Are Parabens Good Or Bad For My Skin?

June 21, 2017

The Science Behind Parabens in Makeup & Skincare Products

Today, parabens are generating buzz for allegedly being a “bad” preservative ingredient. Whether it is a cleanser, lotion, toner, blush, foundation, or mascara, preservatives are necessary for the safety of cosmetics.  Without these ingredients, beauty products would become overloaded with bacteria, mold, and fungus making them harmful to skin, eyes, and mucous membranes.  However, as necessary as preservatives are to the safety of cosmetics, they've had their share of woes over the years. But do parabens deserve their bad, media-fueled reputation? Let's get to the facts.

What Parabens Do In Beauty Products

Parabens may come in the form of butylparaben, ethylparaben, isobutylparaben, methylparaben, or propylparaben on a skincare product label.  Completely colorless, odorless, and cheap to make, Parabens are the most widely used preservatives in cosmetics and personal care products. They have a chemical structure that's similar to estrogen, which means they can mimic the effects of that hormone in the body. Some research has shown that the perceived influx of estrogen beyond normal levels can in some cases trigger reactions such as increasing breast cell division and the growth of tumors.

It is important to understand that if a product has water in it, it needs a preservative. Period.

Some beauty companies now create skincare products using formaldehyde slow-releasers as preservatives instead of parabens. These can appear as quaternium-15, DMDM hydantoin, imidazolidinyl urea, and diazolidinyl urea. Not very good -or natural- for you! And come to think of it, natural doesn’t mean anything in today's beauty market either.  The term "natural" is unregulated by the FDA, so it’s the "wild west" for companies wanting to use that term as a selling point.

The Research on Parabens

A Review of the Endocrine Activity of Parabens and Implications for Potential health risk says, if you can, yes.  Despite the media frenzy surrounding parabens, the published research and global cosmetic regulatory organizations are shedding more light on this complicated topic.  Parabens, especially in the small amounts used in personal-care products, do not pose a significant health risk if used correctly. The review also states that Parabens are "fully metabolized before they enter the bloodstream”, meaning they are fully processed through the liver and passed out through urine.  In a review of the ‘Estrogenic Activity of Parabens’, the author concluded that based on maximum daily exposure estimates, "it was impossible that parabens could increase the risk associated with exposure to estrogenic chemicals." To repeat: impossible. FDA scientists continue to review published studies on the safety of parabens.

What’s important to understand is that they’re just one of many chemicals we’re all exposed to in our day-to-day environment.

Like stated before, some research has stated that parabens are “phytoestrogens”, and produce a weak estrogenic effect on the body.  Whenever the effect of an ingredient is evaluated though, perspective is critical. That is, how do tiny levels (no more that 1%) of parabens in beauty products stack up against other phytoestrogens that occur naturally in food?

Processed foods like beer, sauces, soft drinks, jams, pickles, frozen dairy products, and syrups all contain parabens.  Naturally occurring foods like blueberries, mango, barley, strawberries, black currants, peaches, and carrots even have them!  What’s interesting? In-vivo testing (an experiment that is done in the body of a living organism) demonstrated parabens were 10,000 times weaker than naturally occurring phytoestrogens, too. Go figure!   

Synthetic vs. Natural Parabens

We often think of plants as being benign and cast suspicion only on synthetic ingredients.  These synthetic ingredients are often misbranded as "chemicals", when in fact, every ingredient on the planet  is composed of chemicals!  Despite what many "natural/organic" brands lead consumers to believe, parabens actually have a very "natural" origin. They are formed from an acid (esters of para-hydroxybenzoic acid, which is where their name comes from) and are exactly the same as the parabens found in nature (i.e.- blueberries and ginseng).  

A study conducted at the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston investigated the estrogenic effects of licorice root, black cohosh, dong quai, and ginseng. The results showed that "Dong quai and ginseng both significantly induced the growth of MCF-7 [cancer] cells”.  Another study concluded that "Commercially available products containing soy, red clover, and herbal combinations induced an increase in the MCF-7 proliferation rates, indicating an estrogen-antagonistic activity.”.

Despite this evidence, when was the last time you read a media report about the breast cancer risk from soy, licorice or ginseng?

In contrast, you've likely seen media reports or emails regarding parabens and their link to estrogenic activity.

The fact is that "natural" doesn't inherently mean safe and "chemical" doesn't mean dangerous.  What really matters is how the ingredient is used in the formulation of a product.  The percentage of parabens in the product (1% or less) equals the possible amount that penetrates into the bloodstream. Remember, in-vivo testing demonstrated that parabens are metabolized in the liver avoiding the blood stream altogether.  Also, what really matters is personal choice.  Research can provide facts, but the facts are often contradictory depending on the trials performed,

So, Do Parabens Cause Cancer?

Philippa Darbre, a senior lecturer in oncology and researcher in biomolecular sciences at the University of Reading in England specializes in the impact of estrogen on breast cancer.  In 2004, Darbre’s team published THE pivotal study that detected parabens in 18 of 20 samples of tissue from breast tumour biopsies. Her study didn’t prove parabens cause cancer, only that they were easily detected among cancerous cells.

The study was criticized for not comparing paraben levels in normal tissue, but nevertheless, the results called out for more investigation. “We’ve known for more than 25 years that estrogen exposure is linked to breast cancer development and progression; it is the reason tamoxifen (commonly prescribed to women with breast cancer) is used to disrupt estrogen receptors,” says Darbre.

“It is not such a leap to be concerned that repeated, cumulative, long-term exposure to chemicals that weakly mimic estrogen might be having an impact.”

The American Cancer Society has concluded, based on its research findings, that the scientific and medical research does not support a claim that the use of parabens in cosmetics can increase an individual’s risk of developing breast cancer.

In my practice, I recommend pregnant and lactating mother's as well as those with a history of ovarian, breast, or cervical cancer avoid Phytoestrogenetic ingredients as much as possible.

The Verdict on Parabens

The truth is, on a global scale, there is an exhaustive degree of scientific and medical studies demonstrating the relative safety of parabens used in skincare and cosmetics.  Although research states there is no need to be concerned, there is a reason why many companies, including my own Kasnoff Skincare & Cosmetics, are paraben-free or moving in that direction.

More research needs to be done to better understand exactly how parabens impact our bodies.

Whether it be from personal hygiene products, makeup, lotion, or even foods such as flax, cherries, and blueberries that produce parabens and chemicals that mimic estrogen, science has yet to tell us what happens from a lifetime of exposure to parabens.  Personally, I don’t worry about using a product here and there that contains parabens, but that is me making my own decision about my body.  So the next time you read a story that vaguely indicates parabens are unsafe, think twice before you believe the hype, read the facts, and make an informed decision best for you and your body.


Until next time~
Christina Kasnoff


Want to learn more about the Kasnoff philosophy? Read our story here.


Additional Sources:  
Drug Metabolism and Pharmacokinetics, October 2010, pages 568-577
International Journal of Toxicology, Supplement 4, 2008, pages 1-82
Water Research, November 2008, pages 4578–4588
Cosmetics & Toiletries, March 2010, pages 80-83 and January 2005, page 22
Toxicology, January 2005, pages 471–488
Menopause, March–April 2002, pages 145–150
Critical Reviews in Toxicology, Golden et al, 2005
Menopause, May–June 2004, pages 281–289
Journal of the American Medical Women's Association, Spring 2002, pages 85–90
Journal of Steroid Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, January 2002, pages 49–60
American Journal of Epidemiology October 1996, pages 642–644)

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