Beauty products are more advanced than ever, which is great news when it comes to beating dark circles and breakouts. But with more advanced formulas come more complex ingredients, which is where things can get a little, well, murky—especially on the topic of parabens. While groundbreaking products developed by genius cosmetic scientists may sound like the thing we all need more of, there’s been some backlash when it comes to the growing number of synthetic ingredients used in the lotions and potions we slather on our bodies.
Parabens, as we’re sure you’ve noticed, are currently taking a lot of that heat. But while we’ve all seen the influx of paraben-free labels in the beauty aisles, do you actually know what parabens are? Or why they’re seemingly so controversial? Well, we’re about to break it all down for you. From why parabens are in our cosmetics in the first place to why they’ve earned a bad rep in recent years, here’s your Byrdie UK guide to everything you need to know about parabens.
What are parabens?
Products have a long shelf life these days, especially when you consider the journey each pot, bottle or tube will go through from manufacture to point of sale to your bathroom shelf. So it makes sense that to keep things as fresh as possible, chemists need to add some form of preservative—that’s where parabens come in. One of the oldest forms of modern cosmetic preservatives, parabens have been used since the ’30s as a way to keep formulas free from bacteria, mould and fungi.
You’ll find them in everything from shampoo and shower gel to face creams and serums (note—oils play by different rules, so don’t require the same preservatives as water-based products), where they help to keep active ingredients stable, effective and free from harmful bacteria growth—which is especially important in jars and pots that allow for finger dipping. The most commonly used are methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben and butylparaben.
What's the controversy?
So in 2004, British scientist Philippa Darbre published a research paper that appeared to find traces of parabens in breast cancer tissue samples. While there wasn’t enough evidence to conclusively prove a link between paraben use and increased cancer risk, the paper did prove that parabens are able to pass through the skin barrier and into our bodies.
It also added fuel to concerns that were already surrounding parabens as potential disruptors to the endocrine system—i.e., that they can interfere with our regular hormone production, specifically by mimicking oestrogen, which some researchers suggest could potentially lead to reproductive complications and heightened cancer risk in adults as well as developmental issues in children.
It’s not just our health that’s a concern, however. Marine researchers have reported links between parabens in sunscreens and damaged coral reefs, most likely due to swimmers wearing products that wash off in the ocean, as well as the preservatives being found in the tissues of sea animals, including bottlenose dolphins, thought to be a result of contaminated water washing its way from plugholes into oceans.
So are parabens safe?
Unfortunately, there’s no straight answer here, hence the decades debate. According to EU and FDA regulations, parabens in their current form are officially considered safe to use, since cosmetic products only use a very small concentration of these ingredients in their formulas (up to around 0.4%, though measurements do differ for each paraben).
In fact, EU legislators are actually trying to curb use of the term “paraben free” in beauty marketing and labelling so as to not stigmatise brands that continue to use parabens. That said, an increasing number of skin, hair and makeup companies are choosing to formulate with alternatives just in case.
“We use the precautionary principle; if multiple research casts doubt over an ingredient’s safety to humans or the environment, we will not use it,” explains Rose Ovensehi, founder of Flora & Curl Botanical Haircare. Meanwhile, Elsie Rutterford, co-founder of BYBI Beauty, echoes this play-it-safe sentiment: “Many believe parabens are linked to serious diseases and hormonal disruption in men and women, but many fiercely debate this.”
“Any ingredient that causes that much controversy in our eyes is best kept out of our products—proven or not, why take the chance?” she continues. “Instead, we formulate products that are stable and safe in their own right, without the need for a such a powerful preservative. If a preservative is able to keep bacteria at bay for a 36-month shelf life, chances are it'll also kill a decent proportion of the good stuff in your products too.”
Researchers on both sides of the debate, including Dr. Darbre, continue to investigate the long-term impact parabens may have on our health, but in the meantime, it’s up to us all to make a personal call on the products we choose to use. If you’re keen to explore alternatives, keep scrolling for our favourite paraben-free products to shop now.
What are the alternatives to parabens?
If you want to play it safe and give parabens a miss where you can, you’re in luck—paraben-free products are everywhere. To steer clear of greenwashing, however, we’d suggest always checking the ingredient label to make sure you’re actually getting the goods. Parabens are easy to spot thanks to the fact that even their full chemical names always end in “paraben” (e.g., methylparaben, propylparaben or butylparaben).
When it comes to hair care, Rose of Flora & Curl recommends looking out for alternative preservatives, including sodium benzoate or potassium sorbate, while many skincare products look to organic compounds with preserving properties, such as salicylic acid, benzoic acid and sorbic acid. Looking for airtight packaging (which minimises the exposure of products to open air) is a good idea, too, as it'll help limit bacteria growth.
As with natural and organic products, when you’re going paraben-free it’s vital to keep an eye on the expiry date—you’ll find it either printed on the bottle or as a symbol that looks like an open pot with a number in the centre; the number indicates how many months it’s good for after opening. If your product has passed its expiry date, you’re best off tossing it than taking a risk.
Which paraben-free products should I try?