Are parabens dangerous and should you avoid them?

You know how everybody says parabens are dangerous? I don’t agree with them. Me loves some parabens.

What Are Parabens?

Parabens is a family of ingredients based on parahydroxybenzoic acid. Its members, like in any other family, are closely related and have lots of stuff in common. But, each one of them also has its own personality (known in the scientific world as chemical and toxicological properties) that distinguishes them from the rest of the clan. So, it’s wrong to paint them all with the same, ugly brush.

The most common types of parabens used in cosmetics are:

  • Butylparaben
  • Ethylparaben
  • Isobutylparaben
  • Isopropylparaben
  • Methylparaben
  • Propylparaben

So, What Are Parabens Doing In My Cosmetics?

Parabens are powerful preservatives. They’re really good at killing both the fungi and bacteria that somehow find their way inside our makeup and skincare products (for example, when we swipe our dirty fingers into a jar of moisturizer) and give us some nasty infection.

It’s thanks to parabens if we can enjoy our fave products for years and years, without fear of ending up in the doctor’s office. Aren’t they awesome?

Are Parabens Dangerous?

None, really, but you know scaremongers. They’re paranoid. They like to find fault with everything and spread nasty rumours around, sometimes so convincingly it’s easy to believe what they say if you haven’t checked out the scientific literature yourself (and who the heck has the time to do that?).

Critics accuse parabens of easily penetrating through the skin and:

  1. harm our reproductive system (in particular, reduce sperm count)
  2. cause breast cancer
  3. cause premature aging
  4. accumulate in the body till they reach a dangerous level that can cause all the issues above and more

Worrying stuff, huh? Don’t fret just yet. Let’s take a look at what the science say and debunk one controversy at a time, ok?

Do Parabens Harm Your Reproductive System?

Critics accuse parabens of mimicking estrogen, causing all sorts of issues to our, and our men’s, reproductive system, including reducing sperm count. Their source is a 1998 study titled “Some Al kyl Hydroxy Benzoate Preservatives (Parabens) Are Estrogenic.” With a name like that, the case should be closed, right?

Wrong. Why?

1. The study was performed on rats. We’re nor rats (well, some of us are, but that’s another problem).

2. The rats either ate the parabens or were injected with them. We don’t eat cosmetics or inject them into our bodies (although parabens are used as preservatives in food, so we do eat some of them).

3. The dose of parabens given to the rats is 4000 higher than those used in cosmetics. Anything at a high enough dose will harm you.

The results?

Butylparaben and methylparaben showed NO estrogenic activity.

Other parabens showed a VERY weak estrogenic activity (100,000 weaker than the natural estrogens our bodies naturally produce).

And that at incredibly high doses. Only minuscule quantities of parabens are used in cosmetics. For example, less than 0.19% of butylparaben is present in a moisturizer, and only 4% of that penetrates the skin.

Do you know how many skincare products you’d have to apply every day to reach a level when parabens can harm you? Way more than even the most famous of beauty bloggers have in their homes!

Not convinced yet? Then, hear this. There are THREE studies (all reliable ones, this time) that claim parabens do NOT mimic estrogen! Three! And they’re all ignored in favour of the only one that’s flawed!

I guess that’s human nature, to completely ignore everything that doesn’t fit in with your theory. *sighs*

Should You Worry About Parabens Harming Your Reproductive System?

Nope. They don’t mimic estrogen, so there’s no reason to worry.

Do Parabens Cause Breast Cancer?

Critics also accuse parabens of causing breast cancer. To prove their theory, they cite a 2004 study called “Concentrations of Parabens in Human Breast Tumours.” 20 tissue samples were removed from human breast tumours and tested for parabens. Parabens were in almost all of them.

Terrified? Worry not, my beautiful smart friend. This study, like the previous one, is DEEPLY flawed.

1. Only 20 samples were tested. That’s way too low.

2. Patients’ history wasn’t recorded. We don’t know if they used products with parabens (not all of them have parabens, after all). But, parabens, are used as preservatives in some treatments for breast cancer. Maybe that’s how they ended there?

3. There was NO control. That means diseased tissued wasn’t compared to healthy tissue. If parabens were found in healthy tissue, as well, they obviously wouldn’t be the cause of cancer. Just because something is there, doesn’t mean it’s doing something nasty. Heck, water is present in cancerous breast tissue, too. Do we want to blame that as well?

