Skincare Competence

What are parabens?

19 June 2024

Parabens have become one of the most frequently used preservatives in cosmetics. Their efficacy in preventing microbial development has only increased their popularity among cosmetic companies. Despite their popularity, their safety and potential links to cancer have sparked intense debate over the past 20 years. With all this hype and debate circulating throughout the beauty industry, you may find yourself wondering: what are parabens, and are parabens bad for your health?

In this article, we’ll take a closer look at what parabens are, their role in cosmetics, the potential hazards associated with them, and why ADA Cosmetics avoids this artificial preservative altogether.

Definition: What are Parabens?

Parabens are a group of synthetic preservatives primarily used in cosmetics, pharmaceutical drugs, and conventional processed foods. These chemicals are synthesized through the esterification of para-hydroxybenzoic acid and an alcohol (i.e., methyl, propyl, ethyl, ect.). Furthermore, they are both antibacterial and antifungal. Parabens have been in use since they were first developed in the 1920s and have also proven to be very effective in stabilizing and increasing the shelf-life of biodegradable products. 

Parabens can be divided into two categories based on their molecular structure: 

  • Short-chain parabens: Short-chain parabens, such as methylparaben and ethylparaben, are common in cosmetics. They are biodegradable, pose minimal health risks, and are gentler on the skin.
  • Long-chain parabens: Long-chain parabens function similarly to short-chain parabens, but are less biodegradable and present greater health risks. In fact, these types of parabens are responsible for most of the health risks and ecological harm caused by parabens. The four most common long-chain parabens include: butyl-, isobutyl-, propyl-, and isopropylparabens.

Why Parabens are Controversial

Parabens are synthetic preservatives widely used in the beauty industry. Their function is to maintain the integrity of a product by preventing microbial development. So, what makes parabens controversial? Parabens have been linked to certain health and environmental concerns.


Health Concerns

Parabens are suspected of being endocrine disruptors. The safety of parabens authorized for cosmetic use has been widely evaluated by numerous expert committees (European, American, Dutch, etc.) Butylparaben, methylparaben and propylparaben are among the 28 substances suspected of being endocrine disruptors, which are being re-evaluated by European experts to analyze any new data regarding their potential endocrine activity.

Key points to take away: Like all preservatives, parabens are highly regulated by the European Commission. The parabens currently authorized for use in cosmetic products are considered safe by several expert committees. Additional studies are underway among European scientific committees to definitively determine their potential endocrine disrupting character.


Environmental Concerns

In addition to the potential health risks associated with parabens, these chemicals have also garnered a negative reputation as environmental contaminants. Paraben pollutants are most commonly found in aquatic ecosystems, as they usually enter the environment through wastewater. They can cause ecological harm by disrupting the natural function of biofilms on the surface of water and contaminating marine life.

List of Parabens to Avoid

If you want to avoid parabens, you can achieve this in two different ways. First look for preservative free products to avoid such ingredients. The second method is to read through the ingredients list. Identifying whether or not a cosmetic product contains parabens may sound like a tricky and laborious task, however, there is a very simple method to do this. Most cosmetics that contain parabens will have more than one type of paraben. The scientific name for these artificial preservatives always ends with the suffix ‘-paraben’. Here is a list of the top four parabens used in cosmetics:

  • methylparaben
  • propylparaben
  • butylparaben
  • ethylparaben

Some other less commonly used parabens that you may find include: 

  • isopropylparaben
  • isobutylparaben
  • phenylparaben
  • heptylparaben

Parabens in Cosmetics

Parabens are very common synthetic preservatives used in personal care products. They are both inexpensive and efficacious. Parabens are most often found in emulsion-based cosmetic formulations. Emulsion-based cosmetics are made by mixing immiscible liquids (i.e., oil-based and water-based solutions). Parabens can also be used in products with a broad range of pH levels; however, they have the best efficacy when used in more acidic emulsions.

Personal care products that have a higher concentration of water, such as shampoos or conditioners, tend to be more susceptible to the development of bacteria, yeast, or mold. By adding parabens to these products, they become mold and bacteria resistant, thereby increasing their shelf life. 

If parabens are effective in chemically stabilizing cosmetic formulations and preventing microbial development, why are they considered to be bad for the hair and skin?


Are Parabens Bad for Hair?

Most hair products are water-based; water-based cosmetics are more susceptible to microbial growth than other types of cosmetics. To make sure these products will last 6 or more months after opening, parabens are the go-to preservatives, as they are cheap and highly effective. But are parabens in shampoo or similar products bad for the hair?

Parabens in hair products may cause one or more of the following side effects:

  • Irritated scalp
  • Dryness of the scalp and hair shaft
  • Faded hair color
  • Frizziness
  • Hair loss


Are Parabens Bad for Skin?

Parabens are commonplace in many skincare products, including lotions, sunscreens, body washes, and soaps. When applied to the skin through conventional skincare products, these chemicals will absorb into the skin and enter the bloodstream. Once inside the body, they are metabolized (processed) by the liver and finally excreted through the urine. The parabens used in skincare products can cause some negative side effects to the skin, especially for those with sensitive skin. Some of these health risks include:

  • Irritated skin
  • Inflammation
  • Dryness and redness
  • Allergic reactions
  • Potentially carcinogenic (linked to skin cancer)

Paraben-Free Products with ADA Cosmetics

Due to the potential risk and the discussion around materials such as parabens, ADA Cosmetics has decided to avoid using these ingredients in our products until further scientific data shows enough evidence of zero risk for our consumers. Instead, we opt to develop our formulas using natural and sustainable resources that have been carefully vetted by our experts. Every year, our products and their individual ingredients undergo hundreds of tests to optimize each one of our cosmetics.

We believe that for every harmful synthetic cosmetic ingredient, there is a safe and natural alternative. Finding these alternatives is a matter of experimentation and drive. As a leader in sustainable and natural hotel amenities, we consistently strive to improve our portfolio and provide the hotel industry with an experience their guests won’t forget. 


Are parabens safe in cosmetics?

Parabens are considered safe in cosmetics by some regulatory authorities, such as the FDA. However, parabens are known to have estrogenic effects that can negatively interfere with the body’s natural endocrine function. Like most synthetic chemicals, parabens are not a safe ingredient in cosmetics. Long-term exposure can lead to an accumulation in the body, which may pose other health risks.

Do parabens cause cancer?

Currently, there is no concrete evidence that links parabens directly to cancer. They are known to interfere with or disrupt normal endocrine function by mimicking the hormone estrogen. Many scientific studies have suggested that parabens might contribute to the development of cancerous breast cells; however, there isn’t enough evidence to confirm it as an official cancer-causing agent.

Does the FDA regulate the use of parabens in cosmetics?

According to the Federal Food, Drug, & Cosmetic Act (FD&C Act), the FDA doesn’t need to regulate the use of parabens or any other cosmetic ingredient, except for color additives. However, the administration continually reviews scientific studies on parabens’ safety and, as of now, has not found evidence indicating adverse effects on human health when used in cosmetics. In the US, cosmetic companies will only be held liable by the FDA for marketing mislabeled products or products that are known to be corrupt.