Parabens in Perspective: An Introduction

Parabens are probably the most vilified ingredients currently used in cosmetics today. Why? That is a huge question but, first of all, let me explain what parabens actually are:

Parabens are esters of parahydroxybenzoic acid (see where the paraben comes from), and are more correctly referred to as “paraben esters”, although it is rare to see this these days. The parabens of interest in cosmetics are:

methylparaben

ethylparaben

propylparaben

butylparaben

plus,  to a much lesser extent:

isobutylparaben

isopropylparaben

Some of these are also used in their sodium salt form – listed on the label as, for example, sodium methylparaben. The vast majority of the comments made about each paraben will apply equally to the equivalent sodium salt.

Many commentators refer to parabens as though they were a single entity, but they are not – each has its own chemical and toxicological properties and, whilst there may be some similarities in certain properties, there are also significant differences.

Parabens are used as preservatives in cosmetics, and they are extremely effective at controlling the growth of fungi (yeasts and moulds)at low concentrations  and they also have activity against many bacteria, although they are primarily fungicidal. They have been used as preservatives in cosmetics since the 1920’s. As with all other “true” preservatives, being biologically active, they have some small potential to cause irritation to skin and, in rare cases, an allergic response. Amongst the general population, this is a truly rare event, and parabens are consistently reported as being amongst the lowest rates of skin problems in dermatological patients.

Despite more than 80 years of apparently safe usage in cosmetics, in the past 12 years a few studies have been published that appear to throw the safety of all or some parabens into doubt.

This article is intended to serve as the introduction to a series of further articles on parabens, in each of which I will take one scientific study and critique it to examine the reality of the claims it makes and its place in the wider debate over the safety of parabens. There is such a wealth of data available, much of it generated only over the last 12 years, that it is impossible to assess every study, so I will focus entirely on those studies that have had the most impact in this debate.

It is difficult to pitch articles on scientific studies to the right level for everyone’s understanding, but I intend to try to put across the science in as clear and simplified a manner as possible without appearing condescending. So, if I appear to be condescending, please remember that this is not my intention!

I said at the beginning of this piece that parabens are probably the most vilified cosmetic ingredients, and it almost seems as though there is a concerted campaign against their use, and one which resorts to using any source of (mis)information as long as it is negative towards them. It is as though there is a Ten Commandments for the anti-parabens lobby:

  1. Thou shalt never mention “parabens” without including the words “toxic” or “carcinogenic”
  2. Thou shalt not check the veracity of the information sources used to make negative claims about parabens
  3. Thou shalt not accept that some parabens exist in nature
  4. Thou shalt only seek out “parabens-free” labelled products
  5. Thou shalt accept without question the Skin Deep information on parabens, even though it is incorrect
  6. Thou shalt claim that “parabens make you fat”, despite this being an incredibly outrageous claim
  7. Thou shalt claim that your tumour was composed entirely of parabens (yes, this has actually happened!)
  8. Thou shalt stubbornly ignore any evidence in favour of parabens, no matter how compelling
  9. Thou shalt proudly proclaim “preservative free” (for manufacturers) despite thy products containing preservatives
  10. I can’t think of a 10th, so just repeat number 9.

A little lightheartedness never hurt anyone.

To close this introduction, perhaps it would be useful for me to add a “declaration of interest” to combat the almost inevitable accusations that my articles will attract. I am writing these articles as a private individual. I am not being paid for this work, and I do not write in my employer’s time. I have worked in the field of cosmetic preservatives since 1981, having been employed by one of the 3 major parabens manufacturers for 10 years (part of my role, ironically, was to extend their range beyond just the parabens!), and I am currently employed by a company that acts as a distributor for one of the other major parabens manufacturers but, again, I have most of the parabens alternatives in my portfolio as well as many “secondary antimicrobials” that are also being touted as alternatives.

What I am trying to say is that I don’t need to sell parabens to survive; I am equally happy with selling the alternatives, but decisions should be made on the basis of facts, not internet myths and misinformation (myth-information).

  • http://www.sterlingminerals.com/ Katherine

    Good intro…look forward to the rest of the articles…and I loved the 10 commandments against parabens. So true…so true.

  • http://twitter.com/organicguru June

    very cute with the 10 commendments. esp #10..lol

  • http://twitter.com/LaVidaHealthy Lydia Proschinger

    Looks like the myth-information really requires some deeper research than the occasional wikipedia glimpse. Will keep reading your articles on parabens….thanks!

    • Dene Godfrey

      Lydia, it can be so difficult, even for scientists. to sort the wheat from the chaff, especially if you don’t have the time to read every study in detail. Regarding Wikipedia – I had a small hand in the entry for parabens, and a larger one in the discussion page (the page that is now archived – not the current discussion page)!

  • http://greenskincareblog.com/ Kristin Fraser Cotte

    As always Dene, I appreciate your knowledge and sense of humor! Great intro.

  • http://www.cactusandivy.com Lisa M. Rodgers

    Dene -

    Thank you for this great introduction into parabens. I’m looking forward to the Monday’s in November when the remainder of your ‘Parabens in Perspective’ posts run. Dealing with the ludicrous “myth-information” plaguing the internet in regards to cosmetics, we have to have a little humor. Otherwise, our heads would explode!

  • Dene Godfrey

    Thanks for all the kind comments so far – I hope you like the “real” articles just as much!

  • http://www.facebook.com/joseph.colas Joseph Colas

    thank you, dene, for tackling this topic! i love reading all your writings and really appreciate this site for being one place i can come any time i hear any “myth-information”, as you humorously but accurately put it! often it’s difficult for me, as a layperson/skincare fanatic, to hold my own against my fellow fanatics who seemingly love to believe the worst about anything not ‘natural’…instead of hunting all over to find accurate science to combat the misinformation i can come to this one site and find help! kudos to all the contributors (but dene is my fave!). oh, and i can’t wait for the “real” articles!

    • Dene Godfrey

      Thanks Joseph *blush*! I am deeply grateful for your comments. I enjoy incorporating humour whenever I can, but I am afraid the remaining articles in the series are sadly lacking in humour, and are fairly heavy on the science thing. I have tried to keep it as simple as possible, but the problem is that these are scientific issues and, whilst it is all too easy to make scary unscientific statements, the only real way to respond properly is with the science, otherwise it doesn’t make sense!

      I am delighted to see that “myth-information” seems to be catching on as a new word! I used it once before in a LinkedIn discussion, but it wasn’t picked up. I hope it catches on because I do think it is entirely apt!

  • Carolyn Veroni

    Great to see this I am so glad I found you Dene. I feel like I am the only one singing in the choir.

  • Mary Matthews

    This site is a godsend. For 20 years I have been unable to find good info on this subject, that I could get my head around(mind you I am still struggling a bit) I will read it all again, try to understand it better and look forward to further info from you.