There are arguably few ingredients more villainized in the beauty industry than parabens. More and more products—across the haircare, makeup, and skincare spaces—proudly proclaiming to be "paraben-free" hit store shelves every day. These include offerings from niche indie companies, mass-market drugstore mainstays, and every type of brand in between. Point being, going paraben-free is the thing to do these days. The concept ties in directly with the explosive popularity boom of natural beauty; paraben-free is one bit of criteria that's irrefutably paramount in any type of clean beauty product. So it's completely understandable that all of this in turn implies that parabens are bad or dangerous, and should be avoided (at all costs) in your beauty routine. But it turns out it's not quite that simple or cut and dry. Ahead, New York City dermatologist Sheryl D. Clark, MD, and New York City dermatologist Hadley King, MD, weigh in on one particularly prevalent type of paraben, propylparabens, and explain exactly what you need to know—and whether or not there's any cause for concern when it comes to using products that contain propylparabens.
Type of Ingredient: Preservative
Main Benefits: Any kind of paraben helps to enhance the shelf life and safety of a cosmetic product by preventing the growth of microorganisms, explains Clark.
Who Should Use It: Parabens, propylparabens included, are found in many commonly used skincare and personal care products. More often than not, most people are already using a product that contains these ingredients.
How Often Can You Use It: Many of these products are the ones we use daily, such as creams, lotions, and shampoos.
Works Well With: The majority of ingredients, hence their prevalence.
Don't Use With: There are no ingredients known to interact negatively with propylparabens.
What Are Propylparabens?
Propylparabens are a type of paraben, a group of preservatives that also includes butylparaben, isobutylparaben, and methylparaben, explains Clark. They're highly effective in preventing the growth of fungi, bacteria, and yeast that could cause products to spoil, hence their prevalence in the beauty and personal care space. (Each type of paraben has slightly different microbial effects based on its size.) It's worth noting that parabens are naturally found in plants, in the form of p-hydroxybenzoic acid, or PHBA: "This is a chemical that breaks down to become parabens and serves as a plant’s own protection from infection," says Clark. (She adds that PHBA occurs naturally in many fruits and vegetables, such as cucumbers, cherries, carrots, blueberries, and onions, and is also formed in our body by the breakdown of certain amino acids.) "The parabens used in cosmetics are identical to those found in nature, and are quickly eliminated by the body," she goes on to say, although King does note that the ones found in products are synthetically manufactured.
Benefits of Propylparabens
The function of any type of parabens, propylparabens included, speaks more toward the end formulation of the product versus any type of direct benefit for the skin. "Any product that contains water is susceptible to being spoiled by the growth of fungi or bacteria, which could cause problems such as discoloration, malodor, or breakdown of the product," says Clark. "Under certain conditions, an inadequately preserved product can become contaminated, allowing harmful microorganisms to grow." And while you don't want to be using a cosmetic product that's riddled with bacteria for obvious reasons (AKA the yuck factor), decreasing the risk of microbial contamination is also important because that contamination could potentially lead to skin irritation or even infection, points out King.
Side Effects of Propylparabens
Now let's address the big elephant in the room. The reason for the onslaught of paraben-free products in recent years stems from concerns that parabens mimic estrogen and can act as potential endocrine disruptors, says King. Clark attributes the rise in consumer suspicion to a 2004 study published in the Journal of Applied Toxicology, which reported on the discovery of paraben-like substances in breast tissue. According to Clark, this led the media and consumers to jump to the immediate conclusion that parabens cause breast cancer. It's understandably concerning, but Clark says that many studies have shown that certain parabens don't have any estrogenic activity. In fact, some phytoestrogens (naturally occurring compounds found in plants and many plant-based foods, such as soy) can be up to 10,000 times more potent than parabens. "Some effects or activity that mimics estrogen have been associated with parabens in vitro, but this activity has been noted as very weak, and there are no established reports of human cases in which parabens have elicited an estrogen-mediated adverse event," she says. (She also says that because parabens are ingested by eating fruits and vegetables, it's not surprising that they were found in breast tissue.)
As far as propylparabens specifically are concerned, these have even less of an effect on estrogen because of their shorter chemical chain, Clark tells us. And while the FDA doesn't regulate personal care products nor the ingredients they contain, Clark does add that the agency has deemed propylparabens as GRAS (generally recognized as safe and effective) for the use in food. And in other countries, where cosmetics are much more closely regulated by the government—including in the EU, Japan, Australia, and Canada—safe levels of parabens have been established and approved, she says.
More established side effects of propylparabens include skin, eye, and throat and mouth irritation, as well as allergic skin reactions, says King. However, she's quick to note that these are rare, while Clark adds that in fact parabens are often used as preservatives because of their gentle and non-sensitizing profile.
The bottom line: Parabens, propylparabens included, may not necessarily deserve the bad rap they get. And it's worth keeping in mind that, as is the case with so many things in the beauty industry, "paraben-free" may be more about marketing hype than anything else. That being said, if for your own personal reasons and comfort level you want to avoid them, go for it. It's easier than ever to do, given the vast amount of paraben-free products out there.