by Kate Dee, MD
What are They?
Parabens are alkyl esters of p-hydroxybenzoic acid that are found naturally in raspberries and blackberries. They are common ingredients in food, pharmaceuticals and skin, hair and body products. They act as preservatives and are found in 90% of all cosmetics. Preservatives are necessary components in cosmetics and skin care products because without them, all these products would become overrun with bacteria, molds, and fungi shortly after opening. How long have your products been in your cabinet? As you pump that moisturizer into your hand, remember that preservatives are present to ensure you aren’t giving your skin a dose of fungus and bacteria. Parabens can occasionally cause an allergic reaction. People with true allergies to parabens should not use products that contain them.
What is the controversy?
Many people have decided to avoid parabens due to the notion that they may play a role as endocrine disrupters and in promoting breast cancer. In this well-written and thorough article, Dr. Leslie Baumann summarizes the scientific studies of parabens. This article by Paula Bergoun is also an excellent summary of the facts. To boil it down:
Are there natural alternatives?
What about paraben-free alternatives? In fact, Parabens are natural preservatives found in berries. It is a common myth that anti-oxidants like vitamin E, Grapefruit Seed Extract and rosemary extract are preservatives but they are not. “Natural" brands often have to resort to using more synthetic preservatives to avoid using parabens-- “Paraben-Free” may be on the front of the label, but check the ingredients! In truth, as I stated above, every product must use some sort of preservative to prevent it from becoming rancid. Parabens have been subject to 20 years of extensive research and are among the most effective and gentlest ingredients on your skin available. Even blogs oriented towards producing “natural” skin care products list parabens as useful preservatives.
The Bottom Line:
Parabens are safe and effective and gentle on your skin. The only reason to avoid parabens is a known allergic reaction.