Parabens are a group of controversial preservatives that include butylparaben, isobutylparaben, propylparaben, methylparaben, and ethylparaben. All of these were at one time the most widely used group of preservatives used in cosmetics. Parabens were so popular because of their gentle, non-sensitizing, and highly effective profile in comparison to other preservatives but also because they were derived naturally from plants, a rare phenomenon for a preservative. Parabens are found in plants in the form of p-hydroxybenzoic acid (PHBA), a chemical that breaks down to become parabens for a plants own protection.

Over the past 10 years parabens have become criticized and condemned for use in cosmetics due to their alleged relation to health concerns affecting women and men. The research about parabens is conflicting and polarizing. Some research indicates they are safe as used in cosmetics and are preferred over other preservatives to keep a formula stable. These studies also showed parabens did not have any effect when compared to natural hormones in the body.

However, other research has concluded they are indeed problematic: Some studies determined a 100% concentration of parabens caused skin samples (meaning not intact skin on a person) to break down. However, these studies don’t apply to the tiny amount (1% or less) of parabens typically used in cosmetics. In low amounts, parabens were not shown to harm skin; in fact, they offer a benefit due to their ability to thwart the growth of mold, fungi, and harmful pathogens.

Other studies casting parabens in a negative light were based on force-feeding them to rats, a practice that is not only cruel but unrelated to what happens when parabens are applied to skin. There are studies indicating absorption of parabens through skin associated with application of skincare products, but those studies did not take into consideration that parabens are still used as food-grade preservatives or found naturally in plants and that could have been the source not the cosmetics. We also looked at studies showing other questionable effects but those were done in vitro meaning in a petri dish or, again, animal studies in species whose biologic makeup does not closely relate to people.

We appreciate the concern about parabens and understand if people choose to avoid them. At Paula’s Choice Skincare we use parabens in a very limited number of products, but that decision is based on other reasons than the scare tactics rampant on the internet. For transparency, we list all ingredients on individual product pages and packaging and our Client Services team is always happy to help.

References for this information:
Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology, May 2017, 320-325
Annual Review of Food Science Technology, February 2017, pages 371-390
Journal of Applied Toxicology, April 2017, ePublication
Environmental Science and Technology, April 2017, page 4009-4017
Dermatitis, November-December 2015, pages 254-259
Toxicology Letters, December 2013, pages 295-305
Skin Therapy Letter, July-August 2013, pages 5-7
Journal of Agricultural Food Chemistry, June 2008, pages 4631-4636
International Journal of Toxicology, April 2008, pages 1-82

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About the Experts

Paula Begoun is the best-selling author of 20 books about skincare and makeup. She is known worldwide as The Cosmetics Cop and creator of Paula’s Choice Skincare. Paula’s expertise has led to hundreds of appearances on national and international radio, print, and television including:

The Paula's Choice Research Team is dedicated to busting beauty myths and providing expert advice that solves your skincare frustrations so you can have the best skin of your life!