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.
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: