Eco-Beauty Dictionary: Parabens

By now, you have probably heard of parabens. This class of chemicals is widely used as a preservative in cosmetics and other personal products, from shampoo and shaving gel to toothpaste. But until natural and organic products began boasting of not having them—turning “paraben-free” into a beauty buzzword du jour—most of us hadn’t given them much thought. So why are they such an eco-beauty no-no?

Parabens are compounds of para-hydroxybenzoic acid, and are used to prevent the growth of microbes in products, thereby extending their shelf life. No one wants a moldy moisturizer and, due to the fact that natural alternatives largely don’t dole out similar results, parabens have become the norm. Until now, of course. Aside from reportedly causing skin irritation and problems for some people with sensitive skin, studies are cropping up with evidence to suggest worse potential side effects. According to the Breast Cancer Fund, an organization whose mission it is to expose environmental contributors to breast cancer, “measurable concentrations of six different parabens have been identified in biopsy samples from breast tumors,” and “parabens have also been found in almost all urine samples examined from a demographically diverse sample of U.S. adults through the NHANES study. Adolescents and adult females had higher levels of methylparaben and propylparaben in their urine than did males of similar ages.”

However, the research is thin and widely debated—so there isn’t a clear-cut answer on parabens at this time. Personally, I strive to use only natural ingredients and, as part of that, steer clear of chemicals I can’t be sure about.