Reading beauty labels can be exhausting if you’re trying to nix certain chemicals or ingredients. If you’re not a chemist, half of the ingredients are unrecognizable and even things like parabens can be hard to figure out.

For real though, what are parabens?

Parabens are common chemical used as preservatives in beauty products, even dating back to the 1920s 💄. You can also find high amounts of parabens in processed foods.

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Parabens definitely get a bad rap in the natural beauty community as a chemical you should steer clear of. But do you really need to avoid parabens in the name of health?

Before you go dumping out bottles of shampoo and foundation, let’s get a few things straight about this mystery chemical and what science says it might do to your bod.

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Illustration by Alexis Lira

Parabens are basically used as preservatives to boost the shelf life and help prevent the growth of harmful nasties like mold and bacteria (ew!).

Peep that label. Cosmetic ingredient labels often don’t just say “parabens.” Some of the most commonly used parabens in beauty products include:

  • methylparaben
  • propylparaben
  • butylparaben
  • isobutylparaben
  • ethylparaben
  • isopropylparaben

Are they necessary though?

Some “clean” beauty brands opt to swap out chemicals like parabens for safer ingredients like caprylyl glycol and rosemary extract.

Unfortch, this does mean a shorter shelf life in your bathroom cabinet.

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Typically, parabens like to pop up in products like makeup, moisturizers, hair care, and shaving products. While less likely these days, they can sometimes be in deodorants, too.

It’s a safe bet that you’ll find them in slews of leave-on and rinse-off products with high water content (think shampoos and conditioners). This is because water can be a great breeding ground for bacteria 🦠.

It’s also not unusual to notice more than one paraben on the ingredient list. You’ll often get a paraben combo to help keep a wide range of microorganisms at bay.

When you use a product with parabens, your body can absorb it via your skin. The CDC has even tested peeps urine to find levels of methylparaben and propylparaben in the body, especially in women who use more paraben-containing products.

The big question though is if that’s dangerous. Here’s what science has found on the biggest beefs with parabens.

Do parabens eff with your hormones?

Parabens are known endocrine disruptors, which means they can trick the body into believing they’re a hormone. If this causes a hormone imbalance, the body can run into trouble.

In animal studies, the parabens propyl-, isopropyl- and isobutylparabens were found to mimic the hormone estrogen. This in turn disrupted hormone signals and even harmed female rat reproductive development.

But we have to keep in mind these are based on lab studies, not human use. In fact, some human studies have conflicting results.

Bottom line: Parabens can disrupt hormones, but we don’t know how bad the effect is

Research agrees that parabens can disrupt hormones. But, we need more human studies that prove using products with parabens is going to get your hormones out of whack and have adverse effects.

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Can parabens cause breast cancer?

Because parabens can mimic estrogen in the body, they’ve been studied for links to breast cancer.

Numerous human studies have found parabens in cancerous breast tissue. But these studies also couldn’t prove a definite causal link, especially since there are various factors to breast cancer risk.

However, a 2019 study of women in Iran with breast cancer found that the amount of parabens consumed increased the risk, especially in those with hereditary breast cancer.

Bottom line: There might be a link, but it’s not 100 percent

For now the information is really mixed, and there isn’t a substantial link between breast cancer and parabens.

But some women — especially those with a family history of breast cancer — still opt to ditch the parabens since it can mess with estrogen levels.

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Are parabens bad for the environment?

Parabens have been linked to ecological harm, especially under the sea. Low levels of butylparaben in sunscreens can bleach coral (which can ultimately kill it).

It’s not unlikely that waste water or rivers are carrying these chemicals too. Paraben levels have also been found in fish, surface waters, and sediments — with methyl- and propylparaben being the most prominent.

A 2015 study also reported that parabens have shown up in the tissues of marine mammals like sea otters, dolphins, and polar bears. How toxic this is isn’t yet known, but they aren’t supposed to be in the natural environment in the first place.

Bottom line: Parabens could hurt the Earth

Studies have shown parabens hurt water environments and our sea creature friends like coral. What circles down the drain when you wash your hair might have an impact.

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Are parabens to blame for irritation or skin reactions?

Just like anything you put on your skin, products containing parabens could be irritating (patch test that ish, people!).

Some people might be sensitive to parabens, which can lead to skin irritation. Studies have found that contact dermatitis (an allergy rash) is usually from putting paraben products on already broken skin.

Bottom line: Irritation is possible, but not for everyone

This is more of an allergy or sensitivity situation. Not everyone will have a skin reaction to parabens.

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The Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FD&C Act) determined that cosmetic products and ingredients (besides color additives) don’t need FDA approval before hitting the market.

So basically the FDA doesn’t have any regulations specifically for preservatives in cosmetics — they’re treated just like all other cosmetic ingredients.

But, the FD&C Act does allow the FDA to go after companies who market adulterated ingredients or misbrand cosmetics. This could result in pulling products off shelves deemed unsafe. As of now, the FDA doesn’t consider parabens a problem or unsafe ingredient.

Things are quite different across the pond. The European Union has totally banned isopropyl- and isobutylparabens in all personal care products. And they have restricted the amount of butyl- and propylparaben in products.

Ten Southeast Asian countries making up the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and Japan have also restricted these parabens.

This comes down to a personal preference.

It is possible to buy products without parabens, including paraben-free makeup. But this often means shorter shelf lives for your products.

Cutting out parabens may be the right call for you if you’re uncomfortable with the research surrounding its impact on the body as well as the environment.

Dirty deets

If you’re interested in keeping other infamous “dirty” cosmetic ingredients out of your beauty collection, keep an eye out for these:

  • Formaldehyde and formaldehyde-releasers: Formaldehyde is toxic (and we don’t mean Britney Spears toxic).This one is a known carcinogen and is used as a preservative in nail polish, hair relaxers, perfumes, or soaps.
  • Triclosan and triclocarban: These antibacterial additives found in hand soap have been banned by the FDA thanks to the possible harm they have as endocrine disruptors — which means tricking the body into believing they’re a hormone.
  • Phthalates: These chemicals are used for softening plastics for items like detergents and tubes. Among other serious links, some studies have shown that they also act as endocrine disruptors, lowering testosterone in men.
  • Hydroquinone: This chemical has been used for years as a skin lightening tool, showing up in OTC products and in prescription medications. But because it was linked to kidney probs and even cancer in rats, the FDA considered limiting it, but ultimately pulled out of the move, saying more research needs to be done first. Following the CARES Act (2020), hydroquinone is no longer eligible to be an OTC product but can still be obtained through prescriptions.
  • 1,4 dioxane: This carcinogenic chemical is a sneaky one — it doesn’t show up on any labels. Why? It’s not intentionally added to anything. Instead, as the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics points out, it’s produced during the manufacturing process to dilute harsher chemicals in bubble baths, lotions, shampoos, and cleansers.
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