Naturally: Are parabens harmful?

Cosmetics companies say one thing, public health advocates another

‘Paraben free’ has been popping up on product labels for a few years now with many companies taking advantage of increasing consumer concern over the safety of chemicals in our personal care products.

More and more of us want to know exactly what we’re bringing home in our shopping bags, but with cosmetic companies saying one thing, environmental and public health advocates saying the opposite and science somewhere in the middle trying to figure it all out, it’s difficult to know what’s real and what’s hype.

People ask me about parabens – what are they and why are they supposedly bad for us. Is the parabens-give-you-cancer frenzy unfounded? It turns out we don’t know for sure.

Simply put, parabens are chemical preservatives widely used in personal care products, as well as some foods and pharmaceuticals. They allow the likes of make-up, toothpaste, deodorant and shampoo to sit on shelves without growing potentially harmful microbes such as bacteria and fungus. Introduced in the 1950s, they’ve stuck around despite there being alternatives because they’re effective and cheap.


The paraben controversy began when a 2004 study by Dr Philippa Darbre of the University of Reading found parabens in breast cancer tumours. Although it did not prove that parabens caused the tumours, a potential link between the two seeped into public consciousness and sparked further research.

The main worry has been that chemicals such as parabens can interfere with the body’s hormones, particularly reproductive hormones. The possible health risks include developmental disorders, fertility problems and cancer.

Research has shown that parabens mimic oestrogen, and because oestrogen can increase the growth of breast cancer cells, some scientists are concerned that parabens might do the same.

However, no conclusive link has been found and uncertainty abounds. Studies are often carried out in cell culture and in animals, so data on the impact of these chemicals on human health is limited. One of the biggest questions is how much is too much. The concentration of parabens in cosmetics is low, less than 1 per cent, but exactly what level of exposure poses a risk is still an unanswered question.

Critics argue that cumulative exposure from multiple products needs a harder look; trace amounts of parabens in a single product might be safe, but most consumers use several products – and it all adds up.

The EU has signed off on the safety of some parabens, but has increased restrictions on their use and has completely banned them in some instances. The latest restrictions just came into effect last month, reducing the maximum concentrations allowed for propyl- and butylparaben.

If you want to err on the side of caution and avoid parabens, you have to read product labels. Look for anything ending in -paraben in the ingredient list, such as ethylparaben, butylparaben, methylparaben, propylparaben, etc.

Many cosmetic and skincare companies now explicitly state their products are ‘paraben free’ on product labels, but don’t fall for marketing ploys – just because a product is sporting a ‘free from’ label on the outside doesn’t mean it’s not hiding a host of other potentially bad-for-you ingredients on the inside. Flip it over and read the ingredients list!

So should we be worried about parabens? Maybe, maybe not. But why risk it?