All About the Parabens

Parabens have been a hot topic lately, as more and more brands announce that their products are paraben-free.

Why are parabens such a touchy subject? Well, there was a study (Darbre, in the Journal of Applied Toxicology, 2004) that looked at breast cancer tissue and found parabens there, leading some to conclude that parabens caused cancer. The FDA did not support that assertion, however.

The study didn’t show that parabens caused cancer, it merely said where there is cancer, there are also parabens (post hoc ergo propter hoc). The study also didn’t measure the level of parabens in normal tissue (maybe you have the same quantities of parabens in all your tissues, cancerous and noncancerous).

There have been other studies, which demonstrate that the degree to which parabens emulate estrogen is small. The most potent paraben is still 10,000 to 100,000 times weaker than the estrogen a woman’s body produces naturally. The FDA determined that parabens are safe in concentrations up to 25% — in cosmetics they’re typically found at .01% to .3%.

But, as LeVar Burton used to say, you don’t have to take my word for it (link to the FDA’s report).

Marketing in the cosmetics industry has really run away with science lately. Chemicals aren’t “bad,” and “natural” doesn’t mean good. I’m not looking for a paraben-free label when I shop — for cosmetics, moisturizer, hair care, shaving products, etc. Whether or not you decide it’s something that worries you, I wanted to make sure you had all the facts on which to base your decision.

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24 Responses to “All About the Parabens”

  • Beeks says:

    >THANK YOU for posting this. I work in a shop that sells bath and body products and there's been so much uproar lately about parabens that the company has actually started overhauling old ranges to be formulated without them. Great to give consumers a choice and all, but now we have die-hard fans of the old formulas complaining to us that things have changed! We can't win! People need to learn to think critically about the statistics they hear being reported… okay, so a study found some results. Who conducted the study? Who paid for the research? Was there a control group? Have the findings been replicated? Was a causal relationship found, or just a correlation (and being aware that cause and correlation are not the same thing)? Like I said, I do believe that consumers should have the choice about what's in the products they're buying, but it should come from an educated point of view, not from hype and mass hysteria. Thanks again for helping to educate people about this particular matter.

  • Kristina says:

    >Karla, I could hug you! Thank you so much for making this post. I've seen the research too, and it makes me CRAZY when people just swallow the latest "health trends" without so much as a second thought or a moment's research of their own. Nothing is more helpful than when a peer we all love, respect, and listen to objectively hands over the information and says "now, make your own informed decision!" … THAT will get people to think!

    :) Good job. As much as I love your swatches, I'm starting to love these occasional informational posts of yours even more!

  • Rivoli says:

    >What types of products include parabens? Everything? Or just bath and body products? How prevalent are they?

  • theotherworldly says:

    >That's absolutely true. Parabens are preservatives to ensure that bacteria from our hands that lands inside the solution of the product is effectively eradicated. Products with no such antibacterial preservatives have not only a shorter lifespan but also expose the user to accumulated bacteria. I would rather have a product with parabens than none.

    An organic exfoliator I have with no parabens is on my list to finish ASAP! It's especially urgent because exfoliators can cause microabrasions that cause infections and I wouldn't want a breakout.

    Thanks for the article! More mass hysteria being incited as a marketing gimmick. Great work shedding light on an important issue!


  • Renie says:

    >I think people should be more concerned with soy in regards to emulating estrogen – read those medical results for yourself instead of reading someone who picked out what they wanted people to hear.

  • Jennifer says:

    >Kudos to you for posting this! So many women on another beauty board I frequent are insanely obsessed with paraben-free everything. Sheesh. I can't tell you how nice it is to hear someone else for a change cut through the crap! You go!

  • makeuporshutup says:

    >Thank you for this post! It's up to everyone to decide what they do or don't want to put on or in their bodies, but people shouldn't be scared into thinking something is bad for them when it's not!!

    P.S. I love these little FYI posts in addition to your lovely swatches!

  • DI0 says:

    >Some people, like me, prefer a cosmetics with no paraben because I have an allergie with them, and all parabens had been tested on animals (yeah, the news one too, this is an action so "superficielle" for a cosmetic).

    And cosmetics industry made paraben because they are so cheap and easy to use! Yeah, all is money, honey ;)

    In Europe, we starting to thinking
    : "Put on your skin what you can eat".

    Why cosmetic industry shouldn't prove the no-toxicity of their ingredients ? If they can, that's ok to used in my skin. If they can't, I don't put that's on my skin.

    For a good help, read Rita Stein, an german independant reporter. She make 2 good books on the cosmetic industry, that's a big big lobby, they want to make money easily and quickly. Like others industries.

    So for me, I don't believe their studies, because they are no-independants. I want real independant studies from universities who are not financed by a cosmetic group.

    It's a mistake to claims that's paraben are free of danger. Because none study of cosmetic industry show that's point.

