Written by Tenley Haraldson. Medically reviewed by board-certified pediatrician Dr. Ryan Blackman DO, FAAP.
You’re probably spotting more "paraben-free" labels on products these days, but what does that actually mean? How do these chemicals affect your health and the environment?
This physician-reviewed article lays out what “paraben free” means on your bottle of shampoo or body lotion – and simple steps to avoid these synthetic ingredients.
How Parabens Work
Parabens are a family of preservatives that are used to restrict bacteria and mold from growing in cosmetic products. Oftentimes, several parabens are used with other preservatives to fight a wider variety of microorganisms. They’re cheap, extremely effective, and are widely considered to be hypoallergenic.
In other words, these long-lasting preservatives give products staying power on store shelves and in your home.
Where Do Parabens Come from?
Parabens are sourced from para-hydroxybenzoic acid (PHBA). This chemical occurs naturally in plants (like carrots, blueberries, and cherries) as well as within the human body when amino acids are broken down.
That said, the bulk of parabens found in personal care products are synthetic, not natural.
Common Personal Products with Parabens
Parabens are commonly found in:
- hair care products
- skin cleaners
- shaving cream
- processed foods
How Are Parabens Listed as Ingredients?
The simplest way to check whether your personal care products contains these preservatives is by checking the labels for the most common names of parabens:
Are Parabens FDA-Approved?
Note: At the time of publication, the FDA didn't have specific rules related to cosmetic preservatives.
Preservatives like parabens are treated the same as other cosmetic ingredients, and – other than color additives – they don’t require FDA approval before being sold to the public. These products must simply meet the standard of being "safe and properly labeled" under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act.
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In 2006, a joint study between the FDA and Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) concluded that there was no need to change the above-listed parabens’ safety ratings for cosmetics. In 2008, a safety assessment of parabens was published with the conclusion that the four parabens listed above were safe in their present practices and concentrations.
Of course, it’s important to consider that 1,300 chemicals are banned/restricted in the EU – yet legally allowed for use in US cosmetics. Among them? Parabens.
Possible Effects of Parabens
Can parabens cause skin irritation? That typically depends on the type, but butylparaben is more likely to cause greater eye and skin redness, irritation, pain, and itchiness than its counterparts. Ingesting large doses of butylparaben was also found to irritate the GI tract.
A 2005 National Toxicology Program study revealed that, generally speaking, parabens were reported to have adverse effects on male rats’ reproductive systems. While these rats were provided with much higher doses of parabens than what people would normally be exposed to, at the time of publication, scientists were still uncertain about the potential effects of long-term use.
Typically absorbed through the skin, parabens are thought to be excreted through waste. From 2005 to 2006, a National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) detected methylparaben and propylparaben urine levels in most test subjects.
The group with the highest levels of methylparaben was in African Americans under 60. Women, however, had 7x higher levels of both methylparaben and propylparaben than men (possibly because they tend to use more personal care products).
Are Parabens Safe for Pregnant Women?
According to a 2020 German paraben study, pregnant women who leave paraben-containing cosmetics on their skin for extended periods of time increase the risk of overweight infants.
Researchers identified a correlation between parabens and the natural regulation of satiety in the brain in both mice and human subjects, leading to a higher food intake. They also determined a relationship between butylparaben concentrations in the mothers’ urine and a higher body-mass index in female children (through their 8th birthdays).
Parabens and Cancer – Is There a Link?
Questions have been raised about whether parabens are carcinogenic. Much of this is connected to these preservatives' ability to produce similar effects to those of estrogen (which has been associated with the development of breast cancer). Interestingly, a 2012 British study detected parabens within breast tissue of breast cancer patients.
It’s also important to note that FDA studies have repeatedly concluded that parabens affect estrogen production far less than the body's native estrogen, especially when products contain low amounts.
While human clinical trials have not definitively shown a link between parabens and increased cancer risk, these chemicals were able to penetrate the skin and remain within tissue.
Do Parabens Affect the Environment?
It’s not just humans that are potentially affected by paraben exposure. 121 tissue samples were collected from marine mammals (e.g. polar bears, sea otters, dolphins) living along the US Pacific coastline. Methylparaben was detected in many samples while a metabolite of methylparaben (4-HB) was found in all of them.
While this metabolite occurs naturally in vegetation, the samples suggest that animals were exposed to synthetic parabens which may have been released into the environment via sewage systems.
So...Are Parabens Safe?
We discussed this issue with Dr. Ryan Blackman, a board-certified pediatrician on Puracy's consulting team.
According to Dr. Blackman, “The research on parabens is ongoing – at times contradictory. They have been theorized to be endocrine disruptors but, as of yet, this hasn’t been definitively established in humans. Until we know all the facts, avoiding potential harm is never a bad choice – especially if there are safe alternatives available.”
Choose Natural Ingredients You Can Trust
To maintain the shelf life of Puracy personal care products, our team of Ph.D. chemists have developed formulas that utilize natural preservatives like caprylyl glycol (a coconut-based preservative), propanediol (a plant-based preservative), and gluconolactone (a food-grade preservative).
You won't find parabens in any of our products – and you’ll never spot the following ingredients either:
- Sulfates (e.g. SLS, SLES)
- Cocamidopropyl betaine
- Boric acid
- Animal by-products
- Dyes or perfumes
Discover Puracy Products
We started Puracy to provide effective cleaning and personal care products that were safe for your home, family, and environment. In fact, we’re so confident in these products that we’ll refund your purchase if you’re not 100% satisfied. That’s the Puracy promise.