Paraben-free is a term that is frequently used when marketing healthcare products, so it seems logical to assume that parabens must be harmful.
However, there’s still quite a lot of debate about whether they really are harmful and if so, how they cause harm.
We have reviewed the evidence to see whether parabens really are something to be completely avoided or just to be used with caution.
Why are Parabens Used?
Parabens (short for para-hydroxybenzoic acid) are chemicals that are commonly found in fruits and vegetables. However those used in skincare and food products are synthetic.
They act as preservatives and are widely used in shampoos, shaving products, moisturisers, cosmetics, and many other personal care products. By slowing the growth of mould and bacteria, they give products a longer, more stable shelf life. They are also used as antimicrobials in some food products to prevent food spoilage.
There are several parabens authorised for use in cosmetics and food, but methylparaben and propylparaben are the most frequently used.
Different parabens have different ways of stopping microbes from spoiling a product. Methylparaben punch holes in bacterial cell walls and membranes which stops them reproducing. Propylparaben prevents the cell wall from forming properly so the next generation of bacteria can’t form. Because they work in slightly different ways, the effectiveness of each paraben can be boosted when they are teamed up.
Are Parabens Considered Safe?
Parabens have been used as a preservative since the 1920s and have been subject to numerous and comprehensive safety checks. Despite this, their use has been questioned since the University Of Reading published findings relating parabens to breast cancer in the Journal of Applied Toxicology in 2004.
The conclusions drawn by this study have been widely criticised by experts in the field, but research continues to assess whether the use of parabens, and at what concentration, is safe. Currently there is no conclusive evidence either way.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regularly reviews all recent research on parabens and they haven’t yet come across anything to show that parabens are unsafe for use in cosmetics and foods.
Their use, at safe concentrations, continues to be allowed in various products in the UK and EU, although Denmark has banned two specific parabens in products intended for use on children under three years old.
Do Parabens Cause Cancer?
Despite the fact that they are flushed out of the body pretty quickly, many people are concerned about the safety of these preservatives, particularly in light of the often repeated claimed link to cancer risk.
Parabens have been shown to mimic the human hormone oestrogen in test-tube studies and studies in rats, and this has lead some scientists to express concerns over whether repeated exposure could potentially affect hormone levels.
Although oestrogen plays a role in breast cancer, there’s no good evidence linking people who use paraben-containing products face with an increased risk.
Some studies show that methylparaben may be linked to cancerous skin damage. One study suggested that skin damage from exposure to sunlight while using a product containing methylparaben might lead to the formation of cancer. Another study suggested that skin damage might occur from using products with methylparaben if exposed to the sun.
Neither of these studies provided sufficient evidence for regulatory authorities to consider methylparaben harmful when used in products as directed.
Are There Other Side Effects?
Can Parabens Damage the Environment?
Production and use of products containing parabens can result in their release into the environment through waste.
It has always been thought that parabens do not persist in the environment, but a recent scientific study published in the journal Environment Science & Technology has reported that parabens have been found for the first time in the bodies of marine mammals, including dolphins, sea otters and polar bears.
Researchers believe that it is likely the detected parabens come from products we use that are washed into the sewage system and released into the environment.
To Sum Up
Parabens are useful preservatives which are widely used in cosmetic and food manufacture to prevent growth of microorganisms and increase shelf life.
While research has highlighted some concerns about the safety of parabens, no research has been conclusive enough to prevent their use.
The EU limits the concentrations manufacturers can use and prevents their use in certain products for children under three.