Believe it or not, parabens were once a formulator’s dream. Perhaps the ideal preservative, parabens were revered for being stable in most formulations, non-irritating, non-toxic, and with a negligible environmental impact that would make most natural-loving consumers quite happy. But now that parabens have received negative press they’re a formulators nightmare. Why? Because formulating without them is such a challenge, and the evidence linking them to harmful activity is lacking.
What is a paraben?
Parabens are esters of para-hydroxybenzoic acid. The most commonly used parabens are methyl, ethyl, propyl and butyl parabens. Numerous parabens are often used in formulations to ensure optimal solubility and preservative coverage throughout each stage of formulation.
Why do we need preservatives?
Although cosmetic formulations are made under sterile conditions, finished products are not used under such regulated conditions. They are used at home, and most spend their lives in bathroom cabinets or on icky sink-sides. We need preservatives to inhibit the growth of mold and bacteria. Preservatives are used to protect the consumer from micro-contamination, while also protecting the integrity and stability of the formula ingredients. Microorganisms have been known to alter the stability of other chemicals, so in order to ensure the best experience possible, formulators rely on preservatives to provide this protection.
Are they really bad for you?
Parabens have received a bad rap for their association with a 2004 UK study entitled “Concentrations of Parabens in Human Breast Tumours” led by P.D. Darbre, in which parabens are thought to cause breast cancer tumors. Additional studies were carried out to prove this same fact but each was found to be flawed and none could support the link between parabens and cancer.
One reason researchers sought to uncover this link is that parabens are thought to resemble the hormone estrogen, acting as a “xenoestrogen”, or “foreign” estrogen in the human body. However, parabens are between 1,000 and 1 million times less potent than estrogen and you would need to be exposed to a huge amount in order to be effected.
Some scientists have tried to link xenoestrogens to phytoestrogens such as soy, which also resemble estrogen and have similar effects on the human body. However, the estrogenic effects of soy are welcomed in anti-aging products because they are thought to enhance the moisture and elasticity of postmenopausal skin. Whether they are likely to have any effect in a topical capacity at such a low concentration has yet to be proved.
So far the studies linking parabens with tumors are inconclusive. P&G responded to the paraben scare by changing nothing. They continue to use parabens in all of their products because they know it is a passing fad with no credibility. They even have a section on their website where you can learn more about paraben safety.
The FDA also released a statement assuring us that Parabens cause no harm.
As manufacturers and marketers we are all responsible for educating the public about the safety of parabens. Some marketers have responded by bending over backwards to see that “paraben-free” be added to their labels, but this only perpetuates the public’s understanding that there must be something wrong with parabens. If you are unsure whether parabens are safe, please read the facts before making your decision about which preservative system to use. You may be one person, but by going paraben-free with your next product you are sending the message to thousands or even millions of consumers that parabens are harmful. Please think long and hard before you help an unproven cancer link snowball into an industry standard.