely. Other studies have shown that parabens are weak endocrine disrupters, but there are still knowledge gaps, but a 2005 study estimated that the exposure level you get from personal care items is too low to pose any real risk. Still, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) rates propylparaben as a “high risk hazard,” based on limited data. The other parabens garnered moderate-high risk ratings from the group.

EXPERT OPINION: “The notion that parabens cause breast cancer has been discredited,” Schueller says. “According to the most recent studies [2011], cosmetic parabens have a clean bill of health.” The FDA acknowledges the known weak endocrine disrupting properties of parabens, but states, “They have been shown to have much less estrogenic activity than the body’s naturally occurring estrogen.” It’s been determined that concentrations of up to 25 percent are safe—cosmetics generally contain 0.01percent to 0.3 percent.

ALTERNATIVES: If a product doesn’t contain parabens, companies will usually mark it “paraben-free,” a designation that’s more and more common since the 2004 study raised public awareness. According to Schueller, alternative preservatives to parabens include phenoxyethanol, methylisothiazolinone, chloromethylisothiazolinone, DMDM Hydantoin, and imidazolidinyl. (We are not asserting that these are safer, just that they’re alternatives.)There’s also leucidal liquid which is made from fermented radish extract. Citrus extracts (like grapefruit) are commonly touted, but are not currently allowed in Europe or Japan. If you buy a product made with completely “natural” products and no preservatives, make sure you throw it away by the expiration date—it really will go bad.