When it comes to skincare, some ingredient names are 4 letter words. Over the last decade or so, parabens have become infamous due to conflicting claims about their safety. Many product labels now tout that they are “paraben free” and many a skincare lover tries to avoid parabens at all costs. Most of these aforementioned skincare junkies know that “parabens are bad for you,” but probably couldn’t tell you why though (rly y tho?). Skincare companies have jumped on consumer concerns about parabens and used them as a marketing ploy. However, in the process, we may have cleared the way for even more hazardous ingredients to become ubiquitous.
Here’s the truth about parabens.
What are parabens?
Parabens are a family of preservatives introduced in the 1930s. They have been widely used in personal care products like soaps, moisturizers and sunscreens. They’ve also been used to a lesser degree in medications and foods. The purpose of parabens, and all preservatives for that matter, is to keep bacteria and fungi from growing on our precious products. They help extend the shelf life of a product as it is shipped, sold and used until its expiration. When applied to skin, parabens can make it into the bloodstream, but they are quickly metabolized and excreted, mostly in the urine.
Why is everyone so scared of them?
There’s a lot to break down here. In 2004 a study came out that found parabens in the breast tissue of patients with breast cancer. While the authors of that study acknowledged that the presence of parabens did not prove that they caused cancer (notably, they did not examine the breast tissue of healthy controls), it was hypothesized that paraben-containing deodorants may have played a role. This ignited a huge backlash against parabens in general, with regulatory bodies in some countries banning their use altogether – it was a hot mess. But here’s where it gets complicated: the thought was that since parabens can mimic estrogen, and estrogen plays a role in the development of breast cancer, there was a clear relationship between the two. HOWEVER, subsequent studies showed that the estrogenic potential of parabens is actually pretty weak. Then another study came out that compared the breast cancer risk of women who used paraben-containing deodorants to those who didn’t. There was no difference in the chances of developing breast cancer between the two groups.
Another reason why people have historically tried to avoid parabens is allergies, but only about 0.5% to 3.5% of people exhibit a sensitivity to parabens – that’s one of the lowest rates of all preservatives and it’s been stable for decades.
OK… so why not just skip the parabens anyway? Why take a chance?
Well, we take chances with thousands of ingredients with less data behind them than parabens every day. Legitimately thousands of ingredients commonly used in skincare products have also shown estrogenic potential, but we still use them if the risk of danger is low. There’s also been another side effect of going paraben-free: companies have started using less-studied preservatives with larger side effect profiles.
For instance, take methylisothiazolinone and methylchloroisothiazolinone (yes, these are real words, and yes, I have to know how to say them). These are preservatives that were created in the 1980s. Companies started to introduce them into personal care products around 2005 (right after that 2004 study about parabens in breast tissue, what a coincidence). These two molecules have unleashed an epidemic of allergic contact dermatitis, a type of skin allergy. Sensitivity rates to these molecules have been measure at greater than 10%, and studies point to a steady rise in that number. Since these preservatives are nearly ubiquitous, popping up in everything from moisturizers to laundry detergent to baby wipes, that represents a huge problem for people with sensitive skin.
So, what are you trying to say?
Basically this: we all need to learn a lesson from the paraben controversy. Any substance can be toxic in a large enough quantity, and it’s really hard elucidated the true toxicological potential of the products we use since they’re comprised of so many ingredients in so many unique formulations. Being too quick to throw out tried-and-true ingredients like parabens without better information can lead to the prominence of something even worse (and harder to pronounce) like methylisothiazolinone. Essentially, the devil you know may be better than the devil you don’t. Additionally, the skincare and personal care industries need to be held accountable – you can’t get rid of one preservative as a marketing tactic while introducing something potentially more dangerous with less data behind it. That said, we can all learn something from the paraben controversy.
For a more in-depth analysis of the data, I highly recommend reading this review.