Today’s Fact-check Friday focuses on one of the most unfairly demonised of chemicals in beauty products: parabens. You probably own at least one beauty product that proudly declares itself to be paraben-free – is there any reason to buy more, or is it pure marketing?
What are parabens?
Parabens are chemicals derived from a chemical called parahydroxybenzoic acid, with this general structure:
They’re found naturally in many plants like carrots, olives, blueberries, strawberries and grapes. They’re one of the most commonly used preservatives, and are found in many beauty, pharmaceutical and food products. Common parabens include methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben and butylparaben (the “R” part in the structural diagram changes).
Why are they in there?
In both cosmetics and plants, they’re there to fight off bacteria and fungi who would like nothing more than to live it up in lovely damp squishy cream or fruit. Parabens have successfully been used since the 1930s, and are commonly used as they have very low allergy potential, and are very stable.
Why are people making a fuss about them?
Parabens have very weak estrogenic activity. A study in 2004 found that there were parabens in breast cancer tissue – this study received a lot of media attention and is now the subject of many chain emails, although there were many flaws with the study (no comparison was made with healthy tissue, and parabens were detected in blank samples without any tissue in them).
With what’s known about them at the moment – yes, especially in light of the tiny amounts used in typical beauty products. Just like how areas with more ice cream shops have higher rates of skin cancer, the presence of parabens in breast cancer tissue doesn’t mean that they caused it. The many studies attempting to find a causal link between parabens and breast cancer have so far been unsuccessful, and many studies have failed to find even a correlational link. For an excellent series of articles that delves deeper into the studies done on parabens, check out Personal Truth or Scare.
Like every other ingredient though, it’s possible to be allergic. Thankfully, paraben allergy is extremely rare, but can cause eczema-like rashes and even bronchospasm (difficulty breathing).
Why not use an alternative?
Unfortunately most of the alternatives to parabens either have more allergenic or irritating potential (e.g. formaldehyde, ureas) or don’t work very well except in large, irritating amounts (e.g. alcohol, rosemary extract, citric acid), or both.
Verdict: There’s no good reason to avoid parabens. The levels used in cosmetics are safe, and many studies have failed to find a link to cancer.