Parabens: Why This Common Ingredient May Be Better Left Behind
by James Han
The skin is the largest organ of the human body, and data from the Environmental Working Group has shown the average person applies dozens of chemicals (and up to 12 products) (1) to their hair and skin every day. Between hand soaps, shampoos, conditioners and more, it can be hard to keep track of all the ingredients listed on your body care bottles.
In recent years, mounting research and regulatory scrutiny have singled out a few ingredients (like phthalates and sulfates) as posing potential risks to humans. But perhaps the target of the greatest concern is parabens. So why are parabens bad? And what is a paraben, anyway? We’ll walk you through the basics of this ingredient no-no, and what the latest research says.
What Are Parabens, Anyway?
Parabens are a type of artificial preservative (14) added to household goods ranging from cosmetics to food products to pharmaceuticals. They’re synthetically derived from para-hydroxybenzoic acid (PHBA), and often more than one is used in a product to combat a variety of microorganisms (15).
Manufacturers have been using them for decades to inhibit the growth of bacteria, mold and yeast in items that contain water, considerably extending their shelf life in the process. If you’re wondering whether you’ve been exposed to parabens, the answer is almost a guaranteed yes — a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found methylparaben in 99% of more than 2,500 urine samples from individuals based in the U.S. (2)
List of parabens in common household products
An estimated 75 to 90% of cosmetics contain parabens as a preservative, though more may use them as an undisclosed fragrance ingredient (3). (Fragrance recipes aren’t required by law to appear on product labeling.) Here are some of the most common parabens and the ways they might appear on ingredients lists:
Why Are Parabens Bad for Your Health?
In the late 20th century, parabens were determined to be “safe” by the FDA (11). In fact, the FDA still maintains this position, even though the European Union banned five parabens from personal care and cosmetics products back in 2013 based on evidence of their potentially harmful effects (4). In addition to allergic reactions that a small percentage of the population experiences (less than 2%) with parabens, there are more potential health and environmental consequences to be wary of (5).
Parabens may disrupt hormone function
The most concerning data suggests that parabens interact with the body’s endocrine system and disrupt normal hormone function. Due to their structure, parabens can actually mimic estrogen and bind to receptors on cells, signaling to your brain that there are above-normal levels of estrogen in your body (6).
Down the line, this can lead to a number of potential health problems, including an increased risk of breast cancer tumor growth (7). Studies have reported that in addition to stimulating the expression of HER2 (human epidermal growth factor receptor 2), which is found in 25 percent of breast cancers, parabens can even reduce programmed cell death — a key way your body clears out damaged (including cancerous) cells — as well as block common chemotherapy drugs from treating breast cancer (8).
Other research indicates that parabens can increase reproductive toxicity, including the risk of infertility in men by way of the mitochondria in the testes (9). Parabens not only accumulate in your system, but can be passed on to infants through breast milk as well (10). When you consider the fact that you may be using paraben-containing skincare or home care products every day — plus the fact that they are easily absorbed through the skin — it may be worth taking precautions.
Alternatives to Parabens
Though parabens function primarily as a preservative (11), there are plenty of alternatives, such as potassium sorbate, that can be used instead. Minimizing paraben exposure by educating yourself on the different names of common parabens on ingredients lists (and carefully reading product labels) is a great start to taking control of what you use on your body. In the long run, opting for paraben-free hand soaps, body washes, shampoos and conditioners may help you protect your (and your family’s) health. Some natural brands will list “paraben-free” on packaging, but even fewer will outright avoid parabens in all their product offerings.
Here at Cleanyst, we’re proud to create safe and natural home care items that are 100% paraben-free. We believe that using effective products never has to come at the expense of your health. Our plant-based body care and home care concentrates are formulated without toxic or potentially harmful ingredients, including dyes, parabens, formaldehyde, MEA, DEA and phthalates, among others. We’ve also meticulously tested our products (never on animals) to ensure that they’re non-irritating to the skin. If you have any questions about our ingredients, just let us know — we like to be completely transparent about what’s in every item on our site, and where it comes from.
To learn more about the way that common personal care ingredients may impact your health and the world around you, check out more on our blog.
- ABC News - Women Put an Average of 168 Chemicals on Their Bodies Each Day, Consumer Group Says
- Environmental Health Perspectives - Urinary concentrations of four parabens in the U.S. population: NHANES 2005-2006
- David Suzuki Foundation - The Dirty Dozen: Parabens
- UL - EU Bans Five Parabens in Cosmetics
- Allergic Living - Do I Have an Allergy to Parabens?
- Scientific American - Should People Be Concerned about Parabens in Beauty Products?
- The Journal of Steroid Biochemistry and Molecular Biology - “Oestrogenic activity of parabens in MCF7 human breast cancer cells”
- Breast Cancer Prevention Partners - Parabens
- Reproductive Toxicology - “Parabens in male infertility—Is there a mitochondrial connection?”
- Environmental Pollution - “Parabens in breast milk and possible sources of exposure among lactating women in Korea”
- CDC - Parabens Factsheet
- Environmental Health Perspectives - “Sunscreens Cause Coral Bleaching by Promoting Viral Infections”
- Water Research - “Occurrence, fate and behavior of parabens in aquatic environments: a review”
- ScienceDirect - 4 Hydroxybenzoic Acid Ester
- ScienceDiect - Paraben