Ingredients Explained: Parabens – should you avoid them?

June 27, 2014


Time for another Ingredients Explained post! I have done others on collagen and keratin if you’re interested. First, a slight apology that it is has been awhile since I have done one of these posts. They are my favourite to write but they do take a wee while longer than product reviews etc and I have just not had the time to sit down and write one for awhile!

What is a paraben?

There are many different types of parabens but overall these are a family of chemicals also known as esters. These chemicals are known to be effective at killing fungi and bacteria which has led to them being a popular product. By killing bacteria and fungi, it allows substances to stay fresher for longer and able to be used for a longer time period.

How are parabens used in products?

Parabens are used in many products as a preservative – this means that it allows the product to be used longer and makes it safer for use. They are used in many cosmetic and pharmaceutical products so they can be used over a period of months-years without going off, growing mould or being ineffective. They are extremely effective at doing this and are very cheap to produce, this has led to them being used in a majority of products which we use day to day. They have been extensively tested for use on sensitive skin and in general are very well tolerated by most people.

So what’s all the controversy about?

non au paraben

Parabens have been talked about a lot lately, with a lot of products (especially organic) advertising themselves as paraben free. The controversy comes as high levels of parabens have been found within cancer tumours (specifically breast), which led to some scientists considering whether the use of parabens on the skin have had a cancer causing (carcinogenic) effect. Now there are several aspects which need to be considered before we all run around like headless chickens regarding this:

  • The sample size of the study which found these parabens in tumours was only 20 – a very small study which has not yet been replicated.
  • We do not understand the cause of many cancers and just because a paraben was found in them, does not mean that the paraben caused it. It may have been another substance just cause the parabens not to be broken down.
  • There have been many peer reviewed studies of parabens and in these, they have been found safe and are metabolized quickly by the body and excreted.
  • Parabens have been used for a long time safely – since the 1950s – and there has not been an increase in cancer which correlates with the increase in parabens in products.

In general, there has not been enough evidence to state that parabens increase the chance of cancer and ther e needs to be more research into this area.

Should I avoid products which contain parabens?

This is a personal decision, for me, I do not avoid parabens. We do live in an environment where many products may increase your risk of cancer, if we wanted to avoid everything that increased this risk then we would have to never go outside! The benefits parabens bring by being a preservative and killing microbes outweighs this current perceived risk. If you want to be more cautious of parabens then looking at the provided evidence it would be sensible to avoid products with parabens which linger on the skin – such as creams and anti perspirants. Products such as shampoo which are placed on but then washed off will pose little risk to you.

I hope that was helpful and explained a little about the controversy of what parabens are and whether you should be using them.

If you have any requests for ingredients explained then please let me know in the comments!

JC xx



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