4. Even the authors of the study stated in their conclusion that the presence of parabens didn’t prove they were the cause of cancer. Yet, everyone else assumes they are!

Should You Worry About Parabens Causing Breast Cancer?

Nope. And, you shouldn’t worry about them causing any other type of cancer, either.

Do Parabens Cause Wrinkles?

Critics have recently started to blame parabens for premature aging, as well (they’re already so hated, so why not?). The study they picked this time is to support this theory is “Combined Activation of Methyl Paraben by Light Irradiation and Esterase Metabolism Toward Oxidative DNA Damage.” The study found that methylparaben can create reactive oxygen species (aka ROS, they’re a cause of premature aging and DNA damage) when exposed to sunlight.

There are a couple of things wrong with this study, too (you’d think that, by now, they’d have learn to read a scientific paper, but, nope).

1. The study was performed in vitro. How can we know if methylparaben has the same effect on animals or humans? It’s not automatic!

2. Methylparaben was in an acqueous solution. That increases the number of ROS created, because it exposes meythylparaben to a lot more sunlight. When applied on the skin, methylparaben is partly absorbed by the body and, after 6 hours, only 5% of it remains intact on the surface. 

Should You Worry About Parabens Causing Premature Aging?

Nope. There’s no proof that, when applied on the skin, parabens can cause wrinkles or damage DNA.

Do Parabens Accumulate In The Body?

If you’ve read the previous paragraph, you know the critics are right about one thing (well, that had to happen – it’s the law of probability): parabens can penetrate the skin. But, do they accumulate enough to harm us?

A 2007 French study asked the same question, and answered it, too. Researchers applied 0.45mg of parabes to the skin every 12 hours for 36 hours.

The scary part? Repeated application does increase the amount of parabens that can penetrate the skin for the first 24 hours. Makes sense, the more you apply, the more gets in, right?

The reassuring part? Parabens have no cumulative effect after 36 hours.

Here’s how it works: when parabens enter the body, enzymes in the skin break them down into other substances that are gotten rid of through urine.

Should YouI Worry About Parabens Accumulation?

Nope. Your body is amazing, and gets rid of them for you.

The real problem with parabens (That No One Is Talking About)

Preservatives aren’t really the nicest of ingredients. They’re killers, so they can’t be super gentle. That’s why, sometimes, parabens can cause irritations or even allergic reactions. But, these cases are very rare. Getting an infection from an improperly preserved (or not preserved at all) product is almost a certainty.

Are Parabens Safe?

Yep. After concerns about the safety of parabens were raised, the EU’s Scientific Committee for Consumer Safety (SCCS), which is made of INDEPENDENT experts, investigated the case further. They concluded that parabens are SAFE for use in cosmetics at up the following concentrations:

  • Ethylparaben: 0.4%
  • Methylparaben: 0.4%
  • Butylparaben + propylparaben: 0.19%
  • Total paraben concentration (ie. a mix of them): 0.8%

P.S. These are the MAXIMUM concentrations allowed. In practice, any makeup or skincare products is unlikely to contain more than 0.5% of parabens. That’s far below the 0.8% safety limit.

But, Wait About Parabens Alternatives: Are They Safer?

Nope. Those that are as effective, like formaldehyde-releasing preservatives, are harsher and even more controversial. Those that are gentle, and even natural, either protect against bacteria OR fungi, not both. I don’t know about you, but I won’t be switching any time soon.

Isn’t it ironic, though, how the same people who claim are trying to make cosmetics safer are actually making them a lot less safe?

Related: Parabens Alternatives: Which Ones Are Safe And Effective?

Should You Avoid Parabens?

Wow, that was a lot of info, wasn’t it? Let’s recap:

1. Reputable science says that parabens are safe in the tiny amounts used in cosmetics.

2. All the studies used to prove parabens are bad are flawed, or can’t be applied to humans.

3. Your body naturally gets rid of all the parabens that manage to penetrate through the skin within 36 hours.

4. Paraben alternatives are either harsher or less effective.

5. Bonus: parabens are broken down naturally in the environment, so they don’t cause pollution, either!

If new information proving parabens are bad will come to light in the future, I will certainly let you know and change my opinion. But I highly doubt that will happen. Parabens are safe. There’s only one reason not to use them: if you develop a negative reaction, like a rash or allergy, to them. But, again, that’s very rare.

I hope that reassured you. Enjoy your products safely. You deserve it.