What’s a Paraben, Anyway?

You may have noticed that more and more companies touting their products as “paraben-free.” But what exactly are parabens and should you care whether they’re in your shampoos or lotions?

As a recent post on Jezebel points out, most people don’t know what parabens are, but they assume they’re dangerous.

Parabens are used as preservatives in many cosmetics, moisturizers, hair products, etc.—they help inhibit the growth of bacteria. Not all parabens are man-made–fruits and vegetables like blueberries, mangos, carrots, and cucumbers naturally contain parabens.

While no woman wants bacteria in her lipstick, many have raised concerns about the possible health effects of parabens, noting that the chemicals can mimic the hormone estrogen. However, parabens are actually pretty bad at mimicking estrogen. The Jezebel blogger gives a great analogy: “if all the estrogen in your body was having a shouting match, parabens would be in the corner whispering about how you all need to shut up. Not really impacting anything at all.”

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration points out that while some research has found the presence of parabens in breast cancer tumors, no research has suggested that parabens cause cancer. That’s why the agency states, “at the present time there is no reason for consumers to be concerned about the use of cosmetics containing parabens.”

Even though the science doesn’t suggest there’s anything to worry about, parabens remain a favorite target for activists such as the Environmental Working Group (EWG). It identifies products containing parabens in its “Skin Deep” cosmetic database, pushing consumers to avoid paraben-containing products and pressuring companies to remove parabens from their products, even in the absence of scientific data linking parabens to any health problems.

So paraben-free doesn’t actually mean a product is any safer, but it is a nifty marketing tool. Jezebel’s blog sums it up nicely: “All science signs point to parabens being fine. But, if you don’t like parabens, don’t use them. I’m not your mom.”