Parabens: Friend or foe?


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Take a look at the back of your favorite face wash or moisturizer, and you may notice a bunch of strange words all ending with “paraben.”  But what exactly is a paraben, and is it harmless or harmful?

What the FDA says

The Food and Drug Administration describes parabens as preservatives that are designed to protect products against microbial growth. The most common parabens found in cosmetics products are methylparaben, propylparaben and butylparaben, and they are usually used in combination with other types of preservatives.

As of now, the FDA is not authorized to approve most cosmetic ingredients, so manufacturers are free to use pretty much anything they want in their products, unless those ingredients make the product adulterated or unsafe to us under customary use. (See FDA Authority Over Cosmetics and Key Legal Concepts: "Interstate Commerce," "Adulterated," and "Misbranded.")
While they may not have much control over what goes into cosmetics, the FDA insists that the levels at which parabens are used in cosmetics is not high enough to lead to increased risks of health problems. Furthermore, the FDA said “that at the present time there is no reason for consumers to be concerned about the use of cosmetics containing parabens.”

What the cosmetics industry says

In September 2005, the Cosmetic Ingredient Review, an industry-sponsored organization, revisited the safety assessment of parabens. In December 2005, after considering the effects of exposure on women and infants, the CIR determined that there was no need to change its original conclusion from 1984 — that parabens were safe for use in cosmetic products at levels up to 25%. (The FDA participates in the CIR in a nonvoting capacity.)

Parabens are safe to use as cosmetics preservatives, although use levels for some of the compounds in the family should be reduced, according to a European safety committee.

What the opponents say

Parabens are found in so many products that according to the watchdog site Safecosmetics.org, the preservatives are found in nearly all urine samples of U.S. adults, regardless of ethnicity, socioeconomic status or geographic location. In fact, according, to the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database, methylparaben and propylparaben each appear in more than 10,000 products.

Safe Cosmetics argues that with so many products containing parabens, even at very small doses, the average human is exposed to much more than needed. And many advocates against the use of parabens claim they are linked to — among other things — cancer, endocrine disruption, reproductive toxicity and skin irritations.

In particular, watch groups are concerned about paraben as an estrogen mimicker and its possible link to breast cancer and on developing fetuses.

What we say

It seems like every day we hear something claiming one thing or another is bad for us, often leading to mass hysteria and people tossing out tons of perfectly safe products. That said, the word inconclusive seems best to describe the health risks of parabens. More research needs to be done to determine how safe, or unsafe, parabens really are.

Fortunately, as consumers, we have choices. If you feel comfortable using traditional cosmetics, and feel confident that parabens pose little risk to your health, there are plenty of products at your disposal. However, if you are concerned about the potentially harmful effects of parabens, or simply prefer more natural products, more of those cosmetics are becoming available every day. Two great brands we love include Yes To Carrots and Burt’s Bees.

What are your thoughts on parabens in cosmetics? Tell us below.