What Are Parabens and Should You Avoid Them in Personal Care Products?

By Sher Warkentin in Natural Products

The more you learn about natural products on your journey toward living more sustainably, the more questions you'll likely have. When you read through the ingredient list on the back of a box or bottle, you might wonder about the words you see, such as parabens.

What are parabens, and are they safe? The answer might not be black and white, but with a little bit of information, you'll feel confident in making the best choice for your needs.

What Are Parabens?

As the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) explains, parabens are a group of related chemicals that are commonly used as preservatives in certain cosmetic products. They are also used in food and drug products. There are many types of parabens, but some of the ones most commonly used in cosmetics include:

  • Methylparaben
  • Propylparaben
  • Butylparaben
  • Ethylparaben

How Are Parabens Used?

As preservatives, parabens work to prevent the growth of mold or bacteria in cosmetic products, which might be harmful to consumers and reduce the shelf life of products. According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), their antimicrobial properties can be effective in preventing the growth of fungi and gram positive bacteria.

Aside from food and drug products, a variety of different personal care products contain parabens. Some of these products include face and skin cleaners, deodorants, hair care products, makeup, moisturizers, shaving gels, sunscreens, toothpastes, and more. Products may contain just one or a combination of parabens.

Many personal care products contain parabens.

Are There Any Dangers of Parabens?

Besides color additives, cosmetic products and ingredients don't require FDA approval before they hit store shelves. This means that, similar to other cosmetic ingredients, the FDA doesn't specifically regulate the use of parabens in products. The current FDA stance is that there isn't sufficient evidence showing that parabens in products have an impact on human health. However, the administration continuously reviews published studies on the safety of parabens.

Potential Health Effects

Several studies have been published on the use and safety of parabens both for humans and the environment. The EWG cites many of these studies in their report, suggesting that long-chain parabens (i.e., isobutyl-, butyl-, isopropyl- and propylparaben) are not safe for use in personal care products. While these products are not meant to be ingested, as the EWG explains, parabens may be absorbed into the body through the skin, where they become metabolized. Though they are eventually excreted, daily use of a single product or multiple personal care products containing parabens may lead to direct and continuous exposure.

The EWG's findings suggest that certain parabens have the potential to be endocrine disruptors and may cause reproductive harm, such as decreased fertility. Their cited studies have also found that exposure to certain parabens may lead to increased odds of preterm birth and decreased birth weight.

Possible Environmental Consequences

The EWG argues that parabens have also been linked to ecological harm. For example, parabens have been detected in surface waters and fish, and laboratory tests have shown that low levels of butylparaben may kill coral.

According to the EWG, several retailers have already made moves to ban or phase out the sale of products that contain certain parabens. The use of propyl- and butylparaben in cosmetic products is also restricted by the European Union due to inadequate evidence for the safety of their use.

Reading labels is an important step in learning about personal care products.

Using Naturally Derived Preservatives

If you are concerned about the potential dangers of parabens and want to avoid products containing them, there are plenty of natural products available to meet your personal care needs. Natural preservatives can provide alternatives to artificial ingredients—you just have to learn to check labels and look for products made with these natural ingredients.

Naturally derived preservatives to look for include benzyl alcohol, which is derived from Cassia (cinnamon) oil, and lactic acid, which is derived from corn, beet sugar, cane sugar, or tapioca. Lactic acid is also a substance the human body produces naturally. When used as a natural preservative, it prevents the growth of microbes in products to keep them safe for consumers.

Whether or not you choose to seek paraben-free formulas is a personal choice. But being armed with a little more information about what parabens are and how they work can help you feel more informed and confident about your decision. There are also plenty of personal care products—from toothpaste to body wash—made with natural preservatives that could make an excellent addition to your personal care routine.

Want to learn more about the benefits of naturally derived ingredients? Follow the Ingredients from Nature board by @tomsofmaine on Pinterest!

Image Sources: Pexels | Pexels | Sher Warkentin

The views and opinions expressed in any guest post featured on our site are those of the guest author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of Tom's of Maine.

Why It's Good

While preservatives are vital to keeping products safe for use, there are plenty of naturally derived alternatives to parabens that are just as effective.