When shopping for skincare products, you’ll certainly find tons with “paraben-free” prominently on the labels. Parabens and skincare will likely be entwined for years to come. Parabens are effective in preventing skincare products from expiring quickly.
However, it’s hard to ignore the studies published for decades that cast doubts on the safety of paraben use in skincare and food. Continue reading and learn more about parabens and whether or not it’s something you should consciously avoid.
What Are Parabens?
Parabens are chemical compounds commonly used as preservatives for cosmetics (including skincare and makeup) and pharmaceuticals. You may also find it an ingredient in personal hygiene items, even food.
These industries have favored using parabens in their products since the 1920s for several reasons.
Besides being effective preservatives for products with biodegrading ingredients, parabens are chemically stable, water-soluble, cheap, and don’t alter a product’s consistency.
Parabens have antifungal and antimicrobial properties beneficial for the long-term storage of cosmetic products that are known for their susceptibility to bacterial and mold growth.
How to Identify Parabens in Skincare
Parabens are esters of p-hydroxybenzoic acid and can be found in nature. They’re present in certain bacteria and plants. Meanwhile, the parabens used commercially are synthetic derivatives or combined with an alkyl or aryl.
So you won’t find it written simply as “paraben” on cosmetics labels. You’ll find them listed as:
So, unlike sulfates, it’s much easier to find parabens in the ingredients list. The list above includes some of the most common parabens in skincare and cosmetic products. You can easily spot the others, as they will have the -paraben suffix in the name.
3 Reasons Parabens Are Getting a Bad Rap
Parabens’ ability to neutralize bacteria and their overall preservative activity sounds all good, right? So why are many of your favorite skincare brands now heavily advertising their products as paraben-free?
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration considers parabens safe. The EU also allows the use of parabens in cosmetics, but the region has more specific laws on how much parabens can be added to consumer products.
Various research published in recent years likely sparked the trend after linking the accumulation of parabens in the human body to various health concerns. Don’t be surprised to find parabens often included in the list of skincare toxins to avoid.
1. Parabens Found in Breast Cancer Tumors
A 2004 British study analyzed samples of human breast tumors from 20 participants. Researchers found parabens can remain intact in human breast tissue.
The highest concentration was methylparaben, which comprised 62% of the parabens in the breast tissue.
While it didn’t conclude that parabens can directly cause breast cancer, its findings provided grounds to explore the potentially harmful effects of daily exposure to parabens.
2. May Disrupt the Endocrine System
Various studies found that different types of parabens can alter the body’s endocrine functions. Parabens can have “weak associations” with estrogen receptors in cell-based model studies.
In animal studies, parabens displayed estrogenic effects. In humans, higher-than-normal estrogen levels could lead to weight gain, poor mood, irregular period flow, and worse premenstrual syndrome.
Earlier research focused on methylparaben, ethylparaben, n-propylparaben, and n-butylparaben found their estrogenic activity could promote the growth of the MCF7 breast cancer cells.
3. Effects on Skin Cells
You may not have realized it, but there’s a good chance that several of the products you apply to your skin contain different types of parabens. This may be another area of concern, especially in products with methylparaben.
This type of paraben can remain unmetabolized and accumulate in the stratum corneum, the outermost layer of the skin. It was also found to adversely affect the proliferation of skin cells (keratinocytes) and the expression of type IV collagen.
There’s also evidence that when human skin is treated with methylparaben, it’s more prone to cell damage and oxidative stress when exposed to ultraviolet-B rays.
Natural and Healthy Skincare Ingredients to Look For
Avoiding parabens might not be the only thing you need to do to enhance your skincare routine. It will immensely help if you opt for healthy, skin-loving ingredients as well.
This might be one of the best natural ingredients for having a number of skincare benefits. It’s a powerful moisturizer with anti-inflammatory properties that may help with acne problems.
And you can also use coconut oil by itself, especially if you’re looking for an all-natural (yet still effective) makeup remover. Buying coconut oil is quite economical, too, because you can also use it on your hair.
Here’s another powerful natural ingredient you would want to be in your skincare products. Green tea has an excellent antioxidant effect, so it should help you revitalize your skin and fight oxidative stress caused by UV exposure.
It’s also a great antimicrobial agent because it contains catechins and polyphenols that can damage the cell walls of bacteria. That makes green tea a desirable ingredient to fight acne.
Aloe vera is like coconut oil because of the many ways you can use it. It’s commonly added as a skincare ingredient, especially in products designed for dry skin types. It helps lock in moisture and avoid transepidermal water loss.
You’ll commonly find it as the main ingredient for soothing gels because it helps soothe the skin in case you’re experiencing irritation and inflammation. So if you’re nursing a sunburn or small grazes. You’ll benefit from using products with aloe vera in it.
Tea Tree Oil
Tea tree oil is one of the most sought-after skincare ingredients because of its many benefits, including antimicrobial, antifungal, and anti-inflammatory activities for the skin.
When used on the skin, it may help prevent acne breakouts and is soothing. It’s also widely used to address issues like dandruff and athlete’s foot.
Gotu Kola (Centella Asiatica)
Unlike the natural ingredients above, you might be a little unfamiliar with Gotu kola or Centella Asiatica. It’s about time to learn about this natural ingredient and look for skincare items that have it.
It’s been used for centuries and in several ways. For the skin, it’s been widely used for its wound-healing capabilities. It’s also been studied for its potential to reduce the appearance of stretch marks and scars.
Are Natural Ingredients 100% Safe?
While natural ingredients are generally good, they're not entirely risk-free. For instance, many natural skincare ingredients are known allergens, as well. When testing out a new skincare product, always do a patch test first to see if your skin will have any adverse reactions.
So, Should You Avoid Parabens for Good?
While there are multitudes of clinical studies that introduced the potentially harmful effects of parabens, it’s worth noting that many of them were done on animals. And the scope of studies with human participants is relatively limited.
No research has ever concluded that parabens alone can cause cancer. The same goes for its purported disruptive effects on endocrine functions.
A 2019 report on paraben toxicology pointed out that in vitro studies showed weak estrogenic effects of paraben derivatives. On the other hand, the carcinogenic properties of parabens have yet to be studied in humans.
That said, you shouldn’t completely ignore what the research above says about parabens. There are benefits to opting for skincare products with fewer chemicals in the ingredients, so going paraben-free is unlikely to make your skincare routine any worse.
Do be mindful of the products that claim to be “paraben-free” because not all use that label accurately. Due to the influx of consumers wanting to go all-natural with skincare, it’s not shocking that “greenwashing” has also become a trend.
So, if you’re shopping for paraben-free products, read the label. Now that you know what are parabens and how to identify them in the ingredients, you’re more capable of avoiding potential skincare toxins from the products you use.