What The Heck Are Parabens, And Why Are They In Our Beauty Products?

Whenever someone says the word "parabens" in our office, editors start scurrying in all sorts of directions. Brands developing paraben-free lines have got us all thinking about why this stuff is even in our beauty products. Not to mention that alarming 2012 study that made the correlation between parabens and incidences of breast cancer is starting to push us in the all-natural direction with our skincare regimen.

We've gone dizzy trying to delve into medical reports to get the lowdown on parabens. Luckily, we have a much clearer concept after taking our concerns to two board-certified dermatologists and a cosmetic chemist. Here's what we uncovered.

Parabens are chemical preservatives used to extend the shelf life of beauty products and prevent the growth of microorganisms.

Parabens were introduced as a preservative back in the 1930s, according to Dr. Naana Boakye, a New Jersey-based dermatologist and assistant clinical professor at St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital in New York City. Commonly found in shampoos, moisturizers and lipsticks, they are colorless, odorless and tasteless.

Parabens are attractive to the cosmetic industry because they limit the development of bacteria, mold and yeast. Methyl, ethyl, propyl and butyl parabens are the most commonly used parabens.

Nikita Wilson, chemist and chief executive officer of Catalyst Cosmetic Development, told us that parabens are commonly found in all types of beauty and personal care products because they are effective, inexpensive and require very low usage levels (which are typically 0.01 to 0.3 percent).

Parabens have been linked to cancerous breast tissue, however, the studies that support these findings are limited.

While both dermatologists agree that parabens have been shown to have estrogenic activity (specifically in a study observing the enlargement of breast tissue in young boys), Dr. Boakye believes that the association between parabens and breast cancer in women is limited and lacks strong epidemiological evidence.

"It appears that there may be a relationship to the proliferation of breast tissue, but it is complex," says Dr. Boakye. "There is evidence that it has been detected in rivers, drinking water and soil. Some studies have shown that after applied to the skin, the parabens were seen in urine, blood and human milk samples. However, there is no causal relationship between parabens and breast cancer development."

Wilson adds, "Even as a phytoestrogen, parabens are weaker than estrogen and are no more harmful to the body than soy, licorice or ginseng." (FYI: soy isn't linked to breast cancer.)

Not all labels marked "paraben-free" are safe. There are other preservatives that could potentially cause skin allergies.

If your skin becomes red, itchy or inflamed after using a new product containing parabens, Dr. Eric Schweiger, the founding dermatologist of Clear Clinic Acne Treatment Center, suggests that you refrain from using it. People with sensitive skin types or acne-prone skin should pay very close attention to how they react.

"Using unrefined shea butter, coconut oil, jojoba oil are good options for moisturization and are preservative-free," says Dr. Boakye. She also cites grapefruit seed extract, essential oils of thyme, oregano and tea tree, as well as rosemary and neem extract among a list of natural preservatives.

Although there are many "paraben-free" products, do yourself solid and always read the ingredients label first. "If one is still unsure, consider calling the company or emailing and asking if it contains the four parabens," says Dr. Boakye.

Shop paraben-free products from dermatologist-approved brands below!

SkinCeuticals Clarifying Clay Masque
EltaMD UV Shield Broad-Spectrum SPF 45
$16.90, Amazon.com
Avène Skin Recovery Cream
Burt's Bees Lip Crayon
$8.99, Target.com
Hair Food Volume Shampoo
$9.99, Target.com
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