Parabens – Chemical Review

The cosmetic industry has gotten a lot of different publicity recently in the news. There is a higher demand to have cruelty-free and sustainably made makeup. People want products that are good for their health, animals, and the environment.

Lush is a widely popular company that sells anything from body washes to shampoo bars. Their products are favorites among many in the zero-waste community, as they offer ethical handmade products that are minimally packaged. However, it is has been a hot topic that they use parabens in some (but not all) of their products.

Parabens. So what are they?

Parabens are, simply put, a preservative that is put into some cosmetics in order to help them last longer. Specifically, they are supposed to inhibit bacteria growth, although apparently the mode through which they do this (chemically speaking) is unknown. There are different kinds of parabens, but they all function the same way.

The Controversy

A simple Google-search shows that there are conflicting statements and views on parabens. The website Real Simple has an article “What are Parabens –  And Do I Need to Worry About Them?” in which they state that parabens are shown to be connected to breast cancer through research that was conducted in the 1990s. However, the paper is not cited in the article, meaning I cannot click to read the paper for myself to know if they wholistically read the article, or even if this research is real.

They also state that in 2004 there was research showing that parabens were found in benign breast cancer cells, again not cited. They end the article to state that there doesn’t seem to be any concern, but ended by listing places to buy cosmetics paraben free. With that said, this article doesn’t state reputable scientific facts (as far as we know from looking at this article alone). It spends it’s short length to scare people without any backing, but then ends to say there is no concern.

The FDA has a page dedicated to parabens, which mitigates any health risks. They discuss the same 2004 paper discussed in the Real Simple article, stating that there are many questions unanswered through this research. Although the article is cited, there is not a reference (so I can look up the article).

I’ll lastly mention the Breast Cancer Fund, who has a page also dedicated to parabens, however, instead of even mentioning the questionability of the research, which was brought up in the other two articles I have mentioned, it just ignores them. Thankfully they actually have references! But before you get too excited, when you click “View References” it’s a link to every reference they use for all of their articles of that type *eye roll*.

There were many articles, so I can go on and on, but through three different articles you would receive a different stance on the issue. Two of the websites had .gov/.org which usually indicates reputability for most people online, but they have two opposite stances on the issue.

Lush products without parabens


So are parabens healthy to use? Should you never touch those 104 Lush products again that use parabens or any other products that use them?

Well, to my own surprise, the short answer is yes. Stay far, far away.

Naturally, research has occurred since 2004 on this topic. Let me begin by first saying that parabens are, in fact, endocrine disrupters. This is talked about extensively in a 2008 literature review of parabens (Harvey, 2008) which is basically a compilation of all of the research done on parabens at the time. But what does it mean if something is an endocrine disrupter?

An endocrine disrupter is any chemical that can partly or fully mimic naturally occurring hormones in the body (most notably estrogen in female bodies) which can affect fertility and metabolism. One notably is BPA, which was found commonly in plastics until recently (which although is still present, many are advertised as BPA free.)

It is thought that, in small enough doses, that parabens would not cause harm to humans, along with more endocrine disrupters. Now, follow me here, if you put something on your body, and it causes no harm to you, that just means that it stays on your body.

If something you put on topically (your skin) ends up in either your bloodstream, or in this case, urine, that means that whatever you had put on was small enough to be absorbed through your skin. If something is inside your body, it is free to have interactions with anything it comes in contact with.

A research study in 2008 by Andersson et. al showed that in a sample of 26 healthy males who applied cream containing butyl paraben (and diethyl phthalate (DEP) and dibutyl phthalate) it was found that after a 24 hour period when a urine sample was collected that butyl paraben was found in the urine samples collected. This is bad news for those soaps you may have been using.

More recently, in 2016, a study was done on rats to determine how much estrogenicity (that is, how much parabens mock estrogen, which would determine how much of an endocrine disruptor it is) for two different parabens, one of which being methylparaben which is what is used by Lush.

Personally, I found this research noteworthy because they used dosages similar to what is supposed to be considered safe for daily intake, they used standards from JECFA (Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives- an international organization) to determine what “acceptable daily intake” would look like.

The results still showed the same thing. The urine samples showed the same concentrations that have been reported in humans in recent years. This shows that even at small dosages, parabens are small enough to go be absorbed and then have free range around the body, grabbing on to endocrine receptors

Wrapping it up

Personally, while looking up parabens, I have only found one paper that showed parabens were safe. The paper, titled “3 Final Report on the Safety Assessment of Methylparaben, Ethylparaben, Propylparaben, and Butylparaben” is a high impact paper, meaning that it has been cited by a lot of other people, and in a high impact journal (meaning that is normally reliable for good science.) However, the paper is from 1984, what was good science then may not be good science now, not to mention just how different research is done now. I would also argue how many papers, which are more recent, show contrary evidence to this paper.

Shampoo No Sulfates No ParabensI looked up to see if there were any laws restricting or banning parabens, but I didn’t see much. Apparently, Europe has banned five different parabens, and both have restrictions on concentrations. As usual, the Americans have no restrictions. I also looked to see if there were any petitions that were already gaining momentum to ban parabens, but I came up short. I did, however, find this article on removing propyl parabens from food. Apparently, someone thought endocrine disrupters tasted good, yummy.

It is important to always read your labels, and look out for anything with paraben on the tail end of the word! An easy way to avoid them is to make your own products. There are many online resources for safe soaps, washes and other cosmetics that would otherwise have parabens or other endocrine disrupters!

Disclaimer: As a member of both the scientific and environmental community I try to report as accurately as I can base on research and facts, and not personal opinion. I did not receive a monetary reward or other donations while making this post.

  • References:
    Darbre, P.D, Harvey, P.W, J. Applied Toxicology, 2008, 28, 561
  • Janjua, N. R., Frederiksen, H., Skakkebæk, N. E., Wulf, H. C. and Andersson, A.-M. International Journal of Andrology,2008, 31, 118–130.
  • Sun, L., Yu, T., Guo, J., Zhang, Z., Hu, Y., Xiao, X., … Li, J. Scientific Reports, 2016, 6, 25173.

I’m a big fan of challenges. The most recent phenomenon I’ve been interested in exploring is the concept of ZERO WASTE