Home wellness science What Are Parabens and Should We Be Avoiding Them?

What Are Parabens and Should We Be Avoiding Them?

by Marianne Navada

Parabens are chemicals used as preservatives, most commonly in cosmetics and body/hair care products. They work to prevent the growth of bacteria and molds.

Researchers divide parabens into short and long paraben molecules. This information will be relevant when we discuss the health effects of parabens, since not all parabens are equally harmful. 

Are Parabens Regulated and Why?

The FDA currently does not regulate or have any “special rules” for preservatives in cosmetics. US retailers, however, have taken the steps to ban certain parabens from their shelves. Wholefoods started the ban with CVS and Target following its lead. 

The European Union (EU) currently has a ban on 5 types of parabens and has placed a limit on some. Current research shows that exposure to certain parabens can disrupt hormonal activity and estrogens linked to menstrual cycles and fertility. The level of disruption caused by parabens increases with the size of paraben molecule. For this reason, EU bans some parabens and only places limits on some.

Other Effects

Studies also show that estrogen disruptions accelerate breast cancer cells. Although we need more research on the link between parabens and cancer.

Parabens can be a source of skin irritation. And like the chemicals oxybenzone and octinoxate, which destroy coral reefs, parabens are linked to similar ecological harm. 

Easily detect parabens by spotting the suffix “paraben” when checking out ingredients. Most used parabens include: methylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben, and ethylparaben.

The level of disruption caused by parabens increases with the size of paraben molecule. For this reason, EU bans some parabens and only places limits on some.

Exposure 

The CDC conducted a bio monitoring study in 2005-2006 measuring the levels of parabens present in the urine. This indicates the amount of parabens that has entered the human body. The study found that there is “widespread exposure” to certain parabnes in the US population, with females showing higher concentrations than males. 

What to Make of the Information

In the EU, where regulatory bodies ban and have limits on parabens based on current research, consumers have somewhat of a reassurance on the types and paraben levels found in products. In the US, however, the system places more responsibility on consumers and retailers. For this reason, shopping in certain retail stores offer a convenience. When you shop at Wholefoods, you know that selections have already been curated to be free of parabens. They have a more stringent guideline of what the brand considers safe compared to the FDA.

The story of parabens shows how the pursuit of selfcare requires us to figure out what WE are comfortable using when it comes to taking care of our bodies. Clearly, we can make cosmetics and body/hair care products without parabens, but using natural ingredients as preservatives might cost more.

The contrasting way in which the EU and the US deal with parabens can be a lesson in assessing what role you want governing bodies to play in people’s lives. Do you think placing a ban or limit on certain harmful chemicals will lead to more innovative ways for companies to deliver quality products or are consumers responsible for reading labels and figuring out what they deem harmful for them and the environment?

The More You Know

Although most commonly used in cosmetics and body/hair care products, certain food and drugs may also contain parabens according to the FDA.

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