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What Are Parabens and Are They Harmful?

Parabens are a common ingredient in health and beauty products. Find a list of parabens here and what you need to know about them.

More and more health and beauty products are being labeled "paraben free" these days. Suddenly, a word that doesn't seem to sound like anything to do with antiperspirant or shampoo is written all over them as something to avoid. So, what's a paraben? Are they really bad for you?

It's time to find out.

What Parabens Are

According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), a paraben is most easily defined as a preservative, put into health and beauty products to make them last longer. Parabens are esters of p-hydroxybenzoic acid and are used in different combinations. An ester is a compound made of alcohol and an organic acid. Parabens are typically included in moisturizers, deodorants/antiperspirants, foundation, shampoos, shaving creams and anti-aging creams. The average shelf life of makeup, skincare and hair products is about three years, so the reason for adding preservatives is to prevent the growth of any bacteria. Parabens can also be found in certain foods.

How They Can Affect Your Health

The use of parabens was first questioned in the 1990s and has since sparked controversy due to recent studies that suggest a link between their use and cancer. A 2004 study published in the Journal of Applied Toxicology found the presence of parabens in breast cancer tumors. The body is able to absorb them directly through the skin and into the bloodstream. Once in the body, parabens act similarly to estrogen, raising alarms to a possible connection. However, no study has made a determined link between parabens and cancer.

Currently, under the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act (FD&C Act), the FDA does not have to approve the ingredients used in cosmetics or other health and beauty products, unless the product is shown to be adulterated or containing ingredients proven to be poisonous. Parabens were concluded to be safe when levels up to 25 percent are contained is cosmetics, according to the 1984 Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) -- typically, health and beauty products contain 0.01 to 0.3 percent parabens. Another investigation in 2005 concluded the same.

Currently, both the FDA and the National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) don't feel there's significant evidence to declare parabens dangerous. They do, however, express the need for additional research.

Looking Out for Parabens

The continued widespread use of parabens makes determining if they're truly hazardous difficult. However, if you're concerned about them, there are natural, paraben-free products available. According to Real Simple, it's the water in most products that requires a preservative. Products listing oil as their main ingredient don't require these added ingredients. A paraben-free product may be labeled as containing nonhazardous, biodegradable or eco-friendly ingredients. When shopping for health and beauty products, here's a list of the most common parabens to check the label for:

  • Methylparaben
  • Butylparaben
  • Propylparaben
  • Ethylparaben
  • Polyparaben
  • Isobutylparaben

Only time and additional research will tell if parabens are truly safe or not. Until then, be smart about all of the ingredients in your health and beauty products and you'll sleep soundly while still looking fabulous.


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