#BeautyVillains: The Truth About Parabens In Cosmetics

Parabens in skincare

The new generation of clean consumers loves everything preservative-free. From foods to their favourite moisturiser, the P in preservative stands for ‘Public Enemy Number 1’. While we are saving the conversation about food preservatives for later, right now, we can deep dive into one of the most popular preservatives used in beauty – Parabens. And yes, like the food industry, parabens have a very bad rep in the beauty space too. So much so that going ‘paraben-free’ has become one of the most effective marketing stances a brand can (or is expected to) take. But are parabens really, truly that bad for you? Here’s what experts have to say!

What Are Parabens In Beauty?

Parabens aren’t a single ingredient; they come in various forms and are found in makeup, moisturisers, deodorants, hair care and shaving products. Commonly used as preservatives in these products, they are a family of related chemicals. Commonly seen names on cosmetics labels are methylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben, and ethylparaben. They help prevent the growth of harmful bacteria and mould to protect both the product and the user. They are often combined with other preservatives to better protect against a wide range of microorganisms.

The Controversy Around Parabens

Parabens side effects

Given the essential nature of parabens in cosmetics, the ingredient perpetually struggles to get into the beauty community’s good books. Dr Manasi Shirolkar, Consultant Dermatologist, MBBS, DDVL, says, “Parabens are prevalent in cosmetics because they stop the growth of fungus, bacteria and other microbes, extending the shelf life and improving the safety of the products. Without paraben preservatives, products can spoil, oxidise or chemically alter their properties leading to possible harm.” Then why the bad rep? Dr Sravya C Tipirneni, a consultant dermatologist and cosmetologist at Manipal Hospital, Bangalore, attributes this to its possible links with hormone disruption and subsequent conditions like cancer, infertility, and other reproductive system-related issues. 

“The research is still underway on how parabens can affect your health. When using personal care products that contain parabens, you absorb them through the skin. They enter your body but don’t stay around for long. But they can linger in your body long enough to cause concern,” explains Dr Sravya. Parabens have weak estrogen-like properties and can cause breast cells (normal and cancerous) to grow and divide. The European Union banned isopropyl paraben and isobutyl paraben from use in any personal care products in 2015, until more research. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations has also followed suit. Some safety groups haven’t yet banned them but are watching their possible risks.

Reading the Fine Print On Parabens

Parabens needs

“FDA scientists continue to review the safety of parabens. As of now, we do not have information showing that parabens, as they are used in cosmetics, affect human health,” says Dr Sravya. Studies show that parabens have significantly less estrogenic activity than the body’s naturally occurring estrogen. They are not harmful as used in cosmetics, where they are present only in a small amount. The FDA currently doesn’t have special regulations against paraben use and states that they are generally safe. It continues to support the view that parabens are safe in cosmetics, while keeping a watch over the ingredient’s concentration in a product. She cautioned against natural cosmetics as well.

Dr Manasi further reveals, “Scientific studies have shown that hormone disruption through parabens only occurs when exposed to extremely high doses. In fact, the harmful dosage is far greater than anyone would be exposed to in conditions we normally use in the products.” Also, rarely do people develop allergies to it. In fact, parabens had been named the 2019 non-allergen of the year by the American Contact Dermatitis Society.
In contrast to the FDA, the EU banned 5 parabens, but none of those is commonly found in makeup or skincare. With the current amount of evidence, parabens can be considered safe. “If you’d prefer to err on the side of caution, check for products that don’t contain parabens,” she recommends.

- Director at ELLE

Director at ELLE

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