Parabens - Cause for worry!

The word PARABENS invokes feelings of fear, confusion, and general cluelessness in most consumers. Many of us have heard that parabens are unsafe, paraben-free cosmetics are a good thing, and that you don't get enough of paraben-free cosmetics here in India. Here's a concise, action-oriented look - SO YOU KNOW WHAT TO DO NEXT!

We will take a systematic, simplified look at parabens, by answering the following questions:

1. What are parabens, why are they used?
2. Are parabens bad? Is the danger real?
3. Should I avoid parabens?
4. Are paraben-free cosmetics always safe?
5. How can I choose safer products?


What are parabens, why are they used?

Almost every cosmetic or personal care product you use has preservatives in it. And parabens are great preservatives - they keep cosmetics from going bad due to bacteria, yeast, and fungi. They give a good shelf life and thereby making cosmetics safer to use. Being extremely effective, and cost-effective, they have been loved by the industry for a long, long time.

The parabens used in cosmetics are (INCI names): methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben, isobutylparaben, and butylparaben. Parabens are typically used in levels of less than 0.5% each, and often a combination of parabens is used. 


Are parabens bad? Is the danger real?

Some people insist that parabens are safe, hence continue to use them. Our philosophy is simple: better safe than sorry. If something is iffy, don't use it on people. That's OUR philosophy - no offense to anyone here.

What is the evidence against parabens? We present a few latest ones below, to help you decide (we've simplified the findings to keep things understandable, advanced readers would do well to read the full reports):

  1. The EU, in its latest findings, considers propylparaben and butylparaben safe, BUT at levels not exceeding 0.19%. Concerns: reproductive toxicity and endocrine disruption. In plain words, concerns that these chemicals can behave like hormones inside the human body and cause disruption.
  2. Denmark has banned the use of propylparaben and butylparaben in products used by children of less than 3 years of age.
  3. EWG, leading environmental health research and advocacy organization in the US, has given a hazard rating of 10 (highest hazard) to propylparaben and 7 to butylparaben


Is the danger real?

Scientifically, two key issues have prevented an all-out answer to this question:

  1. The difference between metabolism (how the body processes these chemicals) in rats (where the lab tests are conducted) and humans.
  2. The cumulative exposure of humans to parabens - we use no less than 5 to 20 cosmetics per day, so imagine the cumulative effect of the parabens. This has not been studied in detail yet, on human volunteers.


Are paraben-free cosmetics always safe?

Two quick points here:

  1. It's tough for cosmetics to be preservative-free unless you follow extremely restrictive formulationsSo something's got to replace parabens. And chemists have been working overtime to find solutions.
  2. New preservatives have to be safe on two counts:
    • They have to be safe chemicals
    • They have to effectively kill microbes in the formulation, giving it the shelf-life that we desire.

Without getting too detailed, here's an illustrative list of what can go wrong while trying to be paraben-free:

  1. Formula restrictions: Some preservatives work only in specified pH ranges, some are ineffective beyond a certain temperature, some others are incompatible with other parts of the formula. If chemists choose the wrong preservative for the formulation, you have an unsafe product in your hands
  2. Toxic preservatives: Some paraben-substitutes are themselves quite toxic. Example: Iodopropynyl butylcarbamate is toxic by inhalation and should not be used in aerosols and sprays

In short, paraben-free does not automatically mean safe.


How can I choose safer products?

We have to admit it's not easy, but here are 3 quick tips:

  1. Choose brands that care about the safety and environmental impact of their products. Read the back-of-pack carefully to see what the brand has to say.
  2. Look for what's replacing the parabens, and use a dependable, objective service like Cosmetic Ingredient Review or EWG's Skin Deep to see if what's in your cosmetic is safe. 
  3. You can ask us.

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