What is a paraben and why are so many products advertised as “paraben free”?

By Oliver AH Jones, Professor, RMIT University


You may have noticed that many skin and hair care products are advertised as “paraben free”, or come across online influencers warning that parabens are terrible for your health.

But what is a paraben? And can a minor ingredient in products that many of us use on a daily basis really be that bad for us?

Let's take a closer look.

Read more:
What does exposure to environmental chemicals mean to our health?

What are parabens?

Chemically speaking, paraben is the collective name for a group of closely related compounds – parahydroxybenzoates. “para” refers to the positions of certain parts of the molecule (it's also where the “para” in “paracetamol” comes from).

There are several different types of parabens, so you may see methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben or butylparaben in a product's ingredients list. They may also be listed as a more formal chemical name. For example, methylparaben may be listed as 4-hydroxymethyl ester benzoic acid or methyl 4-hydroxybenzoate.

a cartoon style drawing of Methylparabenhttps://images.theconversation.com/files/509744/original/file-20230213-1… 1200w, https://images.theconversation.com/files/509744/original/file-20230213-1… 1800w, https://images.theconversation.com/files/509744/original/file-20230213-1… 754w, https://images.theconversation.com/files/509744/original/file-20230213-1… 1508w, https://images.theconversation.com/files/509744/original/file-20230213-1… 2262w” sizes=”(min-width: 1466px) 754px, (max-width: 599px) 100vw, (min-width: 600px) 600px, 237px”>
Methylparaben, commonly used as a preservative in skin care and cosmetics.
Oliver Jones via the Molecular-Icons Generator app

The short version is that parabens are a group of related molecules that are added in small amounts (less than 1%, usually lower) to food, medicine and cosmetics as preservatives.

They work by preventing the growth of harmful bacteria and fungi to improve product shelf life and safety. More than one paraben can be used, and they can be combined with other preservatives to protect against a wide range of microorganisms.

Parabens can be absorbed through the skin or ingested but are generally excreted quickly, usually via urine. They have been used for decades and no parabens have been banned Australia.

Some studies in cell cultures or animals have suggested that parabens may affect the endocrine system (which controls our hormones) but it is not clear how or even if this is relevant to humans.

The amounts used in some of these animal studies are much, much higher than what you would find in, say, makeup. Many of these studies also involved feeding the chemicals to the animals or injecting them, rather than putting them on the skin (resulting in much lower absorption into the body).

You may also have heard that parabens are “estrogenic” (meaning they can mimic or affect estrogen in the body). It's actually parabens much less estrogen than natural estrogen (which both men and women produce). They are also less estrogenic than phytoestrogenscompounds produced naturally by many plants.

So while there have been studies that raise concerns, the overall risk for people using parabens in normal doses is low. As the Australian Industrial Chemicals Introduction Scheme sets The:

Available data indicate no risks associated with exposure to the chemicals in this group. The chemicals have been shown to have weak estrogenic activity, but there are no established negative outcome pathways for this effect.

The US Food and Drug Administration came to a similar conclusion, notes

However, studies have shown that parabens have significantly less estrogenic activity than the body's naturally occurring estrogen. Parabens have not been shown to be harmful when used in cosmetics, where they are only present in very small amounts.

Isn't natural better? Aren't man-made chemicals bad for you?

Whether something is natural or not tells you nothing about its safety.

Snake venom is natural, as are uranium, lead and mercury. I would not buy personal care products with these “natural” ingredients in them.

Many things we use every day without thinking – like aspirin, nylon and silicone cookware – are synthetic.

The name of a chemical also tells you nothing about risks. If I told you that a substance contained ethyl butanoate, pentyl acetate, ethylene and capric acid, would you eat it? Well, you probably already have; these are all in bananas and many other fruits.

A woman looks critically at skincare and shampoo bottles.https://images.theconversation.com/files/514585/original/file-20230310-1… 1200w, https://images.theconversation.com/files/514585/original/file-20230310-1… 1800w, https://images.theconversation.com/files/514585/original/file-20230310-1… 754w, https://images.theconversation.com/files/514585/original/file-20230310-1… 1508w, https://images.theconversation.com/files/514585/original/file-20230310-1… 2262w” sizes=”(min-width: 1466px) 754px, (max-width: 599px) 100vw, (min-width: 600px) 600px, 237px”>
Whether an ingredient is natural or not tells you nothing about its safety.

So why are people worried about parabens then?

This goes back to an often misinterpreted study from 2004 that found parabens in breast tissue and breast cancer. But this does not mean much in itself and does not justify claims that parabens cause cancer.

Correlation is not causation. The presence of parabens in a tumor does not mean parabens caused the tumor.

In fact, the researchers in the 2004 study only looked at breast cancer tissue (and did not compare it to healthy tissue). They even found parabens in their blank samples (with no tissue in them at all). As others have done notedis hard to draw any real conclusions from that about what role parabens may or may not play in cancer risk.

A lot of the endocrine disruptors you hear on social media about parabens are usually from someone trying to use a “natural” or “clean” alternative, so you may not be seeing the whole picture.

And remember: the presence of something does not automatically mean it is harmful. Toxicology 101 is “the dose makes the poison”. Everything is poisonous in the right amount, even water. We should not be asking whether a chemical causes cancer or acts as an endocrine disruptor, but whether it does so at the levels to which we are exposed.

The scientific consensus from US Food and Drug Administrationthe Australian Industrial Chemicals Introduction Scheme and that European Medicines Agency and others are that for parabens in normal doses the health risk is very low.

So why are so many products marketed as “paraben free”?

Going “paraben free” has become a very effective marketing tool. If people want paraben-free products and will pay more for them, why not give them paraben-free products?

But paraben-free doesn't mean preservative-free, nor does it mean the products are safer (even if that's what's implied).

If you remove parabens from a product, you have to add other preservatives, which may be less effective. This increases the risk of product loss (some users of “clean” makeup brands have reported finding mold in products) and can even cause damage.

So what's the verdict?

Ultimately, choosing to use products that contain parabens is a personal choice.

As a chemist, I think parabens are well-researched, safe and necessary, but if you're concerned, you can choose paraben-free products. Just keep in mind that they will probably have a shorter shelf life, contain other (less effective) preservatives, and may well have other problems. I would take a small amount of a well studied, and well regulatedchemicals in my skin care products over mold any day.

Read more:
Health Check: is makeup bad for your skin?

The conversation

Oliver AH Jones does not work for, consult with, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

Originally published in The conversation.

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