By Philip Tajanko
MARCH 21, 2023
When it comes to personal care products with complicated ingredient lists, many of us have come to rely on certain labeling phrases, such as “organic”, “clean”, and “sustainable”, as a quick way to make purchasing decisions. If you fall into this category, you may have noticed the phrase “paraben-free” appearing more frequently, especially on common water-based products, such as shampoo, body wash, and moisturizers.
So what are parabens and why might we want to avoid them? Parabens are synthetic preservatives that were initially thought to be safe, but have recently gained a reputation suggesting their link to several health issues, including cancer. This has led many cosmetics manufacturers to avoid their inclusion, allowing them to place a “paraben-free” claim on their products. But with cosmetic claims being largely unregulated, how can you truly know that your beauty products are free from parabens? This blog will elaborate on the potential dangers of parabens and provide a guide to ensure your products are paraben-free.
01 What are parabens?
Parabens are a class of synthetic preservatives that have been used in skincare since the 1920s. In fact, the skincare and cosmetic industries are some of the greatest sources of parabens in daily life. Paraben’s inert and antimicrobial properties aid in extending the shelf life of a product as they prevent or reduce the growth of harmful molds or bacteria. Some of the most common parabens are methylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben, and ethylparaben, with methylparaben being the most prevalent of all parabens 1.
With this class of compounds being so cost-effective and useful, it is only natural that they made their way into the vast majority of skincare products. What came later was the discovery that these compounds weren’t as benign as was first thought. Parabens have the potential to disrupt hormone levels, which could in turn, cause increased risk of cancer, developmental and reproductive problems, among other systemic effects2.
That’s why the Environmental Working Group (EWG), an organization aimed at categorizing the safety of various ingredients in personal care products, has given parabens a score of greater than 7/10, indicating a high health hazard3. These scores are determined by rating each ingredient on factors calculated from nearly 60 integrated toxicity, regulatory, and study availability databases4. In response to this recent scientific evidence, some manufacturers have opted to omit paraben-based compounds from their products, advertising them as “paraben-free”, potentially subbing natural preservatives in place of synthetic parabens.
02 What products usually contain parabens?
Since parabens are a general preservative with inert properties, they can be used broadly across a number of different products, ranging from cleansers to moisturizers and more. However, it is more likely that you will find parabens in products that combine natural ingredients with synthetic ingredients or in products that have high water content. As natural ingredients may be more prone to spoilage from bacteria or fungi, manufacturers may choose to safeguard against contamination risk through the usage of parabens as a preserving agent.
Similarly, products with a high water content, such as shampoos, conditioners, or moisturizers, provide an environment suited for bacterial growth, thus necessitating the use of preservatives. Unfortunately, many products that are water-based are also products most often used on a daily basis, therefore risk of exposure to parabens is high unless consumers specifically seek out “paraben-free” products 5.
03 What are the different types of parabens found in skincare?
While various forms of parabens are used in skincare, such as methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben, isopropyl paraben, isobutylparaben, and benzylparaben, they all have similar systemic effects and should all be avoided whenever possible. The shorter-chain parabens, methylparaben and ethylparaben, are often used in combination, whereas longer-chain parabens, such as butylparaben, are commonly used on their own. Be wary of any product containing an ingredient ending in “-paraben,” and try seeking out “paraben-free” products.
04 Are parabens bad for your skin?
Studies have suggested that in addition to hormonal issues, personal care products with parabens can also cause damage to the skin. The most common symptoms associated with the usage of parabens include:
- dryness or flaky skin
- skin irritation
- contact dermatitis 6
These reactions are often caused due to an allergic reaction to parabens or by applying products containing parabens to already damaged skin7. Paraben allergies are relatively common, and so if you experience a negative reaction to a personal care or beauty product, be sure to double check that your personal care products are free from common irritants, including parabens.
In addition to the damage that parabens can wreak on your skin, it has been suggested that they can disrupt the normal function of the hormonal system. Particularly since parabens can mimic estrogen in the body, there have been raised concerns over their usage in cosmetic and skin care products as environmental estrogens have been linked to the development of certain cancers.
It has been suggested that butylparaben, a commonly used paraben, could activate cancer genes and accelerate the growth of breast cancer cells8. Other parabens have also been found to bind to estrogen receptors, potentially preventing their deactivation by growth inhibitors resulting in cancerous growth9.
05 Can using skincare products formulated with parabens impact overall skin health?
When it comes to skin health specifically, parabens likely only affect the local area of the skin exposed, as the predominant reaction that parabens have with the skin is an allergic response. In the region where it is applied, however, there may be some lasting effects on skin health as a result of inflammation or dryness10.
In these cases, it is best to avoid the skin's exposure to parabens, and to instead treat the skin with a gentle moisturizer and products free from other common irritants, such as sulfates and common fragrance in skincare. Though parabens should be avoided to preserve skin health, the more concerning aspect of parabens is their impact on systemic health, which is likely the more important reason to avoid parabens.
06 How can you avoid parabens at all costs in your skin health regimen?
Most paraben-free products will label themselves as such. However, since cosmetic claims are largely unregulated, the single best way to avoid parabens completely in your skin health regime is to check the ingredient label yourself, avoiding any cosmetic ingredient that ends with “-paraben”.
Due to the known negative effects of certain common irritants, such as sulfates, parabens, and fragrances, as well as their potential to compromise long-term skin health and cause systemic health issues, OneSkin chose to formulate all topical skin care products free from common irritants including parabens. That’s why all OneSkin products, from the peptide body lotion, peptide moisturizer, to the gel cleanser have been rated less than 1.1 on the EWG’s SkinDeep Cosmetics Database scoring guidelines, indicating that they are safe for even problematic or sensitive skin.
- Parabens are used as a synthetic preservative in products such as body and face washes, moisturizers, and lotions.
- Using parabens daily significantly raises the risk of developing any negative side effects as the exposure is continuous and direct.
- Products containing parabens are prone to causing allergic reactions, which can cause dryness, skin irritation, and contact dermatitis.
- It has been suggested that parabens have carcinogenic properties, particularly concerning breast cancer.
By Philip Tajanko: Philip is studying Bioengineering at the University of California - San Diego and is passionate about scientific writing as well as the research of hormones and microhemodynamics.