If we had a dollar for every time we heard the phrase parabens are bad for you,” we’d be millionaires by now. And honestly? We wish it were that simple; parabens remain one of the most heavily debated topics amongst skincare enthusiasts and experts alike.

So why exactly do we find it hard to make up our minds about this preservative, and why have we, as a skincare brand, chosen to opt against it in our formulations? Read on to find out.

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What are parabens?

Since the 1920s, parabens have functioned as common artificial preservatives in personal care products to prevent and reduce bacteria’s growth and mold and prolong your favorite beauty products’ shelf life.

If you’re wondering why beauty brands favor parabens in their products, wonder no more. It’s all due to its resistance against hydrolysis and thermal stability, which essentially means that brands can use them in multiple cosmetic tests without the preservatives spoiling fast.

Getting into the details, the most common parabens found in your cosmetics consist of four esters—methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben, and butylparaben. These preservatives are efficacious, odorless, colorless, inexpensive and biodegradable, and are often used to combine with other ingredients at minimal concentrations for better efficacy.

Seems too good to be true? Perhaps. But we’ll go more into detail about that later on in the article.

What cosmetics contain parabens?

Parabens can be found in various personal care products, making it easy for consumers like you to be exposed to it over time. Specifically, they can be found in 99% of leave-on products and 77% of rinse-off products.

Statistics show that adolescent girls who wear makeup every day have 20 times the propylparaben levels (the most popular form of paraben in cosmetics) in their urine compared to those who do not.

Cosmetics that contain parabens include:

  • Body and face lotions
  • Moisturizers
  • Hair products
  • Cleansers
  • Sunscreens
  • Toothpaste
  • Makeup
  • Deodorants
  • Shaving gels

Types of parabens found in cosmetics:

  • Methylparaben: Shorter-chain paraben used in combination with other ingredients
  • Ethylparaben: Shorter-chain paraben used in combination with other ingredients
  • Propylparaben: Longer-chain paraben used alone, linked to stronger estrogenic activity
  • Isopropylparaben: Longer-chain paraben used alone, linked to stronger estrogenic activity
  • Butylparaben: Longer-chain paraben used alone, linked to stronger estrogenic activity
  • Isobutylparaben: Longer-chain paraben used alone, linked to stronger estrogenic activity

What is the discourse surrounding parabens?

So what’s the big deal, you ask?

Despite its benefits, the preservative has garnered itself a bad reputation. But does it deserve it? Let’s discuss.

Firstly, the basis of the discourse originated from research suggesting that parabens alter or disrupt our biological systems and break down our skin once exposed to it, leading to potential health problems. True enough, this is bad, but have we taken into account the context as to how parabens are used in cosmetics? Perhaps not.

After studying the relevant literature needed to take a stand on parabens, we can argue that parabens have harmful effects if used in large amounts with high exposure. But before we get into that, let’s flesh out the details, shall we?

Parabens’ Controversy

The presence of the preservative has already and will probably continue to compromise our bodies due to the familiar presence of parabens in our cosmetics. They do this by following a path through our bodies—via absorption, metabolization, and excretion in our urine and bile.

Parabens pose the risk of three primary health effects—endocrine disruption and reproductive harm, risk of cancer, and skin irritation. They can act like the estrogen in your body and interfere with the production of your hormones, affecting your reproductive system’s development, functions, and fertility outcomes.

Harvard studies have shown that decreased fertility and menstrual cycle length is associated with urinary propylparaben and butylparaben. The presence of butylparaben is also related to the odds of having premature births and reduced birth weight.

Due to their part in estrogen disruption, there are fears of parabens being linked to breast cancer. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) disclosed that parabens have indeed been found in breast tissue (18 of 20 tumor samples contained small amounts of parabens) but have yet to be a proven cause of breast cancer or any other disease due to the lack of depth of the study conducted. However, it is worth mentioning that low doses of butylparaben work together with other cellular receptors to develop cancer genes and increase the growth of breast cancer cells.

Additionally, exposure to parabens can cause your skin to become sensitized and irritated. Regarding their potential to sensitize your skin, the statistics are as follows—between 0.5 and 1% in Europe, and 0.6 and 1.4% in the US. Although this can be different for everyone as your exposure to parabens over the years and your skin type, in general, will determine just the potential of sensitization by parabens.

Use of Parabens in Context

With that in mind, let’s examine the context of what we’ve gathered about parabens so far. One common misconception we get is that our skin completely absorbs anything we apply to it.

We hate to be the ones to break your bubble, but that’s not entirely true.

Most ingredients applied remain within your skin’s uppermost layers and shield your body from external radicals such as the sun, environment, and even other products you use on your skin. Therefore, the chances of a large concentration of parabens penetrating and ‘attacking’ your body are unlikely.

Next up, researchers who study parabens test high concentrations of parabens (up to 100%), which is why test results are more skewed towards the unfavorable. Obviously, too much of a good thing can end up being harmful. To put things into perspective, cosmetics typically use less than 1% of parabens in their formulations to preserve products, which is not enough to put you at risk of anything drastic.

Parabens are also classified as one of the least-sensitizing and safest preservatives available in the market and shockingly less sensitizing than the preservatives used in paraben-free cosmetics.

As for the claims of parabens causing estrogenic disruption, there hasn’t been enough literature to back them up. Even though this is so, bans on longer-chain parabens, such as isopropylparaben, isobutyl-, phenyl-, benzyl- and pentylparaben have been imposed. On top of that, the effects of estrogen from women’s ovaries and hormones from birth control or hormone therapy are more potent than that of parabens.

How are parabens regulated?

Retailers have the responsibility to disclose the use of parabens on their ingredients list for the sake of transparency amongst their consumers like you. Many retailers have already reduced or eliminated parabens from their products to match the industry’s expectations.

The government, specifically the EU, ASEAN, and Japan, has restricted propyl- and butylparaben in personal care products. In the US, however, the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FD&C Act) state that parabens do not need approval from the FDA before retailing. However, parabens need to be stated clearly on the packaging and advertising of the product.

Our advice?

If you want to play it safe and avoid parabens altogether, check the labels of your skincare products and opt for paraben-free products. Many skincare brands (like us) have gone paraben-free, and you’re bound to find one you like.

Be on the lookout for paraben-free preservatives such as:

  • Phenoxyethanol: The most widely used alternative for parabens in skincare
  • Sodium Benzoate
  • Potassium Sorbate: Often used in organic skincare products
  • Neolone
  • OptiphenPlus
  • Hydantoin
  • Glycacil
  • Natrulon
  • Benzethonium Chloride
  • Natural preservatives: Grapefruit seed, thyme, oregano, tea tree, rosemary, and neem extracts, although they may not work as well as other preservatives

Alternatively, if you still want to continue using parabens in your skincare routine, there’s nothing wrong with that. Let’s not forget that parabens are safe when used in moderation. One tip from us? Balance out your skincare routine with products that use parabens and paraben-free ones, and you’re good to go!

Want to find out more about IREN Shizen's 6 other no-no ingredients? You can read all about them here:
October 26, 2022