Why Parabens Could Be Bad for You
It’s pretty complicated.
Walk through any beauty aisle and you’re bound to see multiple products prominently touting their “paraben-free” formulas on the packaging. Perhaps you’re even seeking them out. You certainly wouldn’t be the only one. It’s pretty clear that consumers are moving away from parabens — but why? Turns out it’s not as simple as it seems. To demystify the conflicting opinions around parabens, we turned to experts on both sides of the argument.
Not quite sure what the big deal is? Here’s what you should know.
What are parabens and why are they in so many cosmetics products?
Parabens are a class of chemicals that are used as preservatives in many personal care products, including lotions, shampoos, toothpastes, makeup, and more. Nneka Leiba, deputy director of research at Environmental Working Group (EWG), a nonprofit environmental advocacy organization, tells Teen Vogue that there are six types of parabens commonly used in personal care products — methyl-, ethyl-, propyl-, isopropyl-, butyl-, and isobutylparabens — and they all work to help curb bacterial growth and extend the shelf life of those products. “Not having a preservative in a product or having an under-preserved product could mean that there’s bacterial contamination in that product,” Leiba says. “And, as you can imagine, introducing that product to your skin, your eyes, your mouth — all the places that we use personal care products — could have detrimental effects.”
So then, what’s so bad about them?
While it’s certainly important to keep bacteria at bay, and parabens accomplish that, there’s concern that they can also do some real harm — borne out of the fact that the chemicals (particularly the “long-chain” parabens like butyl-, isobutyl-, propyl-, and isopropylparabens) are considered potential endocrine disruptors. “Endocrine disruption is basically the disruption of the normal function of the hormone system, and our hormone system drives all of the functions of our body,” Leiba says. “So any alteration or disruption to the function of our body can alter growth, development, and reproduction, [and] brain function, for example.” Parabens specifically mimic the hormone estrogen and could thus interfere with the production of that hormone.
“Because up to 70 percent of breast cancers express the estrogen receptor, there is a concern that parabens may contribute to the development of breast tumors,” James G. Wagner, associate professor of pathobiology and diagnostic investigation at Michigan State University, tells Teen Vogue. And there have been studies linking breast cancer and parabens, including one in 2004 that found parabens in human breast tumors and one in 2015 that showed parabens may be more harmful than previously thought when combined with certain other molecules. But currently, as several experts Teen Vogue spoke with pointed out, the results of studies like these are widely debated. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has stated that it does “not have information showing that parabens as they are used in cosmetics have an effect on human health,” and the American Cancer Society also has noted that studies haven’t shown any direct link between parabens and health problems — including breast cancer. “Right now we have just enough data to elicit concern and undue speculation, and that’s not a good place to be, however the health consequences turn out,” Wagner says.
That said, there remains concern surrounding the effects parabens can have on the body outside of cancer. “There definitely are studies that associate it with reproductive issues like infertility,” Leiba says, noting a study that linked parabens with low sperm count and motility. She also expressed concern over the potential effects the endocrine disruption could have on things like fetal development, though more studies need to be done. And it’s not just about getting pregnant and having healthy babies, either. “The fact that there’s a chemical that mimics estrogen, which is a hormone that’s essential for just the proper functioning of our body is concerning,” says Leiba. “Reproductive hormones are important for reproduction in the sense of having children, but our reproductive health also includes the health of, in terms of women, our uterus and ovaries, and in terms of men, their reproductive system, which isn’t just about having kids.”
If they’re so bad, why haven’t they been banned?
It all comes down to the fact that, while there are concerns, no research has been conclusive enough to convince the FDA to regulate the use of parabens (though the European Union does limit the allowable concentration). “Published research does not show small amounts of parabens in cosmetics pose a significant risk to health,” New York dermatologist Dr. Patricia Wexler, tells Teen Vogue.As for the studies that have been done, Randy Schueller, a cosmetic chemist and cofounder of The Beauty Brains, tells Teen Vogue that there haven’t been enough to warrant serious concern. “In science we don’t look at one or two studies that draw conclusions if they’re outside what the large body of data suggests,” he tells Teen Vogue.
Schueller also points out that, in regards to the endocrine disruption and the effects that can have on the body, the studies that show harmful effects are “typically done at elevated concentrations in the laboratory” and the parabens are applied directly to cells in a dish (in vitro) rather than to the skin. That doesn’t mean we (or the science community) should ignore the results; rather, Schueller says, the results that show the parabens are causing harm mean it’s worth it to look into the issue further. But “when you look at this further, you realize that, first of all, parabens aren’t used [in cosmetics] nearly in those concentrations,” he says. And “cosmetics are applied topically to the skin; that’s not the same as applying a chemical directly to cells inside a dish in the lab. So is there a mechanism for these things to penetrate the skin and interact the same way they do in the laboratory? The answer is no, that hasn’t been proven.”
Lush, a company known for its handmade cosmetics that use many organic ingredients, keeps synthetic preservatives out of 65 percent of its products, but does use parabens in some things. “From our understanding, all existing science points to parabens being safe for cosmetic use,” Amanda Sipenock, a Lush trainer, tells Teen Vogue. “Parabens have been used for [many] years with a history of safe human use, which is why we feel confident using them in some of our products in minimal amounts to keep them fresh. As a global brand, we must rely purely on empirical facts when making decisions around what ingredients to use or not use, and parabens are safe to use, according to the scientific community.”
