Beauty products are more advanced than ever, which is great news when it comes to beating dark circles and breakouts. But with more advanced formulas come more complex ingredients, which is where things can get a little, well, murky—especially on the topic of parabens. While groundbreaking products developed by genius cosmetic scientists may sound like the thing we all need more of, there’s been some backlash when it comes to the growing number of synthetic ingredients used in the lotions and potions we slather on our bodies.
Parabens are currently taking a lot of that heat. But while we’ve all seen the influx of paraben-free labels in the beauty aisles, do you actually know what parabens are? Or why they’re seemingly so controversial? We chatted with Iris Rubin, MD, a Harvard-trained board-certified dermatologist and the cofounder of SEEN Hair Care, and Lisa Pruett, MD, a board-certified dermatologist with U.S. Dermatology Partners, to break it down for us. From why parabens are in our cosmetics in the first place to why they’ve earned a bad rep in recent years, here’s your guide to everything you need to know about parabens.
Products have a long shelf life these days, especially when you consider the journey each pot, bottle, or tube will go through from manufacturer to point of sale to your bathroom shelf. So it makes sense that to keep things as fresh as possible, chemists need to add some form of preservative—that’s where parabens come in. "Parabens are preservatives used in personal care products to prevent bacteria or fungus from growing in the products, increasing the products' shelf life," Rubin explains.
What Are Parabens?
You’ll find them in everything from shampoo and shower gel to face creams and serums (note—oils play by different rules, so they don’t require the same preservatives as water-based products), where they help to keep active ingredients stable, effective, and free from harmful bacteria growth—which is especially important in jars and pots that allow for finger dipping. The most commonly used are methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben, and butylparaben. "These ingredients have been around for decades, but their safety has been called into question because they mimic estrogen, and one study of about 20 patients found traces of parabens in breast cancer tissue," notes Pruett.
Are Parabens Bad For You?
Unfortunately, there’s no straight answer here, hence a decades-long debate.
On to that study that Pruett mentions, above. In 2004, British scientist Philippa Darbre published a research paper that appeared to find traces of parabens in breast cancer tissue samples. While there wasn’t enough evidence to conclusively prove a link between paraben use and increased cancer risk, the paper did prove that parabens can pass through the skin barrier and into our bodies.
Rubin continues, referencing Darbre's research, "The main concern is for endocrine disruption and association with breast cancer," she says. "A small study showed trace parabens in breast tumors, though no causal relationship between parabens and breast cancer has been established."
Darbre's research added fuel to concerns that were already surrounding parabens as potential disruptors to the endocrine system, meaning they can interfere with our regular hormone production, specifically by mimicking estrogen, which some researchers suggest could potentially lead to reproductive complications and heightened cancer risk in adults as well as developmental issues in children. But as Pruett notes, there were "definitely some issues" with Darbre's study, "because they didn’t test normal tissue for parabens, but the theoretical risk has raised concern for consumers. The FDA has not banned parabens in the US.. because of the lack of scientific proof that they have an affect on human health."
According to EU and FDA regulations, parabens in their current form are officially considered safe to use, since cosmetic products only use a very small concentration of these ingredients in their formulas (up to around 0.4 percent, though measurements do differ for each paraben).
Rubin reassures that parabens are rather safe to use. "Other than the possible health concerns as discussed above, parabens are usually well-tolerated," she says.
However, in 2019 EU legislators set new rules for the term “paraben-free” stating "free from parabens should not be accepted, as it denigrates the entire group of parabens" to curb the use of it in beauty marketing and labeling so it doesn't stigmatize brands that continue to use them. That said, numerous skin, hair, and makeup companies are choosing to formulate with alternatives just in case.
Although parabens haven't been proven to be dangerous, Rubin chooses not to use them in her products. "At SEEN Hair Care, we prefer to minimize risk so we are paraben-free," she says.
