Parabens are currently taking a lot of that heat. But while we’ve all seen the influx of paraben-free labels in the beauty aisles, do you know what parabens are? Or why they’re seemingly so controversial? We chatted with Iris Rubin, MD, a Harvard-trained board-certified dermatologist and the cofounder of SEEN Hair Care, and Lisa Pruett, MD, a board-certified dermatologist with U.S. Dermatology Partners, to break it down for us. From parabens in our cosmetics in the first place to why they’ve earned a bad rep in recent years, here’s your guide to everything you need to know about parabens.
Products have a long shelf life, especially considering the journey each pot, bottle, or tube will go through from the manufacturer to the point of sale to your bathroom shelf. So it makes sense that chemists need to add some preservatives to keep things as fresh as possible—that’s where parabens come in. “Parabens are preservatives used in personal care products to prevent bacteria or fungus from growing, increasing the products’ shelf life,” Rubin explains.
What Are Parabens?
You’ll find them in everything from shampoo and shower gel to face creams and serums (note—oils play by different rules, so they don’t require the same preservatives as water-based products), where they help to keep active ingredients stable, effective, and free from harmful bacteria growth—which is especially important in jars and pots that allow for finger dipping. The most commonly used are methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben, and butylparaben.1
“These ingredients have been around for decades, but their safety has been called into question because they mimic estrogen, and one study of about 20 patients found traces of parabens in breast cancer tissue,” notes Pruett.
Are Parabens Bad For You?
Unfortunately, there’s no straight answer here, hence a decades-long debate.
In 2004, British scientist Philippa Darbre published a research paper that found traces of parabens in breast cancer tissue samples. While there wasn’t enough evidence to prove a link between paraben use and increased cancer risk, the paper did prove that parabens can pass through the skin barrier and into our bodies.
Rubin continues, referencing Darbre’s research, “The main concern is for endocrine disruption and association with breast cancer,” she says. “A small study showed trace parabens in breast tumors, though no causal relationship between parabens and breast cancer has been established.”
Darbre’s research added fuel to concerns that were already surrounding parabens as potential disruptors to the endocrine system, meaning they can interfere with our regular hormone production, specifically by mimicking estrogen, which some researchers suggest could potentially lead to reproductive complications and heightened cancer risk in adults as well as developmental issues in children. But as Pruett notes, there were “definitely some issues” with Darbre’s study “because they didn’t test normal tissue for parabens, but the theoretical risk has raised concern for consumers. The FDA has not banned parabens in the U.S.. because of the lack of scientific proof that they affect human health.”
Although parabens haven’t been proven dangerous, Rubin chooses not to use them in her products. “At SEEN Hair Care, we prefer to minimize risk, so we are paraben-free,” she says.
So, rest assured, Afterave Essentials products proudly carry the Paraben-Free seal!