How bad are parabens in skincare products?
The lowdown on the big bad wolf of skincare
Parabens are the reigning Big Bad Wolf of skincare. Thanks to Hollywood stars like Gwyneth Paltrow and a global lifestyle movement towards ‘clean and green’, the word chemical now conjures up images of hormone-destroying, longevity-shortening ghouls that are attacking you and the environment.
The hype has led to a burst of products in cosmetic aisles plastered with ‘Paraben-free’ labels. The subtext? Natural good, parabens bad. So it is just a case of bad PR, or is this apprehension scientifically backed? What are parabens, even? Dr Aneesh Sheth, Ivy-league educated pharmacist and CEO of Dr Sheth’s skincare, explains that parabens are a group of compounds that limit bacterial growth – some bad, some good. They are commonly used in cosmetic, food and pharmaceutical products. The common ones you’ll find on labels are ethylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben and heptylparaben.
Sheth adds that preservatives are important. They ensure that skin cream you’ve splurged doesn’t form its own mini ecosystem of bacteria, mould and fungus. It keeps you safe and extends the shelf life of the product. He adds, “If you can’t spot any known parabens on the ingredients list, know that they’re probably using another preservative — just one whose name you haven’t heard of yet.”
So, how did parabens end up getting such a bad rep? A UK study conducted in 2004 involving 20 women found “traces of five parabens in the breast tumours of 19 out of 20 women studied.” A media frenzy was kicked off, even though the study itself didn’t establish definitively that parabens cause cancer. Another one from 2005 stated that it’s “biologically implausible that parabens could increase the risk of breast cancer.” On the flip side, a study conducted by UC Berkeley in 2017 suggested that parabens may be more carcinogen than thought.
Long story short, while studies are still being conducted regarding parabens in skincare, there’s no hard proof that links them to any long-term harmful effects on human health. Especially at the small percentages that are used in skincare. So unless you’re eating a tub of lotion every day, you can stop freaking out.
Dr Sheth explains that with all ingredients, it comes down to doses ”It’s not fair to say all parabens are bad. I don’t think they deserve this bad reputation. They are safe to use in small doses. The government allows its use, and not just our government but also strict institutions like the American FDA. They encourage its use as a tested preservative.”
He does, however, not use parabens in Dr. Sheth’s line of products. “It’s easier to use an alternative when one is available rather than fight with the customers and try to explain the use of parabens.”
If you’re still torn between the conflicting information, have extremely sensitive skin or are allergic to parabens, there are a multitude of alternative options available in the market for you to try out. Just ensure that they’ve been tested by reputed laboratories and have the correct certification.