What Are Parabens And Do I Really Need To Avoid Them?

First off, let me say that I am not only writing this article as a mom but also as someone who has been in the medical field working as an internal medicine physician assistant. My medical background has helped me with not only creating product formulations but also understanding all of the various clinical trials that have been done and are ongoing. I started researching parabens after realizing that they were used in many household and beauty products. And now we are seeing more and more products advertising “paraben-free”. I wondered what all of the fuss was about? Well in order to talk about parabens we first need to discuss what they are and why we use them. So follow me along on my paraben journey...I will try to make this as simple as possible without getting into all of the medical jargon.

What is a paraben?
A paraben is a synthetic compound (no natural) that has been commonly used as a preservative in cosmetics. Preservatives are used to stop the growth of bad bacteria, fungus, and mold thus helping to prolong the shelf life of products. Sounds pretty reasonable, right? You buy a product and you want it to last for a little while without going bad. Cosmetics and body care products need some type of preservative in order to help them from spoiling and going bad. That is where these parabens come into play. And when companies are using parabens as preservatives they will typically add a very small amount of this ingredient to their formulation. How much do you ask? You will never know because the cosmetic industry doesn’t legally have to tell you about their formulation and the amount used. Bottom line... when you think of parabens, think of preservatives. So, now that we know what a paraben is...where do we find them?

Parabens can be found in everything from deodorant and cosmetics to even your toothpaste! How do you know if your products contain parabens? Read your ingredient list and look for words ending in ‘paraben’ such as methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben, and isobutylparaben.

And now the BIG question...are parabens bad?
During my research on parabens, I kept reading about this British study that was done in 2004  (most anti-paraben articles will reference this study). The study looked at the breast tumors from 20 women and found parabens in the tissue (with methylparaben having the highest concentration). Parabens have been shown to act as a hormone disruptor meaning that they mimic estrogen and bind to estrogen receptors in the body. So some will formulate that parabens can cause an increased risk of breast cancer and reproductive toxicity. Now granted many of the products out there likely carry small amounts of parabens but what is concerning is the cumulative effects of these chemicals over time. So back to that British study...it had shown that parabens were located in that breast tissue BUT the researchers never looked at healthy breast tissue as a comparison. I would be curious to see if these pesky parabens could also be found in normal breast tissue. But either way, the breast tumors had parabens in them. 

What does paraben-free mean?
Paraben-free means that the product does not contain any parabens. Instead, an alternative or safer preservative is used. More and more companies are choosing to go paraben-free but there are still some major beauty brands using parabens. 

Why aren’t parabens banned here in the U.S.?
Of note, the European Union (EU) banned parabens back in 2012 (along with over 1300 other toxic ingredients). So you might be wondering why the FDA hasn’t banned parabens here in the U.S.? 

I looked on the FDA website and found this:
Parabens have not been shown to be harmful as used in cosmetics, where they are present only in very small amounts.” 

There has not been enough evidence or scientific studies here in the United States to determine whether or not parabens are hazardous to one's health. And on top of that, the FDA has very little regulation when it comes to the cosmetic industry.

So what do we do now? Avoid parabens? Not worry about parabens? Are the preservatives taking the place of parabens safe? Are they effective?

As the founder of Girlpalooza and as a mom it was important to me to create safe products for my daughter (and all of our girls out in the world today). One could argue that there isn’t enough evidence showing a direct link to cancer, that the 2004 British study was flawed, and that the amount of parabens in products is so small that it will not affect the human body. Also, are the alternatives to parabens necessarily safer? I believe that we do need more studies on parabens. And even though they are typically found in small quantities, over time these paraben levels can increase in the body. We also know that they mimic estrogen. So bottom line...I will be avoiding them at all costs until there is more research showing that they are safe.