    And the paraben are not "biodégrables" so the environnement and the human body stock them all your live, it's a problem specially for babies and pregnant women. Evens if a tiny, tiny quantity by day, in terms of all your live (+/-85 years), it's a big quantity !

    Like Professeur BELPOMME (association : Artac) said "Pollutions is a big cause of cancers, they explosed with time" (ex.pollution like paraben).

    So, now, you buy anything you want, it's your choice, but this choice had consequence (any choice will have consequences like mine too).

  • Starry x2 night says:

    >Karla, thank you for this wonderful post! I'm a long-time reader of your blog, and love your swatches, and informative posts like these make it all that more awesome!

    To Di0: Parabens are widely used in food as preservatives: your own EFSA approves of its use in food…*drumroll* in Europe. By your own logic, since it is safe to eat, it is safe to put on your skin. :]

  • Jamie says:

    >Karla – Thank you SO much for posting this! In order to keep cosmetics from growing bacteria or becoming rancid, companies use a wide variety of preservatives. The most research has been done on parabens by far, and their effects on the human body are better known than those of any other preservative. Many companies are using new and untested preservatives now in order to be "paraben free," which honestly scares me much more.

    On the subject of DI0's comments:

    1. "Some people, like me, prefer a cosmetics with no paraben because I have an allergie with them" There are indeed people with paraben allergies. They are extremely rare, but if you do have these allergies, definitely don't use products with parabens.

    2. "and all parabens had been tested on animals"
    Yes, parabens have been tested on animals. So has EVERY OTHER INGREDIENT in cosmetics. I don't care what soap/shampoo/moisturizer you use, every single ingredient in it has been tested on an animal at one point or another.

    3. "Put on your skin what you can eat"
    The following foods are all naturally occurring sources of parabens:
    Blueberries, barley, strawberries, black currants, peaches, carrots, onions, cocoa-beans, vanilla, grapes, etc.

    4. "Why cosmetic industry shouldn't prove the no-toxicity of their ingredients?"
    Because it is impossible to prove anything is truly non-toxic. Non-toxic is just a marketing term for "things we don't think are very bad for you in the quantities supplied when used correctly".

    5. "So for me, I don't believe their studies, because they are no-independants. I want real independant studies from universities who are not financed by a cosmetic group."
    You mean like the one Karla linked to in her article done by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration, a government-funded body)? There are many, many more, try looking in Google scholar for "parabens".

    6. "And the paraben are not "biodégrables" so the environnement and the human body stock them all your live, it's a problem specially for babies and pregnant women. Evens if a tiny, tiny quantity by day, in terms of all your live (+/-85 years), it's a big quantity !"
    That is just flat out untrue. The average human consumes 4-6 mg/kg of body weight in parabens per day. This means that by the age of 85, an 80kg person would have 10kg of parabens in their body from food sources alone.

    This seems to me to be a prime example of some of the crazy marketing going on right now in the cosmetics industry. I think Karla's article, as well as the FDA's are both a much more sane and balanced look at parabens and their potential risks to humans.

  • An Indian's Makeup Blog ! says:

    >Great post ! So many things say paraben free so its good to know all this info on it.You should do one on deodorants as well !

    I once had a reader write to me saying she was appalled I used deodorants and even recommended one on my blog. According to her deodorants cause cancer….I don't know if all this information is good or bad. Becomes so much harder to make a choice. Now I cant use a deodorant without thinking about what she said….but then again wet under arms are so not sexy.

  • DI0 says:

    >Hi Girls,

    Starry : "Parabens are widely used in food as preservatives: your own EFSA approves of its use in food…*drumroll* in Europe. By your own logic, since it is safe to eat, it is safe to put on your skin. :] "

    lol I don't think of that's, but you're right and I don't eat products with parabens, this is strange that's is ok in European food but not in USA no ?

    Jamie :

    For 1 : yep :)

    For 2 : Real organics labels don't test on animals (ingredients or finish product) like BDIH.

    For 3 : Parabens in food are worst because the parabens are more dangerous with this way. Happily, on skin, they are blocked (I hope).

    For 4 : no it's false, in antiquity women use "plomb" for their cosmetics, now, we know that's "plomb" is toxic so the law stop it in the "good ingredients" but in some bad khôl you can find it. Your society have the money, but it's a political decision to do not make any studies on these subjects (pollutions on human, I mean).

    For 5 : I'm very critical with the informations find in internet, because every one can write everything. I prefer books.

    For 6 : yeah because on industry, they used hard chemicals, it's not "assimilé" by the body and they passed in the maternal milk.

    FDA is not all good ! It's lot of money ! How much medicines (drugs) were removed from the market because of their grave side effects in spite of "positive" studies (saying that are no risk for the human being)?

