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Paraben Preservatives and Cosmetics: Controversy and Alternatives

Aug 18, 2007
Increasing concern for the safety of ingredients in cosmetics has brought some widely used cosmetic preservatives by the family name 'paraben' to center stage. Paraben preservatives are listed under multiple names and are used to preserve the majority of cosmetics on the market today, not only to prevent the growth of bacteria and fungi but also to promote the abnormally long shelf-life of products.

As with chemically preserved foods, paraben preserved cosmetics ensure that the cosmetic manufacturer can produce the product en masse and take comfort in a multi-year shelf life. Paraben preservatives have recently come into question with new studies that link the daily exposure of paraben preservatives to breast cancer and endocrine-disruption issues.

What Exactly are Paraben Preservatives?

Parabens are synthetic preservatives that have been in use since the 1920s as "broad-band" preservatives (anti-bacterial and anti-fungal) which means that they work within a formula to prevent the growth of multiple possible contaminants such as bacteria, yeast, mold and fungi. They can be found in approximately 75-90 percent of cosmetics such as make-up, lotion, deodorants and shampoos.

According to 'A Consumers Dictionary of Cosmetic Ingredients', water is the only cosmetic ingredient used more frequently than paraben preservatives. (Winter, 2005) Paraben is the family name for the following permutations of the ingredient found on a common product ingredient label:

- Butylparaben
- Ethylparaben
- Methylparaben
- Propylparaben
- Benzyl-parahydroxybenzoic acid (p-hydroxybenzoic acid)
- Methyl-parahydroxybenzoic acid (p-hydroxybenzoic acid)
- Ethyl-parahydroxybenzoic acid (p-hydroxybenzoic acid)
- Propyl-parahydroxybenzoic acid (p-hydroxybenzoic acid)
- Butyl-parahydroxybenzoic acid (p-hydroxybenzoic acid)
- Parahydroxybenzoic acid (p-hydroxybenzoic acid)
- Parahydroxybenzoate (p-hydroxybenzoate)

The Paraben Controversy

Linked to Breast Cancer: Though paraben preservatives only account for a very small percentage of a product's actual formula they are quite potent. A study published in the Journal of Applied Toxicology in 2004 expressed concern regarding the use of paraben preservatives.

In the UK, researchers found traces of it in 19 out of 20 women with breast tumors. (Winter, 2005) Though the studies did not determine if the ingredient was the cause of the breast tumors, it did establish that pervasive use of this synthetic ingredient is biocumulative.

Possible Endocrine Disruptors: Paraben preservatives have also been identified as endocrine disruptors. The endocrine system is instrumental in regulating the body's hormones. Paraben preservatives are believed to mimic the female hormone estrogen when introduced into the body.

According to recent research, more than 60 percent of topically applied chemicals via cosmetics, lotions, etc. are absorbed by the skin and dispersed throughout the body by the bloodstream. Once absorbed into the body, paraben preservatives mimic the hormone estrogen and can disrupt the body's normal hormonal balance.

In the Archives of Toxicology (2002) , Dr. S. Oishi of the Department of Toxicology, Tokyo Metropolitan Research Laboratory of Public Health, Japan, reported "that exposure of newborn male mammals to butylparaben adversely affects the secretion of testosterone and the function of the male reproductive system."

This artificial provocation and inflation of estrogen in the endocrine system has been linked to breast cancer in some women as well as the abnormal hormonal development of children including the hormonal "feminization of boys" which may influence the suspected link in decreasing testosterone levels and sperm count in the male reproductive system. It has also been hypothesized to contribute to the early maturation of girls at increasingly younger ages.

Do All Cosmetic Companies Use Paraben Preservatives?

Not all cosmetic companies use paraben preservatives and many are phasing out their use now that enough questions have been raised about their overall long term safety. New cosmetic companies, more focused on offering natural and organic products, have made their "no paraben" policy a platform issue. This means there are a wide variety of paraben-free products which are mostly now available for purchase in health food stores and on the internet.

With the increasing popularity of the natural and organic body care market more companies are jumping on the proverbial "natural" band wagon. With this additional commercial interest and the lack of FDA regulation around the word "natural" one must never rely solely on a company's marketing and advertising claims and always read the ingredient label to confirm that an ingredient is truly not being used in the formula.

Alternative Preservative Systems

There are good reasons why paraben preservatives are the defacto cosmetic preservative. They are cheap and effective. However, safer and more natural alternatives are available. With formulas that contain certain organic (living) ingredients and/or water as an ingredient, a more aggressive non-paraben preservative must be used to ensure the stability of the formula.

In general, the next best option is a synthetic preservative called Phenoxyethanol which has a synthetic chemical composition inspired by a natural anti-bacterial/anti-microbial chemical found in the sage plant. It's easier to use a natural preservative in formulas that are basically inert (like most powder mineral cosmetics) or have an oil base and no water (like lipstick or liners). In products such as these, a plant extract or essential oil with anti-microbial and anti-oxidant properties such as grapefruit seed extract, grape seed extract or tocopherol (vitamin E) is used as an effective preservative system. In any case, the manufacturer should perform proper stability testing to ensure that the product's preservative system lasts.

Resources for the Risk Adverse

Much research and observation still needs to be done to ultimately determine the true long term safety and consequences of the wide spread use of paraben preservatives as a daily part of our skin regimen and subsequent absorption diet. The current studies questioning paraben preservatives fundamental safety and the current lack of FDA testing or regulation regarding cosmetics establish a good case for avoiding these questionable ingredients all together.

An excellent resource to determine the overall safety of almost any personal care product is the Environmental Working Group's (EWG) Cosmetic Database. This database culls world-wide collective scientific ingredient and cosmetic studies as well as governmental toxicity databases from around the world (examples US, EU, Japan, Korea) and gives a toxicity ranking based on this collective data. The online interface is easy to work with. One simply types in the name of a product/brand or an ingredient and the database will return all the relevant information about that query and its safety. The EWG's database is a work in progress and is always being refined for further detail and clarity.


More comprehensive studies are needed to conclusively determine the true scope of the damaging effects of prolonged exposure to paraben preservatives by way of the cosmetic ingredients we use every day. A serious effort to reassess the safety of these products must be undertaken by a non-biased group of researchers. To date, among the studies that have been done world-wide, paraben preservatives have been linked to breast cancer and have been labelled as a possible endocrine disruptor that might have specific damaging consequences for young children and those with ongoing exposure.

Luckily, we have more options than ever before and can take ourselves out of the equation entirely by educating ourselves and opting for products that use different preservative systems and fewer questionable ingredients in general.

Sources and works cited:

Antczak, Dr. Stephen and Gina, (2001). Cosmetics Unmasked, Harper Collins, London. Fairley, Josephine, (2001). Organic Beauty, DK Publishing, London. Winter, Ruth M.S. (2005). A Consumer's Dictionary of Cosmetic Ingredients, Three Rivers Press, NY. Cornell University: Parabens: evidence of estrogenicity and endocrine disruption
Environmental Health Perspectives Volume 114, Number 12, December 2006
About the Author
Kristin Adams is Founder and President of Afterglow Cosmetics, a line of natural make-up including mineral cosmetics infused with certified organic ingredients. Discover your natural beauty at www.afterglowcosmetics.com
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