We all know that many of the everyday products we use contain some type of preservative. From processed foods, to packaged drinks, to household goods and cosmetics, preservatives help products have a longer shelf life by preventing bacteria growth. Skincare products are no exception and typically contain numerous ingredients to prevent spoilage. But what if the ingredients meant to keep a product safe and fresh may have unintended consequences for your skin and health? In the case of one very common group of ingredients in skincare products, parabens, this very well may be the case. Parabens have garnered a significant amount of attention in recent years, from headlines proclaiming their potential risks to debate among experts. Understanding this topic, and what parabens may mean for your skin, is crucial for anyone looking to make informed decisions about their skincare routine. In this blog post, we’ll discuss the history of parabens, their function in skincare products, the concerns surrounding them, and potential alternatives.
A Brief History
Parabens, short for para-hydroxybenzoates, are not a single ingredient. Instead, they are a family of compounds added to skincare and personal care products to prevent spoilage. They first became popular in the 1920s, as the beauty industry took off in the United States. As demand for cosmetics, shampoos, moisturizers, and other personal care and skincare products took off, manufacturers needed a way to keep products shelf-stable as they were produced, distributed, and stocked on shelves across the country. Without a way to stabilize them, the products wouldn’t have made it through their long journey through the supply chain before bacterial and fungal growth began to take over.
Enter parabens. Their anti-microbial properties were first recognized in 1924 when scientists discovered para-hydroxybenzoic acid, which occurs naturally in plants. As demand for products that required an anti-microbial ingredient continued to skyrocket, companies sought out ways to make their products cheaper, and faster. This led to the production of chemically manufactured parabens, which have been included in personal care and skincare products since the 1950s. These chemically manufactured compounds are the parabens included in products today – and are also the compounds that have come under much scrutiny in recent years.
Today’s parabens are synthetic chemicals that mimic the properties of natural compounds derived from plants. Chemically, they are esters of p-hydroxybenzoic acid, and common variants include methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben, and butylparaben. Their structure allows them to effectively inhibit the growth of microbes, and improve product texture and consistency. Because they are so inexpensive to produce, they are a popular choice for formulators not just in skincare, but processed foods and some pharmaceuticals as well.
Are Parabens Bad?
Despite their widespread use, parabens have faced growing scrutiny in recent years. According to the CDC, “Human health effects from environmental exposure to low levels of parabens are unknown”. Disturbingly, just a few paragraphs below that, the CDC describes that during one study, they tested over 2,500 individuals and found that “most” of them had parabens present in their urine, an indication of “widespread exposure” to parabens in the body. They also found that women had seven times the level of parabens in their system, compared to men – likely due to the greater number of women’s products containing parabens.
It isn’t just the presence of parabens in the human body that is concerning. Parabens are known hormone disrupters and can mimic estrogen in the body. It is believed that this can interfere with normal hormone function, the reproductive system, and hormone production itself. Studies have reported on this estrogenic activity of parabens, and in animal studies, parabens were once again found to disrupt hormone signals, in both males and females.
Scientists are also concerned about how paraben exposure may contribute to cancer risk. A 2014 study found that propylparaben can alter the expression of genes, including those in breast cancer cells, and accelerate their growth. As far back as 2004, a study detected traces of five parabens in the tumors of 19 out of 20 women studied. Of course, a small study doesn’t prove a causal relationship with cancer, but it is important because the parabens found were unaltered by the body’s metabolism. This was an indication that these chemicals can penetrate the skin and remain in tissue. Since parabens are not water soluble and can penetrate the skin, repeated application of products containing parabens could mean almost continuous exposure to these chemicals. As if all that wasn’t enough, parabens have also been linked to skin irritation. Paraben sensitivity can cause typical allergic contact dermatitis symptoms – red, itchy, inflamed, or otherwise painful skin.
If you feel that these are concerning studies, and are wondering what regulations exist to look at these ingredients, the answer is not many. Under current law, skincare products are considered cosmetics, which the FDA has very little regulatory authority over. Aside from color additives, a product or ingredients do not need FDA approval or oversight before going to market. The FDA says that it “continues to review published studies on the safety of parabens”. They go on to list questions they are considering, such as if there are safer alternatives for these preservatives. But right now, no regulations or guidelines exist to limit or prevent the inclusion of these potentially toxic compounds in skincare products.
Tip: Trying to identify parabens on your product labels? Look for Ethylparaben, Butylparaben, Methylparaben, Propylparaben, and other ingredients ending in –paraben.
A Better Way
As concerns over parabens have grown, many consumers have chosen to opt for paraben-free products. This has led to a rise in demand for products formulated without parabens – you may have even noticed that some personal care brands offer paraben-free options. Ultimately, it is up to you as the consumer to determine which products are right for you! The good news is that skincare products containing parabens are not the only option when it comes to helping your skin look and feel its best. A growing number of consumers are seeking out natural products that are not only paraben-free but free of all commercial preservatives…and luckily, these products exist! With a little label reading, you can identify products that are free of parabens and other concerning ingredients. When you choose a natural product, you can achieve the benefits of your favorite skincare products, without the concern of potentially toxic ingredients. It’s a win-win.
If you are searching for natural skincare products that will work for you and your skin, you might be interested in trying our goat milk soap, lotion, lotion sticks, and more. At Madd House Hill, we are fully committed to our natural philosophy and use only the highest quality ingredients like pure goat milk, shea butter, and therapeutic-grade essential oils. The goat milk and hydrating oils help nourish and moisturize your skin, while essential oils can provide aromatherapeutic benefits on top of a light, natural scent.
As consumers, it’s crucial to be vigilant about the ingredients we apply to our skin. After all, our skin is our body’s largest organ! For consumers, the decision to use products with or without parabens ultimately comes down to personal choice. Those who wish to avoid parabens can find a growing number of paraben-free alternatives. Regardless of one's choice, staying informed about the ingredients in skincare products is essential for making decisions that align with your preferences and beliefs.
As science continues to advance and more research is conducted, the debate surrounding parabens may evolve. In the meantime, we hope you can feel confident navigating the world of skincare armed with a better understanding of parabens and the complexities surrounding their use.
Until Next Time,
Madd House Hill