The Risks of Parabens, a Preservative Used In Cosmetics

When I discuss with patients that it may be worth researching the ingredients of their personal care ingredients, I'm repeatedly given the same answer, "It's ok - this product doesn't make me break out." I don't know how we decided that the only repercussion of bad cosmetic ingredients is breakouts. The truth is that there are other, more concerning health risks associated with many ingredients. Even though they've been used for many years, and are still being added to new and expensive products, they should be subject to a great deal more scrutiny than they have been.

Unfortunately, the concerns about many ingredients regard very real health risks. Given the current lack of regulation of personal care products, even if any of these issues are proven beyond a doubt, it is unlikely their removal will be mandated. After all, lead is present in 61% of our lipsticks.

That brings us to parabens. Due to their low cost and ease of use, these preservatives (most frequently methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben and butylparaben) are widely present in creams, lotions, makeup and deodorants. These can be found in many "cheap" brands, but when you look, they are also prominently featured in brands carried by dermatologists like Obagi and some "natural" brands like Kiehl's.  Unfortunately, there are at least four reasons why your choice of whether to use products contains them warrants serious thought:

1) Association with breast cancer -  Parabens are found in the majority of breast cancers when biopsies are tested for them. Although this does not mean the parabens caused the cancers, they may have some role, particularly given their effects as xenoestrogens (see below).

2) Xenoestrogenic activity - Parabens exert weak estrogenic effects in the bodies of both adults and children. For those who feel there may be a causal link between parabens and breast cancer, this is the usual hypothesized mechanism. Even for those who don't, scientists are becoming increasingly concerned that many of the hormonal or endocrine disruptors which we are exposed to on a daily basis may be linked to a wide range of serious health and metabolic consequences.

3) DNA damage - Like retinols, some parabens (most notably methylparaben) can interact with sunlight resulting in DNA damage. Even if  you feel comfortable using parabens in the evenings, you may wish to avoid their use in any products which you apply throughout the day.

4) Sensitivities - Finally those (relatively)  innocuous bumps. Some people, especially those with acne, rosacea and other reactive skin may become sensitized to a wide range of products. If you suspect you are one of these, or have very product-sensitive skin, products with parabens may not be for you.

Fortunately, there are a great many products which have chosen to use preservatives without parabens, but you won't find them unless you look. Do your own research, make up your own mind and then read ingredient labels with the confidence of someone who knows exactly what they feel good about putting on their skin and in their body.