Facts and myths about parabens

Generally speaking, we can say that parabens are preservatives. They have been criticised, researched, and evaluated so often that they are perhaps the best researched preservatives used in the cosmetic industry. Many publications are unreliable and do not take the present knowledge into account.

From the chemical point of view, parabens are derivatives of benzoic acid. These are most often synthetic substances created in the laboratory. They are colourless, odourless, and flavourless. Parabens vary in terms of water solubility and microbiological activity. Some of them appear in nature, like methylparaben and propylparaben.

Is it possible to avoid preservatives in cosmetic products altogether? Unfortunately not!

Each cream is, simply put, an emulsion made of water and oil. As you well know, these two fluids do not mix. To achieve this, we need emulsifying agents. All water-based products are a very attractive environment for various microorganisms, bacteria and moulds. To prolong the shelf life of a product and prevent it from going bad, rotting, and separating we must use preservatives. Preservatives are used in the so-called “wet cosmetics”, such as: creams, milks, balms, toners, lip glosses, or even lipsticks. “Dry” cosmetics, meant for a long term use, such as: powders, eye shadows and fluids, must also be preserved. It should be added here that parabens are also used in the pharmaceutical and food industries, not only in the cosmetic sector.

Why are they so common in cosmetics?

Due to their strong preserving properties and the fact that they otherwise do not interfere with the product itself. Parabens don’t change the properties of cosmetic products or food, so the colour, scent, and thickness of a given product remain natural. They were in use since 1940s, but have been vilified since the late 1990s.

Are parabens harmful?

Due to the ongoing controversy, this group of preservatives is particularly well-researched. The breakthrough came in 2004, when parabens were found in the bodies of women with breast cancer. They are also accused of lowering male fertility. As a result, in 2005, cosmetic companies began introducing products without parabens into the market, often marked as “paraben-free”. The parabens were simply replaced with other preservatives. And these may not be so well-researched. All these circumstances brought the parabens into the scrutinizing attention of the European Committee. No research shows that using parabens could disturb the hormonal balance. It was proven that their permeability through the epidermal barrier is weak, and even then they are quickly metabolised and easily removed from the body.

Are all parabens harmful?

We cannot put them all in one bag. Current research shows that methyl- and ethyl-parabens were and are safe. Whereas the concentration of propyl- and butylparabens was reduced to 0.19%, and in this amount they can be used in cosmetics, drugs, and food.

Where can we find parabens?

In food: cakes, spices, fruit juices, jams, and frozen food. In cosmetics, they are found in over 13,000 products.

The longer the shelf life of a cream, the more preservatives it necessarily contains. Parabens also protect products in the long transportation process. So all fans of products from far away must be aware of this.

What approach to parabens seems reasonable?

The safety of a cosmetic product is regulated by European law, the same is true for preservatives, including parabens. No reasons were found that would support limiting their use in cosmetics, even those for children, if used in concentration below 0.19%. The Federal Food and Drug Agency has classified methyl- and propylparabens as safe substances that may be used in food. One should understand that cosmetics without parabens must contain other substances necessary to grant them microbiological cleanliness. While selecting cosmetics we should exercise common sense and base on the opinion of scientific committees, including the Ministry of Health. I strongly advise against reading blogs and popular science articles in which popular beliefs and unproven hypotheses are often treated as sensational “news”.

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