Wait, What Actually Are Parabens And Should You Avoid Them?

Prepare to be equal parts confused and enlightened.
PHOTO: Jeffrey Westbrook/Studio D

So here's a debate that's been going on for, oh, all of human history aka since the '30s: Are parabens bad for you or nah? To sum up: A 2004 study, the same one that sparked their downward spiral, implied that they *might* cause cancer (more on that in a sec). While some would argue—including the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the American Cancer Society (ACS)—that there isn't a direct link between parabens and cancer, a lot of brands still choose to formulate without them because educated savvy consumers still continue to seek out labels that claim "paraben-free." Confused? Keep reading.

So what is a paraben?

Parabens are a class of compounds called esters (basically, preservatives) used in all sorts of beauty products that are very effective in preventing bacteria, fungi, and yeast growth, all of which can cause your favorite formulas to go bad. The typical paraben players used in cosmetics and hair care: methyl-, ethyl-, butyl-, and propylparaben—remember these terms for later, we'll be circling back to them. Although, ingredient labels tend to list more than one paraben in a product, since multiple types of preservatives protect against a broader range of microorganisms, per the FDA.

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Translation: The more preservatives a product has, the longer its shelf-life will be.

Why are parabens bad?

Parabens have a chemical structure that resembles that of estrogen (the female hormone known to cause breast cells—both normal and cancerous—to grow and divide, according to the ACS). But it wasn't until scientist Dr. Philippa Darbre published that study back in 2004 that we learned parabens were found in breast cancer tumors—cue the instant implication that they could be cancer-causing!

That said, the ACS quickly pointed out that there were certain factors that weren't further looked into regarding the study's findings, like:

"The researchers looked only for the presence of parabens in breast cancer samples. The study did not show that parabens caused or contributed to breast cancer development in these cases—it only showed that they were there. [And] although parabens have weak estrogen-like properties, the estrogens that are made in the body are hundreds to many thousands of times stronger. So, natural estrogens (or those taken as hormone replacement) are much more likely to play a role in breast cancer development. [But while] parabens are widely used as preservatives in shampoo, lotions, other cosmetics, and even foods. This study did not contain any information to help find the source of the parabens found in the breast tissue—it's not clear if they might have come from antiperspirants or from some other source."

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And thus The Great Paraben Debate began.

Can parabens cause cancer?

        I can't (nor can anyone else at this point, really) answer a firm yes or no. The reason: per the above arguments, the study was found to be flawed, says cosmetic chemist Joseph Cincotta, PhD, even though Dr. Darbre strives to prove—through continued research—the initial theory (I'm summarizing here) that it was indeed parabens that led to the breast cancer cells found inside the tumors that were tested.

        Nonetheless, after the strong cancer-causing claim was already released and the media ran it, people were reasonably terrified to slather on anything that contained parabens. But the ACS and FDA continue to assure us that "at this time, we do not have information showing that parabens, as they are used in cosmetics in the small amount of 0.04 percent, per paraben, according to the European Union (EU) have an effect on human health."

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        Okay, but are parabens safe? I'm confused.

        I'm with Cincotta when he says, "It's really up to the consumer to make the decision for themselves." On one hand, because there isn't a direct link to breast cancer, experts argue that it isn't crucial to steer clear of parabens entirely—especially since they're gentler than most preservatives.

        "Studies have even shown that the amount of parabens used in skin or hair care products really don't penetrate deeply into the skin and are very easily broken down by our bodies through enzymes and excreted through urine," Cincotta says. Studies also found parabens in 99 percent of people's urine in the U.S., per ACS, meaning that they're hard to escape—especially since parabens are in about 85 percent of products still, according to Cincotta.

        He goes on to say that, "if parabens were really that bad for you, huge beauty companies wouldn't be allowed to have them in their products." Still, labels splashed with "paraben-free" warn against them, signaling that something must be wrong with parabens as a whole. 

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        But it's not just the possible link to breast cancer that freaks people out: since parabens mimic a type of estrogen, they're potential disruptors to the endocrine system (aka they could lead to reproductive problems and eff with the normal functioning of hormones). "But even then, those studies done in vivo—done in glass tubes—and in vitro—done in living organisms—revealed that yes, it mimics estrogen, but you would need to take mega doses of parabens to even get close to endocrine disruption," Cincotta adds.

        "Those same studies showed that parabens are 100,000 percent less disruptive than just estrogen alone—like in people who are taking birth control pills, for example," Cincotta goes on to explain.

        The concrete info we do know is the EU, which is a lot more strict in their ingredient regulations is urging brands not to say "paraben-free" on their packaging, because it sends the message that parabens are bad. Why are they for using products with certain parabens? Because studies that the EU has conducted have shown that the shorter-chain parabens, like methylparabens are the lesser of paraben evils, since they're water soluble and sit on the skin, meaning there isn't a great risk there.

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        "It's the oil or lipid soluble, longer-chain parabens, like isobutyl- and butylparabens, that can penetrate into the skin deeper," Cincotta adds. "Even I would stay away from them as a chemist, since they can get into the lipids or fats in your body and accumulate, which you just don't want."

        What products have parabens?

        Basically any cosmetic, food, or drug that you flip over and read "paraben" on the label contains, well, parabens, per the FDA.

        So this debate isn't over, is it?

        Yeah, no. Cincotta says we might see a swing back to parabens, since, "as chemists, we're halting the use of other preservatives because of the irritations they're causing." And you need a preservative, he adds.

        "You can't sell skin and hair care products without some sort of preservative in them, since its job is to kill bacteria in a product. If a consumer puts on a product with bacteria or mold in it, you could end up getting an infection in your eye, so, it's like, which evil are you going to choose? Are you going to put on a few tenths of a percent of a preservative on your skin and have an allergic reaction or do you want the possibility of spreading bacteria in your body from a compromised formula?"

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        Basically, you do you, boo, but I'll be over here seeking out paraben-free products juuuust in case Dr. Darbre was right after all.

        ***

        This article originally appeared on Cosmopolitan.com. Minor edits have been made by the Cosmo.ph editors.

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