What's All the Fuss About Parabens in Skin Care Products? A Guide to the Controversy

For years, skin care consumers have been hearing warning bells about the dangers of parabens. And while there is a growing list of skin care and cosmetic brands that tout their "paraben-free" status, parabens still appear in an estimated 85% of cosmetic products (source: American Chemical Association), making them hard to fully avoid.

But let's back up. Chances are good that you've heard of parabens. And, like many consumers, you might even believe it's best to buy products formulated without them but aren't quite sure of why. Allow us to break down the facts for you so you can make an educated decision about using personal care products that include these ingredients.

What Are Parabens?

Parabens are a class of preservatives that have been used in grocery items and personal care products, including skin care, for nearly a century and have a long track record of safe and effective use. You'll find them most commonly on labels as methylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben and ethylparaben. 

Why are they used? 

Any personal care product that contains water stands the risk of contamination by bacteria, mold and fungus, which is why preservatives are vital. They not only protect products from these microorganisms but, in doing so, also extend a product's shelf life. In addition to parabens there are two other main classes of preservatives commonly used in personal care products: isothiazolinones and formaldehyde-releasers. Of these, parabens are the least-sensitizing, which is why they've been so heavily used.

Paraben Research

The controversy surrounding parabens began in 1998 when a study showed them to be weakly estrogenic; that is, they mimic the effects of natural estrogen in the body. This finding was significant because estrogen exposure is a factor that influences the development of breast cancer. Concern only grew in 2004 with the release of a research by Dr. Phillipa Darbre that found paraben-like substances present in breast tumors. Almost immediately, advocacy groups and consumers alike began suspecting parabens as a potential cause of breast cancer and, with that, a cloud loomed over the use of parabens in personal care products.

In 2012, Dr. Darbre conducted a follow-up study that confirmed and expanded on her team's previous work. She conducted yet another study in 2013, which suggested that multiple parabens used together could expedite the growth of breast cancer cells.

Interpreting the Results

On their face, the findings of these studies were quite damning for parabens. However, there are several key points to be aware of to fully understand the impact of the research:

* The 1998 study demonstrated that, while estrogenic, parabens are approximately 100,000 times less potent than estradiol, the naturally occurring female hormone, and thousands times less potent than phytoestrogens found in certain fruits and vegetables, such as soybeans.

* Darbre's studies used high concentration of parabens and were typically injected. Personal care products use a significantly lower concentration in products that are applied topically. Therefore, the studies didn't replicate typical use.

* Darbre's 2004 study featured a very small sample size and no healthy tissue control group. Thus, it didn't demonstrate that parabens are isolated to cancerous breast tissue.

* Darbre herself says that her work does not point to parabens as a cause of breast cancer. She continues to conduct research to understand if there is a connection between parabens and breast cancer.

The Food & Drug AdministrationCenters for Disease ControlAmerican Cancer Society and other regulatory agencies and nonprofit organizations have looked closely at the available research on parabens and have stated publicly that there is no clear risk from their use in personal care products. 

Alternatives to Parabens

The question you're likely asking yourself is this: "isn't it best to just avoid parabens as a precaution?" The answer isn't quite that simple.

Many skin care companies have turned to the other two classes of preservatives in place of parabens. Formaldehyde-releasers, such as quaternium-15 and DMDM hydantoin are used in approximately 20% of personal care products but these ingredients have their own baggage in the form of a higher risk of contact allergy and even some concern about their potential as a carcinogen. Isothiazolinones, such as benzisothiazolinone (BIT) and octylisothiazolinone (OIT), also have a higher risk of contact allergy.

Chemists have been working to come up with alternative preservatives, including natural preservative blends that incorporate essential oils, organic acids and plant extracts. While this is a promising development, it's important to consider the following drawbacks:

1. New preservatives do not have an extended history of use, therefore, we don't know if adverse effects may occur after prolonged use.

2. Chemists have not yet discovered an alternative preservative that offers a similar level of broad-spectrum production against microorganisms as that of parabens. Newer preservatives must be bundled in greater numbers to offer a similar level of protection, which increases the risk of irritation.

Lexli's Position

Lexli founder and lead formulator, Dr. Ahmed Abdullah, has, together with his team, stayed abreast of the latest research relating to parabens. "Based on the available research, I remain unconvinced of the role of parabens in the development of breast cancer and continue to consider them a superior class of preservatives that has stood the test of time," said Dr. Abdullah. "However, I understand the consumer concern surrounding the potential for risk, which is why all Lexli formulations use an alternative."

In 2010, Lexli stopped using parabens in each of its formulations and replaced them with the use of phenoxyethanol, a synthetic preservative that is well tolerated.

Have questions on the topic of parabens? Send us an email or leave us a comment on Facebook and we'll be happy to answer.