That said, while Lush uses methyl- and propylparabens in the “minimal amount required” to keep certain products fresh, and only “where they’re really necessary in products like creams, which have a high water content,” Sipenock notes that Lush understands some customers prefer to go without parabens completely (and the brand’s labels clearly define natural versus synthetic ingredients). And for its part, Lush continually works to make products that are “self-preserving” and have reduced water content, thus eliminating the need for synthetic preservatives — and the brand is moving further down that path.
What’s the alternative, anyway?
That’s a path that RMS Beauty, a cosmetics company that doesn’t use parabens, is also on. “Bacteria grows in water,” Rose-Marie Swift, the founder of RMS, tells Teen Vogue. “This is the exact reason we do not use water in our products. Anhydrous formulas are formulas made without water, and the balance of RMS Beauty products are anhydrous. By avoiding water, you are also avoiding all the so-called questionable parabens and emulsifiers that need to be used.”
Sometimes, though, preservatives are necessary, which leaves companies and consumers who want to avoid them looking to alternatives. “There are certainly natural alternatives [like] grape seed extract, lavender, green tea, [and] eucalyptus,” Dr. Wexler says. “But there is no ideal solution that fits all skin types.”
For its part, Swift says that RMS Beauty uses a preservative in the form of a rosemary carbon dioxide. And Yes To, another paraben-free brand, also uses alternative options. “Yes To always uses preservatives, as we consider microbial safety very important,” Ingrid Jackel, CEO of Yes To, tells Teen Vogue. “We use a variety of natural and synthetic preservatives, depending on what works best with each formulas’ properties. We are always looking for new innovations that are proven to be effective in natural preservatives, which are more challenging to formulate with than the traditional synthetic alternatives.”
All that said, it’s important to note that “natural” doesn’t necessarily always mean “good.” “There are many, many chemicals that are found naturally that we shouldn’t rub on our skin,” Leiba says. “We know that poison ivy is not something you want to rub on your skin.” So, whether you’re looking at parabens or alternative options, look beyond whether they’re natural or synthetic, and to what they actually do.
It’s also important to know as a consumer that the absence of parabens doesn’t automatically qualify a product as safe. “The fact that it doesn’t have parabens says nothing about what it does have in there,” Leiba says. “In many cases [parabens] could be replaced with something equally as hazardous, or more hazardous in some cases. So we advise shoppers not to focus on the claims on the front of the package, but actually to look at the ingredients themselves.”
Of course, unless you happen to be a toxicology expert, that’s easier said than done. So many products have long ingredient lists full of words that are difficult to pronounce, much less understand. That’s where the EWG’s Skin Deep database could come in really handy, though. The database contains information on more than 65,000 cosmetics products, which it scores based on more than 60 regulatory and toxicity academic industry databases that contain studies on various ingredients. You can search specific products you’re already aware of by name (or by scanning bar codes with the Healthy Living app), or use the database to discover new, safe alternatives. Each product listed has a score from 1 to 10, with 1 being the best and 10 being the worst. And if a product you’re curious about isn’t in the database, you can still get information the specific ingredients it contains.
What’s the bottom line?
If you don’t do a clean sweep of your bathroom cabinets, many experts say, you should be OK. “The guiding principal in toxicology is that the dose makes the poison,” Wagner says. One application of that principle is that leave-on products like lotions give you a larger dose than rinse-off products like shampoos. Another is that, the lower the concentration of parabens in any product, the lesser the risk — and as Wagner notes, most standards of safe chemical levels for human exposure are set far below the lowest levels that have shown negative effects in animal studies. “Even though there is a long list of chemicals on the back of your shampoo bottle, the levels of each of those ingredients are exaggerated to a low, low safe level,” he says. “Although there is a ‘safe’ level for every chemical, society often takes the ‘safest’ route and just bans the use of a chemical outright, so there is zero exposure. That’s what has happened with parabens…. Results from some studies have been sensationalized and have produced social concerns to a level that may only be quelled by a ban, when it should be answered with good science.”
Indeed, Schueller says that most cosmetics companies use parabens at a much lower concentration than what’s used in the studies that have shown any harmful effects. He also notes that most companies use methyl- and propylparabens (which are both considered safe for use in cosmetics), but if you want to look out for the best options, methyl- and ethyl- are the ones that are considered the safest. Even the European Union, which regulates paraben levels, allows higher concentrations of those than the long-chain parabens previously mentioned. If you want to be pretty sure that what you’re buying is using safe levels and types of parabens, Schueller suggests going with the big, well-known brands. “If you’re buying your cosmetics from a large, reputable cosmetics company, these companies have regulatory and safety departments that make sure all these current regulations are being followed for their formulations,” he says. “So these things are well understood, well regulated, and well taken care of when you’re buying from a company that basically follows the rules. Now if you’re ordering something over the Internet from a company in China, or from somebody who’s making this stuff at home in their bathtub and you’re buying it on Etsy, that’s a different story. Either out of ignorance — someone may not know the regulations if they’re making some small, handcrafted brand…or they may just be willfully ignoring the rules if they’re some fly-by-night overseas Internet company.”
Of course, the science can be overwhelming, as can any reports of potentially harmful effects in your products. And if you’re concerned about parabens, it’s certainly fine to try to go without — as long as you take the time to at least do some research on whatever may be taking their place.
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