Parabens explained

Parabens, what are they, where can you find them and is it something you want to avoid in your daily life? Nowadays you see cosmetic products popping up everywhere with the label 'paraben free'. A lot of people (including myself) think, since it is something a lot of brands advertise, you should avoid it. I took a closer look at my most used cosmetic products and noticed some of them did in fact have parabens in it.

Drink-Up Intensive Overnight mask by Origins. 

Drink-Up Intensive Overnight mask by Origins. 

This one contains NO PARABENS.

This one contains NO PARABENS.

 

What are they?

Parabens are esters of p-hydroxybenzoic acid. They are used as preservatives in cosmetic products and in food (E numbers 214-219). Because they have antibacterial properties, they prevent micro-organisms from growing in your daily skin care/shampoo/toothpaste/... as quickly. There are other ways (more natural ways) to preserve your cosmetic ingredients but because parabens are so cheap and very effective, a lot of companies don't use the more natural alternatives it. Some of the companies have jumped on the 'no parabens' boat, but have replaced them with other, therefore not always better, preservatives. So 'paraben free' isn't necessarily a good thing. You have to get the whole picture here :p. One of the most common other preservative is phenoxyethanol which can sometimes cause skin (and eye) irritation (but this is not what this article is about :D).

Drink-Up Intensive Overnight mask by Origins does contain phenoxyethanol (last ingredient).

Drink-Up Intensive Overnight mask by Origins does contain phenoxyethanol (last ingredient).

Ultra Facial Cleanser by Kiehl's

Ultra Facial Cleanser by Kiehl's

My favourite facial wash contains propylparaben and sodium methylparaben.

My favourite facial wash contains propylparaben and sodium methylparaben.

 

What are the most commonly used parabens and how do you recognize them on the ingredients list?

How do you recognize if there are parabens in your cosmetic products? Parabens are esters of p-hydroxybenzoic acid. Since you can name a chemical component on twenty million different ways (I'm exaggerating a little bit here, but you know what I mean ;)), a lot of companies do this. It makes it harder to know if you're dealing with a paraben or not. Below you can find the most common parabens.

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

So how do you know whether it's a paraben, when they don't name it like. It are esters of p-hydroxybenzoic acid so either the name will contain

  • Paraben
  • The prefix before paraben (such as methyl, propyl, ethyl,...) followed by ester
  • 4-hydroxy followed by the prefix followed by acid (4-hydroxy methyl ester)

There's a site, EGW's Skin Deep, where you can find a full list of all parabens and the synonyms.

Why are so many people avoiding them?

Parabens are absorbed trough the skin and they can act like hormones, particularly the female hormone estrogen. The longer the chain is (propyl and buyl are longer than methyl) the more it works as en estrogen. They are however much weaker than the estrogen a woman produces. There is a lot of discussion (I read a lot of scientific articles) whether parabens are linked to breast cancer. Parabens were found in breast tumors in different studies and since there's a link between estrogen and breast cancer it was assumed parabens play a big role. For example: the use of under arm products which contain parabens was said to act as a factor for breast cancer due to absorption through the skin. Estrogens have a mitogenic property that stimulates the malignant transformation of premalignant cells, so it's best to avoid them if you should already have malignant cells in your body (the malignant cells aren't necessarily caused by parabens and can occur in your body for a number of different reasons). If you are very interested, I highly suggest you read this. It explains why the studies that have shown a link between breast cancer and parabens weren't well executed (for example: lack of control tissue). I couldn't find a single study that said that parabens actually cause cancer, it may have a hormonal effect but cancer,... not proven quite yet.

Well, it isn't that simple, is it?

Well, it isn't that simple, is it?

I guess there's still a lot of scientific work to be done and after reading articles for several hours I think that you should't be freaking out that much. The Danish government however has decided to ban the use of some parabens in products intended for children up to three years (because they are more vulnerable for hormone substances and they are submitted to a lot of substances on the nappy area :p).

Hope you found this interesting.

Talk to you soon,
Emilie
 

Want to read more?

Final amended report on the safety assessment of parabens

Opinion on parabens by SCCS