Parabens: What’s the Problem?

So, if you’re like me and you can’t help but read the label on every single product you pick up, you’ll no doubt have seen the word “parabens” floating about. You might even have read articles about parabens or been told by friends to avoid them, but do many of us really know what a paraben actually is? Why are they used? How can we identify them? And, most importantly, are they actually bad for us?

I realised when I started asking these questions that most people spoke to didn’t have the foggiest idea what a paraben is, so I put together a little research to explain things better.

What is a Paraben?

Essentially, parabens are preservatives. They are man-made chemicals used to prevent the growth of bacteria and therefore increase the length of time before a product denatures and becomes unfit for use. Having been introduced way back in the 1950s (hooray for ‘modern’ science), they can now be found in cosmetic products like shampoos, conditioners, deodorants, makeup, lotions, skin cleansing products and mouthwash, and also in some food products, pharmaceuticals and medicines.

Why are they used?

Parabens are used for one reason and one reason only: Shelf-Life.

Parabens can allow a product to survive for an unnaturally long time (for years instead of months) which means there is less risk that producers and retailers will be be unable sell a product before it becomes unusable. It also means that they can produce it in much bigger quantities without having to worry that it will expire before it can be sold. Believe me, using parabens has nothing to do with making sure you can keep your favourite tinkture in the back of the cupboard for when you need it most, they are all about maximising profits.

So, Are Parabens Safe?

First off, let’s clear up one myth that has been floating about. There is currently no direct evidence to suggest that parabens cause cancer. The 2004 study that caused the scare did find parabens in the breast tissue of 19 out of the 20 women studied, however, there has been no evidence to suggest that parabens themselves are directly carcinogenic.

What we do know, though, is that parabens in cosmetics have been proven to be able to penetrate through skin and remain within the tissue beneath. While parabens in food products are rapidly broken down by the body and excreted in the normal fashion, parabens in cosmetics are absorbed and remain inside us. They have been measured in human blood, urine, breast milk, placental tissue, amniotic fluid and most shockingly umbilical cord blood (which suggests they can cross the placenta!)

Once inside us, parabens have been found to interfere with the body’s naturally produced hormone, oestrogen. For women especially, this can be a massive problem. A high level of oestrogen encourages a faster rate of cell division, which increases the chances that mutations will occur, including those that lead to breast cancer. In this respect we could say that parabens can indirectly contribute to the formation of breast cancer.

We also know that the EU restricts the concentration of each paraben in specific products to ensure that the general population and especially young children under three years old are protected against harm. So even if parabens do not cause cancer, we can see that the wider scientific community is aware of their potential to cause us harm.

As well as being a potential danger to humans, parabens have also been found to cause wider environmental damage. After leaving our homes they end up infiltrating the water table and have now even been found in the bodies of marine animals for the first time. So even if you aren’t damaging your body directly by using them, you could still be harming the world around you. Not a good a idea for the long run!

Identifying Parabens

This is very important. Although some products will feature a warning that they contain parabens, not all producers play fairly! That’s why it’s always good to check the list of ingredients. Luckily for us, parabens are usually easy to identify as their names end in the suffix ‘paraben’: methylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben, or ethylparaben. These four are also the most commonly found parabens so if you can only remember to look out for them then you are already taking massive positive steps.

But be aware! Big companies have started to become wise to the public distrust of parabens and so are listing their products as paraben free while at the same time using other synthetic preservatives that could be equally harmful. To be sure you are getting the best quality product for yourself and for the environment, as always, check the list of ingredients to ensure that everything used is natural.

Is This the End For Long Shelf Life?

No at all. In fact, there are many natural alternatives to using synthetic preservatives that are just as effective as those made in a lab. Just make sure, as always, to check the label of everything you put near your body.