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:
plus, to a much lesser extent:
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:
- Thou shalt never mention “parabens” without including the words “toxic” or “carcinogenic”
- Thou shalt not check the veracity of the information sources used to make negative claims about parabens
- Thou shalt not accept that some parabens exist in nature
- Thou shalt only seek out “parabens-free” labelled products
- Thou shalt accept without question the Skin Deep information on parabens, even though it is incorrect
- Thou shalt claim that “parabens make you fat”, despite this being an incredibly outrageous claim
- Thou shalt claim that your tumour was composed entirely of parabens (yes, this has actually happened!)
- Thou shalt stubbornly ignore any evidence in favour of parabens, no matter how compelling
- Thou shalt proudly proclaim “preservative free” (for manufacturers) despite thy products containing preservatives
- 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).
More about the author: Dene Godfrey has been involved with preservatives for cosmetics since 1981, from both technical and commercial angles and has a degree in chemistry. Read more from this author