Beauty & Co.

Parabens: what are they and why are they bad for you?

13 December 2018
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You’ve probably seen it on some of your beauty products before: this product is free of parabens, paraben free, no parabens used. Apparently parabens are bad, because no one wants them. It even is something to advertise about a products: that parabens are NOT inside. but what are they, and why are they so unwanted?


‘Parabens’ is actually a container name for a whole range of chemicals, like methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben and isobutylparaben. 

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In cosmetics, parabens are used as a conservative. It is not an active ingredient, but it makes your stuff last longer. Parabens kill fungus and other ickies that can creep into your cosmetics before they get a chance to mess things up, and that makes your products hold for longer and ensures that their active ingredients stay active for longer as well.  

You can find parabens in all kinds of products: skin care, makeup, but also in shampoo or toothpaste. Even some medicines and foodstuffs contain parabens as a conservative. 

The dark side of parabens

Okay, you think, if it makes my stuff last longer and keeps it clean and active, it can’t be so bad, right? Right. Your stuff keeps for a longer time, and that’s great! But that is not all it does. 

Let’s have a look at the scientific side first: parabens have been around since the 20’s of the last century. That’s a pretty long time! And so far, conventional science has not found anything weird about them. That’s why parabens are used in all kinds of products to keep them for longer – even products meant for kids! 

The whole mess started with a scientific study from 2004. In this study, a connection was made between parabens and estrogenic effects – parabens were apparently able to emulate the effects of a dosage of estrogen. Yes, that female hormone stuff you get in birth control pills. Nothing wrong with estrogens really, but if you get too much of them it can lead to trouble, like a higher chance of developing tumors and (breast-)cancer. For men, it can cause a decline in fertility.

So who’s right?

Of course, one single study is no reason for conventional science to throw their opinions overboard just like that. So, the study kicked up a lot of dust. Multiple studies were started, and some confirmed the connection while others disproved it. So who do we believe? 

Here in the Netherlands, the official statement is that parabens are not harmful, and so they are allowed to be used in products. But there are also countries who have limited or even banned the use of this stuff in products.

Ever since that first study in 2004, more studies have been started, but none of them have decisively proved who is right. There have been differences in the amount and type of parabens used, and with different kinds of products, but the results still contradict those of other studies. And so, there is no real conclusion… yet.

What to do with parabens

It is a bit difficult to get a straight story about parabens. While i was researching, I found websites of products that do have parabens, and they tell me it’s safe. And then there are other websites selling products without parabens, and they tell me it might be a health risk to keep using that stuff. So, no help there.

I tend to think that the truth is usually in the middel in these kind of cases. Chemicals can have side effects (ever read your medicine info…? It’s scary) and sometimes science finds out pretty late because they simply tested on different things when the stuff was invented. And sometimes, harmful effects take a long time before they actually become visible AND a connection is made. Like with old time asbestos or certain kinds of paint were considered perfectly safe until people started getting sick. And let’s face it: parabens were invented in the ’20’s. That’s almost 100 years ago and we’re researching this just now….?

Choose what feels right

While I can’t give you a yay or nay on this subject, I do think it is important not to overreact – you know, the internet can get carried away when it comes to these matters. Yes, it may be harmful. But that also depends on how you use things, what you use and how often you use it. You know, when you walk near an old asbestos roof once (and we have quite a few of them here still) you won’t immediately die. so as with everything else in life: be aware of the possible dangers and choose what feels right to you.

Do you want to go completely paraben-free? Great! Just keep in mind it’s not just your skincare and makeup you’ll need to keep an eye on, but also over-the-counter or prescription meds and even processed foods. And you will probably have to replace your products more often because they will expire sooner. No problem!

If you think all this paraben bashing is complete nonsense – good for you! Just go on buying your stuff, paraben-free or not, and do that wonderful thing you do! No problem – I hope!

As for myself, I usually try to find a middle way. If there are thing you use often and use much of, you can get a lot of parabens into your body. But to just cut everything out… well, I do try to use less. My shampoo, moisturizer and hair spray are paraben free. But it is still in some of my makeup.

How do you feel about parabens? No go or just go ahead and use ’em anyway? 

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