“We use the precautionary principle; if multiple research casts doubt over an ingredient’s safety to humans or the environment, we will not use it,” explains Rose Ovensehi, the founder of Flora & Curl Botanical Haircare, an all-natural hair care line formulated for those with naturally dry, textured hair. Meanwhile, Elsie Rutterford, a cofounder of Clean Beauty Insiders and BYBI Beauty, a beauty brand that creates 100 percent natural, certified vegan, and cruelty-free skincare products echoes this play-it-safe sentiment: “Many believe parabens are linked to serious diseases and hormonal disruption in men and women, but many fiercely debate this.”
“Any ingredient that causes that much controversy in our eyes is best kept out of our products—proven or not, why take the chance?” Rutterford continues. “Instead, we formulate products that are stable and safe in their own right, without the need for such a powerful preservative. If a preservative can keep bacteria at bay for a 36-month shelf life, chances are it will kill a decent proportion of the good stuff in your products, too.”
Are Parabens Bad for the Environment?
Studies have shown that parabens have shown up in elevated levels in marine animals, however, no conclusive study has been done to show if any harm has been done to the animals. The cause? We most certainly know it's due to the large number of parabens that have been introduced in our cosmetics since the 1950s.
And according to another study , parabens have been found in the ocean, streams, rivers, and water supplies, but the level of those parabens is low.
Like studies involving humans, there isn't enough hard evidence to determine what, if any harm parabens do to the environment.
What Products Contain Parabens?
Pretty much any type of cosmetic product can contain parabens. Facial cleansers and moisturizers, deodorants, shampoos and conditioners, toothpaste, sunscreens, shaving gels and creams, foundations, concealers, and eye makeup are just the tip of the iceberg of products containing parabens.
If you're in doubt, you can check out the ingredient list on your product packaging. Parabens are easy to spot thanks to the fact that even their full chemical names always end in “paraben” (e.g., methylparaben, propylparaben, or butylparaben).
What Are Alternatives to Parabens?
If you want to play it safe and give parabens a miss where you can, you’re in luck—paraben-free products are everywhere. To steer clear of greenwashing, however, we’d suggest always checking the ingredient label to make sure you’re getting the goods.
When it comes to hair care, Ovensehi recommends looking out for alternative preservatives, including sodium benzoate or potassium sorbate, while many skincare products look to organic compounds with preserving properties, such as salicylic acid, benzoic acid, and sorbic acid. Looking for airtight packaging (which minimizes the exposure of products to open air) is a good idea, too, as it'll help limit bacteria growth.
As with natural and organic products, when you’re going paraben-free it’s vital to keep an eye on the expiry date—you’ll find it either printed on the bottle or as a symbol that looks like an open pot with a number in the center; the number indicates how many months it’s good for after opening. If your product has passed its expiration date, you’re best tossing it than taking a risk.
The Final Takeaway
Researchers on both sides of the debate, including Darbre, continue to investigate the long-term impact parabens may have on our health, but in the meantime, it’s up to us all to make a personal call on the products we choose to use.
What do parabens do?
They help to keep active ingredients stable, effective, and free from harmful bacteria growth—which is especially important in jars and pots that allow for finger dipping.
What are the most common parabens?
Which products have parabens?
You’ll find them in everything from shampoo and shower gel to face creams and serums (note—oils play by different rules, so they don’t require the same preservatives as water-based products).
U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Parabens in cosmetics. Updated February 22, 2018.
Xue J, Sasaki N, Elangovan M, Diamond G, Kannan K. Elevated accumulation of parabens and their metabolites in marine mammals from the united states coastal waters. Environ Sci Technol. 2015;49(20):12071-12079. doi:10.1021/acs.est.5b03601
Barabasz W, Pikulicka A, Wzorek Z, Nowak AK. Ecotoxicological aspects of the use of parabens in the production of cosmetics. CT. 2019;(12):99-124. doi:10.4467/2353737XCT.19.126.11451