Ingredient Spotlight: Parabens

What are Parabens?

What are Parabens and should they be avoided?

Marketing messages loaded with ingredient based buzzwords fill store aisles in the personal care department. There are packaging claims that target consumer desires, like all-natural and hypoallergenic. Or the ones that are more function based promising to soften, help, boost or support. The ingredient based claims often center around a class of ingredients, like phthalate-free, sulfate-free, and paraben-free.

It’s hard to resist choosing a product with a bold marketing claim on its package that appears to be helping you, right? Trying to decode even the most common marketing claims can end with an unplanned trip down a research rabbit hole.

We see hundreds of consumers searching for paraben-free products on GoodGuide every week. But what are parabens, where are companies using them, and why are consumers avoiding them?

Parabens are a class of chemicals commonly used as synthetic preservatives in cosmetic and personal care products–including soap, shampoo, shaving cream, lotion, toothpaste, and make-up. This group of preservative is also used in packaged food like syrups, jellies, frozen dairy products, and more. We’ll be looking at their use specifically in personal care products.

Primarily used for their bactericidal and fungicidal properties, product manufacturers add parabens to formulations to prevent bacteria and mold growth. Without effective preservatives, our everyday products would quickly become breeding grounds for bacteria, mold, and fungus making them a health risk to skin, eyes and mucous membranes.

The Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety (SCCS) has determined that propylparaben, butylparaben, methylparaben and ethylparaben are safe and effective preservatives, provided formulations comply with the following restrictions:

Name

Concentration

Methyl Paraben 

  • Max 0.4% for single ester (as acid)
  • Max 0.8% for the sum of esters (as acid)

Ethyl Paraben

  • Max 0.4% for single ester (as acid)
  • Max 0.8% for the sum of esters (as acid)

Propyl Paraben

  • Max 0.14% for the sum of Propyl Paraben and Butyl Paraben (as acid)

Isopropyl Paraben

  • Banned by the EU

Butyl Paraben

  • Max 0.14% for the sum of Propyl Paraben and Butyl Paraben (as acid)

However, determining whether products comply with these Europe only regulatory limits is not easy since manufacturers of product sold in US markets are not required to disclose the percentage of these ingredients in their products.

Are there health concerns associated with Parabens?

Exposure to parabens through cosmetic and personal care products is primarily through the skin and mucous membrane absorption.
Consumer concern for exposure to Parabens began in 2004 when a scientific article correlated parabens found in human breast tumors. Subsequent studies have failed to establish a strong link between parabens and cancer. However, the original little-understood study was highlighted by the media thus influencing concerned consumers to change their purchasing habits. Cosmetic companies in-turn responded to consumer demand, and the “Paraben-Free” marketing label gained popularity.

The primary health concern about parabens involve their ability to cause skin allergies, but concerns about parabens being endocrine disruptors still must be fully vetted. Endocrine disruptors are defined as chemicals that can impact hormones at certain doses which can go on to cause cancerous tumors, birth defects, and other developmental disorders.

While the evidence of health hazards is relatively low, exposure is so widespread and frequent that 99% of people tested had some form of paraben in their urine. Given scientific uncertainties about long-term health effects these types of chemicals may cause, there is a natural reluctance to continue using products containing them. Further assessment of the cumulative risk of exposure to multiple parabens in multiple products used daily is needed.

In early 2014, the European Union Commission banned the use of five parabens in cosmetic products: Isopropylparaben, Isobutylparaben, Phenylparaben, Benzylparaben, and Pentylparaben due to the lack of data necessary for reassessment. You can read the complete details here.

How are Parabens considered in GoodGuide Ratings?

GoodGuide’s science team has rated the most commonly used parabens as exhibiting a low level of health concern. Methylparaben, Ethylparaben, Propylparaben, and Butylparaben are suspected of causing skin or sense organ toxicity. Ratings for any product that include these most commonly used paraben ingredients reflect the low health concern flag on the ingredient list. There are five Parabens that were banned for use by the European Union Commission. GoodGuide ratings for products that include any of the five banned parabens at any concentration receive an overall score of zero.

Are there alternatives to parabens and how does GoodGuide rate them?

There are three common paraben alternatives:
1) Sodium Benzoate (and Potassium Sorbate) are inexpensive and can be sourced from nature (giving this an advantage to be compatible with a natural certification).

Disadvantages: The ideal pH for Sodium Benzoate alone or in combination with Potassium Sorbate is between 3 to 5. Unfortunately, many products are formulated out of this pH range. Sodium Benzoate is not a broad-spectrum preservative, requiring it to be combined with a preservative has been shown to be active against Gram- bacteria.

Sodium Benzoate can be used at the following levels:

    • up to 2.5% in rinse-off products
    • 1.7% in oral care products
    • 0.5% in leave-on products
    • 0.06% and above shows activity against yeast and mold

Health Concerns: Sodium Benzoate carries a low health concern on GoodGuide. When used under the threshold of concern, a Safe Use Exception is given and the GoodGuide Rating is not impacted.

2) Benzyl Alcohol: Generally combined with Dehydroacetic Acid, Benzyl Alcohol is active against yeast and mold and can be sourced from nature (giving this an advantage to be compatible with a natural certification).

Benzyl Alcohol can be used up to 1.0% and Dehydroacetic Acid can be used up to 0.6% in all product categories.

Disadvantages: The ideal pH for the combination of Benzyl Alcohol and Dehydroacetic Acid is between 3 to 5. Unfortunately, many products are formulated out of this pH range.

Health Concerns: Benzyl Alcohol carries a Use Restriction on GoodGuide, under the standards issued by the International Fragrance Association.

Also, Benzyl Alcohol:

  • Is suspected of causing skin or sense organ toxicity.
  • Can cause contact allergies in fragrance-sensitive consumers, according to the European Union.

When used under the threshold of concern, a Safe Use Exception is given and the GoodGuide Rating is not impacted.

3) Phenoxyethanol: Mainly active against Gram- bacteria and is active against a broad spectrum of microorganisms. Its safety has been confirmed by the SCCS and can be used in the EU at up to 1.0 % in all product categories.

Disadvantages: Incompatible with most non-ionic surfactants. Non-ionic surfactants are used frequently in cosmetics to add body and texture to the product and act as emulsifiers, conditioning ingredients, and solubilizing agents.

Health Concerns: Phenoxythanol carries a medium health concern on GoodGuide.
It is also:

  • Suspected of causing skin or sense organ toxicity
  • Suspected of causing reproductive toxicity
  • Suspected of causing developmental toxicity

When used under the threshold of concern, a Safe Use Exception is given and the GoodGuide Rating is not impacted.

There is a lot to be said about using products that include preservatives. Here are a few recommended articles that cover studies that weigh in on the topic:

  1. FDA Cosmetic Safety Q&A: Parabens
  2. Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety: Opinion on Parabens
  3. UL Prospector: Parabens and Their Alternatives

 

You can find more information on any of the mentioned ingredients in GoodGuide’s ingredient index. 

Do you choose products with parabens, or do you avoid them?

 

 

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