Parabens are present in many beauty products; both skin care and makeup. There are many stories about them that have been created recently. Some of them make us fear those chemicals, and some of them tell that they are completely harmless. So, what is true and what is not? Do we really have to avoid products that contain parabens and what are the alternatives? 

Methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben, isopropylparaben, butylparaben, isobutylparaben… They are all members of a big –paraben family. Molecular structure of all of them is similar (chemically, they are esters of parahydroxybenzoic acid) and they are all used as preservatives in cosmetic products. Parabens have bactericidal and fungicidal properties, which means that they prevent spoilage (if you want to know why is that important you can read it HERE) and can be found in shampoos, conditioners, moisturizers, tooth paste… Pretty much in all kinds of cosmetic products.

Are chemicals really so dangerous?

Ever since I decided to study chemistry I was taught that chemistry is everywhere around us. Whatever we see, feel, eat, drink, touch… It’s chemistry. I was taught that chemicals were everywhere around us. Water is a chemical compound, air is composed of different chemicals… So, if they are literally everywhere then it is not so easy to escape them.

It is often believed that “natural” is a synonym for safe. Natural products contain chemical compounds produced by living organisms, often extracted from plants. Let me remind you that Mother Nature gives us many healthy and beneficial as well as many toxic  chemical compounds. Most of us are probably familiar with benefits that green tea offers; it contains antioxidants and caffeine which is known as stimulant…  I drink green tea very often in the morning sitting on my couch, next to one of houseplants I own, dieffenbachia. It is really nice one, big green leaves with white-ish texture on them. I generally love houseplants because they make the whole interior look nicer, but dieffenbachia is one of my favorites! However,  it is known that it’s the toxic one. It contains oxalic acid in leaves, and it can cause very nasty consequences if swallowed, so one should be extremely careful with pets that share the same home with that plant. Well, you cannot deny that my dieffenbachia is very natural, of course, it is a plant. But its extract might not do you any good if you would apply it on your skin. So you must agree that natural doesn’t always mean the best for a certain application. Furthermore, in the process of extraction natural ingredients can be treated with many unnatural chemicals before they can be used in skin care or makeup.

Dieffenbachia contains oxalic acid which makes it toxic

Don’t get me wrong, natural product are often really good, especially for sensitive skin, and I use some natural skin care products as well. But it still doesn’t mean that you can relax when you see label “natural”, unfortunately you should still pay attention to what is inside. Basically, natural doesn’t always mean safe, just like synthetic chemicals don’t have to be bad or harmful.

Why are we afraid of parabens?

Parabens are believed to cause allergies and irritations of the skin, especially sensitive skin. However, people with normal and healthy skin normally don’t have problems with irritations.

Another controversial thing about parabens is a belief that they can cause breast cancer. But until today there was no scientific evidence that parabens can cause it. In fact, it was proved that parabens harmlessly leave human body once they are metabolized.

Experiments have shown that parabens have weak estrogenic activity. That means that they can mimic a hormone estrogen in human body and in that way cause different disorders. Estrogenic activity was, however, observed only in doses about 25000 higher than those used in skin care products and makeup.

Well, the fact is that so far there is no research that could prove that we actually should avoid parabens. Of course, if you are allergic to them, you should surely try to use products that contain some other compounds as preservatives. 

Although there is no clear evidence that parabens are really harmful many people are trying to avoid contact with those compounds. That is completely fine; there is no clear evidence but you still don’t want to be the one who will check on her own skin if the rumor is true. What I find surprising is that you can often read things like “avoid parabens and always use SPF to protect your skin”. Probably first reason for avoiding parabens would be the danger from estrogenic activity, at least in my case. But then, the advice like “use SPF” is totally ridiculous. There are many controversies related to certain compounds that absorb UV light and are quite often main ingredients of products with SPF, and only one of them is – estrogenic activity. I’ve already written about it HERE so check it out. Well, in that case I would most certainly not avoid parabens and then apply sunscreen that contains oxybenzone for example. So if you find such an advice, be careful and consistent; try to use products that use nano particles as active ingredients, just to be sure that you will completely avoid hormone disruptors. 

To avoid or not to avoid?

I don’t avoid parabens. I was strongly convinced by results of recent research that there is no real danger with those compounds. On the other hand, although sensitive, my skin doesn’t complain about products that contain parabens; no irritations or allergies. So no reason to avoid in my case.

For those who feel better with no parabens in their lives and skin care products or makeup, there are some alternatives available. But so far, the alternatives are not nearly so well investigated. Some of them are found to interact with some medicines (grapefruit seed extract, for example), which makes them not so safe, others are less efficient in fighting bacteria. In fact, if you find a product with a label “paraben-free” there is a big chance that parabens are simply substituted with another synthetic preservative which might be less investigated, less effective, and potentially more harmful. 

So think twice before you decide to stop using certain products because it contains “wrong” ingredients. Sometimes everything you hear and read is true, but sometimes it’s only rumors and marketing that tries to sell some “better” products…