No doubt you’ve heard of parabens. Maybe you’ve even heard that you should avoid them. But let’s start at the beginning...what are parabens, anyway?
To put it simply: parabens are common preservatives used in cosmetic products. Used widely for over seventy years, parabens prevent fungus, bacteria, and microbes from growing in personal care products, especially in humid environments—like a warm, damp bathroom. On your products’ ingredient labels, you’ll find parabens by their chemical names—methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben, and isobutylparaben—and they’re likely all over most of the products you use every day, from shampoos and moisturizers to foundations and mascaras.
Why Do So Many Beauty Products Contain Parabens?
One of the reasons parabens have been used so widely is two-fold. They’re inexpensive, and they effectively replaced the chemical formaldehyde as the go-to cosmetic preservative. Parabens have been used consistently in cosmetic products since the 1950s. Since then, roughly 85% of cosmetics use parabens as a preservative. Their history of efficacy leads a lot of cosmetic companies to use them, as the development of new preservatives can be expensive.
Are Parabens Harmful?
Recently parabens have come into question—specifically, whether or not they are safe to use in cosmetic and personal care products. Consumers have noted skin irritations and even more serious allergies from using products with parabens, and recent studies have suggested—though not confirmed—a possible link to breast cancer.
As Scientific American notes, the reason for these possible health issues is not that individual products contain too many parabens—the FDA sets safety limits for each product—but rather, the amount of parabens used in multiple products could pose a potential health risk. The non-profit Campaign for Safe Cosmetics notes, “Parabens mimic estrogen by binding to estrogen receptors on cells.” Because of this, parabens—a type of xenoestrogen—have the ability to interfere with hormone function. This disruption can link parabens to breast cancer and some reproductive issues, which is a serious concern for consumers. A 2004 study by British cancer researcher Philippa Darbre, Ph.D. found intact parabens in malignant breast tumors. This revelation has led many experts to advise against paraben use in cosmetic products, as a potential link to cancer. It is important to note, however, that the study did not include the examination of noncancerous tissue from healthy breasts to determine if parabens were present there as well. The occurrence of parabens in tumors is not necessarily proof that parabens cause cancer; rather, it illuminates the possibility of a link between the common ingredient and cancer. More testing and research must be completed in order to make a clear determination of the effect of parabens on our health.
The Bottom Line on Parabens
To paraben or not to paraben...although there have not been definitive reports that parabens are harmful, the potential risks are certainly reason to be mindful of paraben use. When you factor in every product you use each day—shampoo, moisturizer, makeup, etc.—and the products contain parabens, the exposure to this preservative will certainly add up, even if the individual products include only the FDA-recommended limit.
While there is the potential for a paraben ban for American cosmetics in the future—the European Union passed a ban on branched chain parabens such as isopropyl parabens in 2012—currently, the onus is on consumers to check ingredient labels if they want to avoid products with parabens. Some companies have begun labeling their cosmetics “paraben free” to help health-conscious consumers with this issue.
At Madison Reed, we’ve cut parabens across our product line. Why use this ingredient if there’s any potential to harm our clients? From our shampoo and conditioner to our permanent color and styling products, we believe in ingredients you can feel good about. For us, formulating our products without parabens is one thing we can do to help make the best hair products. And for you, it’s one less label you’ll have to study, and one less product you’ll have to worry about.
Rest easy, and explore our complete paraben-free product line at Madison Reed.