    In a japonese study, "Toxicology, 2006 october 3, 227 (1-2): 62-72", it's proved that's the methyparaben (the same concentration on cosmetics) cause damaged to skin on sun (the skin get older).

    I heard you, it's like the Global warming does not exist ? ;)

    And for yours essentials oils take the organics ones, because of all the chemicals on not organics and certain species are threatened (organics are more respecful with this point).

    I understand you, but i'm really suspicious with all industries (they want to much money). I hope i'm wrong and parabens are okay. In my cosmetics (organics), I don't have parabens in them and they keep preserve very well.

  • Makeup By Melissa Lyn.Com says:

    >Karla, thank you so much for posting this and so eloquently. I was going to do a blog about this topic down the road, but I wouldn't be able to say anything different than you or any of the smart women have not already said.

    I work heavily in the retail skincare industry and it just irritates me to no end this hysteria over "PARABENS". A sale is a sale and if the customer wants a "paraben free" product, I'll sell it to them. I am just now tired of trying to reeducate them nowadays. They will believe what they want to believe.

    Jamie, thank you for your intelligent contribution. you clearly know your stuff.

    D10, I sure I can speak for everyone who has posted who works in the retail beauty industry when I say that I'm also a bit reluctant to believe you are indeed "allergic" to an ingredient that is in such LOW amounts in a product. As was mentioned, true paraben allergy is SO RARE that I have a hard time believing that every suburban housewife who comes to me and claims they are "allergic" is in fact, clinically ALLERGIC. Is this claim of allergy actually backed by an allergy test proving so or are you just guessing that you are?

    The bottom line is that even though many brands are reformulating without parabens, its not because they believe there is anything "bad" with them. Ultimately, brands want to move units and make money. They are simply making a marketing decision to cater to a particular group of people. What I do not like is that the common consumer will take the company's removal of parabens as an implicit statement of "parabens BAD" when that isn't the case at all.

  • Jessica says:

    >Great post Karla, sorry it took me so long to read it.

    D10: You mentioned in your previous post "Real organics labels don't test on animals (ingredients or finish product) like BDIH"

    I hope you don't think you're being attacked, but I have to back up Jamie on this- raw ingredients are required to undergo clinical testing- which INCLUDES animal trials, before being used, regardless of whether a comapny says it is Organic, All-natural, or Cruelty Free. These terms, in fact, have no legal definition or regulation. A company that claims it's products are "not tested on animals" are ONLY referring to the FINISHED product, not the ingredients in it. If you don't believe us, look at one of your ingredient labels, choose an ingredient, and google it along with the words "Animal Test". You'll find plenty.

    For example, The 3rd ingredient in BDIH certified Lavera Anti-Aging Facial Sunscreen is Titanium Dioxide. You can go here:

    to read about just one study that includes animal trials to assess the safety of this particular ingredient.

    I think I speak for us all here when I say we're not trying to be mean or harsh, but many of us have or do work in the cosmetics industry and we are trying to share inside information that we've learned so that others don't have to go crazy (and often spend more money on products that claim to be animal or eco friendly or somehow healthier) trying to live their daily life :)

  • Brian says:

    >It's refreshing to see someone who is propagating the TRUTH behind all the marketing myths. Parabens have never been linked to cancer.

    Check out this very informative post on the issue:

  • Bridget says:

    >I am so happy to see companies moving away from paraben preservatives. Not because I am concerned they cause cancer. They may, but there is no conclusive data on this assertion. But I do have the rare paraben allergy unfortunately, tested by the Mayo Clinic (no I am not a hypochondriac housewife). It is rare, but not unheard of. I am also allergic to PABA and tetracaine which are related chemically to parabens. All 3 set me off. So thank goodness for companies choosing to use other preservatives. Parabens are so prevalent in skincare that if you must avoid them you are almost without options. And to add a fragrance allergy to that, which I also have, it's virtually impossible. I have 2 moisturizers I can use, that's it. And have to carefully read every single label of everything I use and quiz companies and doctors and anybody else who puts things on me to avoid these 2 things. Thanks to the Mayo Clinic and very expensive allergy testing I have finally figured out what was making me so red and itching all over all the time. I literally gave away thousands of dollars of hair care, skin care and cosmetics. It was all making me sick. So don't dismiss allergy claims from concerned customers if you are in retail cosmetic sales. It is very real, while rare, and by insulting the customer, you will lose them. It is possible you sell something they can use, but they will go elsewhere. I certainly have.

  • natural beauty says:

    Just because studies are inclusive does NOT mean parabens are SAFE.

    Dr Oz says to avoid parabens. Seems like common sense especially in lip products that are easily injested.

  • bostonkiddy says:

    Just had to jump in and say a few somethings. this argument reminds me a lot of “why does every nail polish have to have formaldehyde?”

