Cosmetics Q&A: Big, Bad Parabens

Paraben-awareness has been spreading for quite a while, and as a result many companies are refraining from using them. Makeup lovers may know they should avoid parabens, but does the average consumer know why?

I can't remember where I first became aware of parabens in cosmetics, but I do remember researching what they were shortly after. I was shopping today through one of my favorite beauty websites and just before I went to add an item to my cart I double-checked the ingredients. I'm glad I did! There in black and white were big, bad parabens. My heart dropped because this beauty product was one I'd been wanting for some time and it was finally on sale. I was so bummed I actually checked the manufacturer's site, which only confirmed that the product included parabens. So frustrating! But, silver lining, it inspired this post.

What are parabens?

Parabens are defined as esters, which are compounds formed from alcohol and p-hydroxybenzoic acid. 

What types of products contain parabens? 

Just about everything! Here's a short list of just a FEW of the many products we use daily that contain parabens:
  • Cosmetics: moisturizer, lipstick, foundation, "anti-wrinkle" creams, toothpaste, concealer, eye makeup, and makeup removers
  • Hygienic products: shampoo,  sunscreen, bandages, topical ointments, deodorant, and eye drops
  • Household or industrial products: textiles and glues
  • Food products: mustard, processed vegetables, frozen dairy products, salad dressing, mayonnaise, jelly, soft drinks, and baked goods
What are they used for in cosmetics?

Parabens are used in cosmetics as preservatives.

Why do some people consider them a health risk?

Parabens are considered  xenoestrogens, which means they have a similar shape to estrogen and can act as a sort of pseudo estrogen. What's the problem with too much estrogen? You never want to mess with the hormonal balance of your body. You may be thinking--does this mean my makeup can give me PMS? That's not the issue. The concern is increased cancer rates as a result of paraben exposure. 

Is their proof parabens may be a health hazard?

Yes, studies have been conducted specifically to determine the affects of parabens on the body and the results have shown they can be a health concern. Here are just 2 of the many studies: 

  • A study that was published in the 2004 Journal of Applied Toxicology, Darbre, detected parabens in breast tumors. The study also discussed data regarding the estrogen-like properties of parabens and the role estrogen plays in breast cancer. The study did not prove that parabens cause cancer, but it did prove that parabens are found in breast cancer tumors and that estrogen (which parabens can act as) plays a part in the development of cancer in individuals.
  • Dr. S. Oishi of the Department of Toxicology, Tokyo Metropolitan Research Laboratory of Public Health reported that exposure of newborn male mammals to butylparaben “adversely affects the secretion of testosterone and the function of the male reproductive system"--July 2002 issue of the Archives of Toxicology.
Why does the FDA allow the use of parabens in cosmetics if there are possible risks?

According to the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, the FDA does not regulate ingredients in cosmetics with the exception of dyes (except coal-tar hair dyes). So as a result, the FDA does not oversee the use of parabens in cosmetics. The FDA acknowledges that parabens can ask as estrogen in the body and the FDA acknowledges that estrogen is associated with certain forms of cancer, however, the FDA believes that parabens act as a weaker form of estrogen.

If the FDA isn't worried, why should I avoid parabens?

For starters, the FDA determined that parabens were not enough of a health risk to avoid when the Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) reviewed the safety of methylparaben, propylparaben, and butylparaben in 1984. The CIR concluded they were safe for use in cosmetic products at levels up to 25%. Parabens are typically used at levels from .1%-.3%.

My questions regarding this information are:
  • First of all, 1984? Almost 3 decades later we're still relying on that information?
  • It's well and good to say we use levels in each product lower than the maximum level, but it is also acknowledged that because parabens are in almost everything these days that our levels of exposure are high and unknown.
What's the bottom line on parabens?

Until the FDA determines parabens are hazard enough for people to avoid them, they will continued to be used. As a result, it is up to individual makeup lovers to determine if they're willing to wait and take a risk. Parabens really are in just about everything so it may take some changes of habit and products to avoid them, but the good news is that so many companies are aware of the possible health effects that there are many paraben-free products readily available. I personally have chosen to avoid them whenever possible. I like to err on the side of caution (as you've probably already gathered if you read my blog regularly), but I really believe the choice is up to each individual. Do the research, take a minute to think it through, and make a choice you're confident and comfortable with.

How do I find paraben-free products?

There are so many natural companies out there that avoid parabens and even traditional companies often offer paraben-free products. If you're looking for something in particular either look up the ingredients yourself on the company site or you can always go to your local beauty store and look at the product packaging. The more you try to avoid parabens, the more you'll become aware of companies you can stick to. If you like to shop at Sephora they often notate if a product does not include parabens among other things. 

Final Thoughts

Just because you avoid parabens does not mean you have to give up beauty! Some of your favorite companies may already be paraben-free or offer paraben-free products. If not, you can always ask a beauty professional such as a natural-minded makeup artist or professional at a store like Sephora. Remember to always check ingredients for yourself, but these beauty professionals may be able to point you in the right direction towards some really great products!

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