Should You Be Avoiding Parabens? The Science

Should You Be Avoiding Parabens? The Science

Much like “organic” and “all-natural”, “paraben-free” is one of those phrases you’ll see displayed prominently on increasing numbers of skincare and beauty products. What are parabens, what health effects do they have, and should you be avoiding them? Here’s the science behind the marketing.

(I’ve written a much simpler rundown of parabens here, if you want a quicker overview.)

What are parabens?

Parabens are a family of preservatives commonly used to control the growth of microbes in cosmetics, toiletries, food and pharmaceuticals. They are esters of para-hydroxybenzoic acid, a naturally occurring chemical found in many fruits and plants. Their chemical structures and actions are very similar, with the “R” group changing as shown below.

Paraben Science: Should You Avoid Them in Your Products?

The most commonly used parabens are methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben and butylparaben, although many others (isopropyl-, isobutyl-, pentyl-, phenyl-, benzyl-) have been used in products as well. Different parabens work best under different conditions and act against different microbes, so you’ll often see them used in combination to enhance the preservative effect.

Parabens were developed in the 1920s and these days, they’re the most widely used preservatives in cosmetics, appearing in over 85% of products. Parabens are popular for good reason: they’re inexpensive, effective in very small amounts, work well in most products, and act against a wide range of nasty microbes. They have a very long record (almost 100 years) of safe use. The only reliably linked harmful health effect is allergy, which occurs in a tiny fraction of people, and it’s often only a problem on broken skin.

Why do parabens have a bad reputation?

Despite all these advantages, parabens have become well known as a “nasty” in the last 10 years. This came about when a few studies appeared which led people to question whether parabens were really as safe as they seemed:

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Fact-check: What’s to blame for the Mentality Nail Polish problems?


Update (2018-12-05): Since Danny of Mentality Nail Polish has generously sent me a cease and desist for defamation as seen in the comments section, I’d like to interrupt your regularly scheduled programming to clarify (even though I think it’s pretty damn clear already) that the causes of the issues are science-based opinion and speculation. 

Welcome to every nail polish lover’s nightmare – nail disease. Wearers of Mentality Nail Polish have been waking up to this horror: mentality-nail-detachment-dmm-nails

mentality-nail-detachment-dmm-nails Thanks to @dmm_nails for letting me use images of her poor nails!

The technical term for this is onycholysis – when your nail detaches from the underlying nail bed. It’s painful, it’s inconvenient, it’s ugly, and you have to wait til it grows out to recover (if it ever does). There are lots of write-ups on the multitude of legal and ethical fuck-ups that Mentality Nail Polish have made in handling this issue, so I’m not going to rehash that in this post (you can read all about it at The Mercurial Magpie and Ashley Is Polish Addicted, amongst others). Like many others, I’ve been racking my brains wondering what exactly went wrong.

Of course, we won’t know for sure until someone gets analysis results back from a lab. Mentality “almost have enough funds” for an analysis now (although they’ve reportedly known about this problem since September last year, and a GCMS can ordered for under $100 and they haven’t even done that, so I’m guessing we’ll hear the results in 2020 or after an injunction?). But since they’re going full Laganja on this one, I’m not holding my breath.


In the meantime, here’s my analysis of all the speculations that have been flying around. Keep in mind that these are just speculative hypotheses and my opinions on them only – they’ll change as we get more complete information (which is pretty tricky, as Mentality have been deleting their posts, and I’m having trouble finding some of their past statements… I’m sure a lot of links I currently have here will die!). As I’ve read more, I’ve changed my mind about 7 times about what I think the most likely cause is. I’ll be updating the possible explanations as they develop.

What we know

  • Indie makers typically buy a pre-made base from a larger manufacturer, then add tints and glitters. This is what Mentality have supposedly been doing.
  • From Mentality’s Facebook page:
    • Mentality were using Tevco and Fiabila base (3/4 free), but sometime late last year/early this year they switched to a base from Arminex (5 free – parent company of Nubar). They’ve since switched back. They do not make nail polish base themselves… “yet”.
    • The problematic polishes aren’t isolated to the neons, although the neons were very popular and consumed whole barrels of the base, so they’re the most commonly reported.
    • Mentality degassed all the bases to “remove air bubbles and found that Arminex base is very foamy, compared to the other manufacturers whose polish base does not foam upon degassing.”
    • Not everyone who wore them were affected (around 40 people have reported reactions to Mentality so far). The earliest case was @spilledmilknails, a Mentality swatcher, in September 2014.
  • From people who own the affected polishes:
    • The polishes with the different base smell very “chemical” “like melted plastic”, and the smell seems to have gotten worse over time.
    • Some people were reporting stinging, itching and redness upon application.
    • People who experienced nail detachment generally wore them for longer periods, while swatchers who removed them immediately were generally affected less. There are exceptions though – apparently someone swatched them for 4 hours and ended up with nail damage a few days later.

Faulty Arminex Base Theories

This is the angle that Mentality have been pushing, which makes sense because it means less liability for them and hence their best chance of getting out of this without being buried in a steaming turdpile of legal troubles.

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Fact-check: “Solvent-Free” Nail Polish Removers

For years, we’ve been using just 2 solvents, ethyl acetate and acetone, to remove nail polish. But recently a whole host of new removers containing neither of those have made their way onto the market – what are they, and are they worth a shot? Are they really solvent-free? No. Anything that dissolves something else up is a solvent – …

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Fact-check Friday: What is a chemical peel?

Sorry for the delayed Fact-check Friday this week! We’re looking at something more hardcore today – not quite surgery, but not something you want to attempt blindly either: chemical peels. What is a chemical peel? Photo credit A chemical peel is a procedure for treating certain skin disorders, or simply improving the texture and appearance of the skin. It involves …

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Fact-check Friday: What’s the deal with parabens in cosmetics?

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 …

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What’s wrong with SLS?

(Photo credit: Steve Ford Elliott) Lots of personal care products proudly say they’re “SLS-free”. What was wrong with it in the first place? Sodium lauryl sulfate (also known as sodium dodecyl sulfate, or sodium coco-sulfate) is found in many personal care products, such as shampoo, toothpaste . It looks like this: It has an oil-soluble “tail” (on the left) and …

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Sun Protection Basics

You northern hemisphere girls are heading towards midsummer, and us southern hemisphere girls are missing summer, so I thought I’d remind everyone of the most important thing to remember when going into the sun… sunscreen! During my research I came across this brilliant infographic which presents all the research in a much more interesting and clearer format than I could, …

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Is an aspirin mask the same as a beta hydroxy acid treatment?

(Chaval Brasil) Aspirin masks are a popular DIY skincare treatment, but can some pills crushed in water be an effective homemade replacement for expensive salicylic acid exfoliants? Aspirin vs salicylic acid Aspirin is acetylsalicylic acid, which sounds a lot like salicylic acid, a beta hydroxy acid that’s great for exfoliation, with anti-irritant and anti-bacterial properties that make it great for …

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