    Every product needs some form of preservative, which is formaldehyde for lots of cosmetics in liquid/cream form, and parabens for others. What matters about the toxicity is the amount of the chemical consumed. they work on germs because they have an infinitely smaller biomass than humans. it takes approximately the same ratio of the mass of toxin to animal-mass to kill humans – basically a lot. I agree that things cannot be labeled as non-toxic, as I have just previously said, it depends a lot more on the concentration than the chemical itself. If you are a physics person, then its basically “voltage does not kill, its the current that kills.”
    Dude, even over consumption of good ol’ water is lethal. I don’t think bottled water should be labeled as toxic.

    I do agree that methyparaben is proved to cause aging. I’m pretty sure a lot of stuff does that too :p So my stand is to try to use non-sketchy make up (hint – really cheap unbranded makeup made in China), and not overuse products. But oh my, I believe there are tons of ingredients that are yet to be discovered to be harmful to humans even under normal conditions (low concentrations as in makeup. the lengths women have to go for beauty :/

    And I just need to add this. DI0, Jamie stated to use “google scholar” to search for info. Note the scholar. once in this search mode, everything that comes up are published in science journals, aka believable. I do biology research and google scholar is immensely helpful when hunting around for scientific papers.

  • Annie says:

    Thank you for the post. I do think the uproar about parabens is silly, especially from my fellow vegetarian/eco/health-conscious friends who apparently have no clue how many more phytoestrogens there are in all the soy milk we drink and tofu we eat.
    I actually prefer to buy older Tarte Cheek Stains, that still have parabens, on eBay, because the preservatives (and parabens do exist naturally in all kind of fruits and other foods) have keep them in pretty good shape, while the newer non-paraben ones appear to start drying out really fast, which may also be aggravated by Amazonian Clay in them, that I personally find drying compared to the old ones.

  • Cassie says:

    These are not all of the facts. Up to 60% of anything we put on our bodies is absorbed into the bloodstream, and parabens (as well as soy & other ingredients) are translated by the body as estrogens. The amount may seem trivial, but over time it can accumulate into a LOT of estrogen. Too much estrogen in the body definitely contributes to certain cancers, such as breast cancer. Also, studies have shown that, when a pregnant monkey is exposed to parabens, the baby boys behave in a feminine manner. This is highly unusual in monkeys, there are definite behavioral differences based on gender in monkeys. Finally, the FDA does NOT regulate the health/beauty industry. That industry is self-regulated. Whatever FDA findings are limited, at best, or speculation, because they have no authority over the industry. This is why consumer watchdog groups are finding mercury in mascara, and lead in lipsticks. Even if you’re not worried about parabens, there is no safe amount of mercury or led for human consumption.

  • kelly says:

    I have had contact dermatitis (skin allergies) for most of my life. It is caused by all kinds of makeup, lotion, and bath products – I never know what is going to make me wake up the next morning with my eyes swollen shut, and an itchy red rash on my face or body.

    Although I haven’t (yet) been tested for parabens, my allergist (I have many other “real” allergies) recently mentioned that I might try avoiding them.

    Every paraben-free product I have tried has been ok. Every paraben containing product I have tried has caused an allergic reaction. I am convinced it is the parabens, and I am planning to have allergy tests for skin irritants later in the year.

    Allergies aren’t common. But, if you have them it’s just SO miserable. I can’t count the number of times I have had to throw products out. It’s devastating to wake up the morning after a fun night out, with eyes swollen shut because you tried to use makeup the night before. Especially those who work in the cosmetic industry – please be kind to those of us who have these problems. It’s NOT by choice!!

  • Boone says:

    Excellent post. Another point that I think is often over-looked in the paraben debate is that some of the preservatives that are now being used in place of parabens are even “worse” (assuming for the sake of argument that there is any validity to the health concern over parabens, which have been used in cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, and food for nearly a century). For instance, one of the most common replacement preservatives in products labeled “paraben-free” is phenoxyethanol, an organic chemical compound that even the FDA has warned can cause vomiting, diarrhea, contact dermatitis, and depression of the Central Nervous System (link: The EPA has also tested phenoxyethanol (although likely at much higher concentrations than would be found in cosmetics) and found it caused chromosal changes and genetic mutations in mice. If given the choice between this lovely preservative and parabens, I’ll take the parabens any day!

    The craziest thing about the paraben scare, in my opinion, is that the only thing people care about is seeing that “paraben-free” sticker, with no regard to what the manufacturer has replaced it with.

  • Anne says:

    I went through a ‘natural’ ingredient only phase and hate to say that the products really didn’t last as long. This sounds like such an obvious thing to say, but it was actually upsetting having to throw away things that were no where near finished. Boooooo! I am now back on the parabens!

  • Marcia Bar says:

    Dear Karla, how can we TRUST on the FDA??????? First the approve all the cancer cause drugs, then they recall it and all the legal process start.

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