What’s the deal with Parabens, and why should I care?

Sometimes, we come across ideas that we soon start to believe without ever really understanding why. Ever had that feeling? Maybe you’ve heard that parabens are “bad”, but why are they? 

Today we want to dig a little deeper. To look at facts, at the stories that got us to where we are today, and at what we believe when it comes to parabens. There is definitely lots more we could say on this topic, but we had to summarize, ‘cause you got places to go, and can’t be reading for days.

The headlines:

  • What’s a paraben anyway?
  • What the “pro” camp says
  • What the “con” camp says
  • What "Iraba Cosmetics" says

Ready? Here we go:

What’s a paraben anyway?

The FDA (American Food and Drug Association) defines parabens as: “a family of related chemicals that are commonly used as preservatives in cosmetic products. Preservatives may be used in cosmetics to prevent the growth of harmful bacteria and mold, in order to protect both the products and consumers.” [i]

First introduced in the 1930s[ii], Parabens were globally well respected as effective, cheap, and used very widely. If you check the ingredients on your cosmetics and personal care products right now, from your face cream to your toothpaste, it is very likely that you will find some type of paraben listed as an ingredient.

The name Paraben is derived from the more lengthy: Parahydroxybenzoates. See what they did there? :)

What the “pro” camp says:

  • Not all parabens are the same:

Indeed there are lots of different types of parabens. Usually, you will recognize the difference between one and the other by looking at the prefix: for example, a methylparaben is different than a butylparaben. Advocates have indicated that ” methylparaben and ethylparaben have negligible endocrine disruption activity,” [iv] 


  • They are effective preservatives:

A 2014 press release by the European Union reads: “In addition to Propylparaben and Butylparaben, other parabens, like Methylparaben and Ethylparaben, are safe, as repeatedly confirmed by the Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety (SCCS). They are also some of the most efficient preservatives.”[iii]

  • More work needs to be done:

Principally, there is not enough information to say, definitively, at this point, that these compounds should be banned. It is extremely difficult to prove that a group of compounds that is used in so much of what we touch is problematic. Indeed, more work needs to be done to make that link definitive from a scientific point of view.

     What’s the big idea then?

    What the “con” camp says:

    • Breast Cancer Tissue?

    Dr Philippa Dabre, Professor Emeritus at the University of Reading was the first to find parabens in breast cancer tissues. Her research, conducted at the University of Reading since the 1990s, has “established the oestrogenic activity of parabens in human cells, confirmed and quantified the presence of parabens in human breast tissue and established that parabens can stimulate the proliferation of human breast cancer cells at concentrations measured in the breast tissue.“[v]

    The 2004 study was unique at the time, because “Most studies of bioaccumulation of pollutant chemicals are carried out by using serum or urine and studies using breast adipose tissue are few.”[vi]

    • The EU thinks there should be some limits

    Dr. Dabre’s research spurred more review into this compounds, and a number of subsequent studies were run, which eventually compelled the European Union’s independent Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety to review its stance on the compounds. A 2014 EU press release states:

     “With the adopted measures the Commission limits the maximum concentration of two preservatives, Propylparaben and Butylparaben, from currently allowed limit of 0.4% when used individually and 0.8% when mixed with other esters, to 0.14%, when used individually or together. They are being banned from leave-on products designed for the nappy area of young children below the age of three since existing skin irritation and occlusion may allow increased penetration than intact skin.”[vii]

    • They kinda stick around in the environment

    Another interesting point to note is that Parabens have been found to “stick around”. When a product containing parabens is washed away in the drain, it has been found that they may react with other compounds and potentially persist in the environment, can get released into bodies of water, be recouped in fertilizers etc.[viii]

    •  They do mimic estrogen

    In addition to all the work completed since the 1990s, more proof has come about to show that these compounds are endocrine disruptors. For example, a 2009 study conducted in Korea in rats, early results showed that “parabens exhibited an estrogen-like property in vivo”[ix] though the scientists call for further investigations to take place.

    What "Iraba Cosmetics" says:

    • Keep Calm

    Our position at Iraba Cosmetics then, given all this information, is: first, we’re not going to scream fear into everyone, telling you that chemicals are evil (what does that even mean? That's a topic for another day, a real quick point of clarification though while we're here: water is a chemical too, so chemicals can't all be bad, right? For now, let's just agree that toxic substances are bad, and even say that nature tends to formulate better than man, cool?)

    • Keep Learning

    We take scientific research seriously though and believe that you have the right to understand why we're doing something. We're not here to surf a trendy wave. We don't want to stress you out, we want to try to make deliberate choices. If you’ve visited our resources page on ingredients, you know that we believe in always learning more.

    • Stay Away!

    Based on all this, given what we know, there are too many reasons not to use parabens and not enough of a compelling reason to use them in our formulations to care for your curls.  We also think that you will likely encounter parabens in your daily life. A recent study published in March 2018 found traces of parabens in some drinking water[x] Therefore, we don’t think we should contribute to that long-term, low dose exposure if we can help it.

    What do you say?

    Now it’s your turn, share your thoughts and questions below, and don’t forget to enter your email below to join our newsletter and be the first to know when the good stuff is ready for you to check out. Also, if you’d like to dig deeper into this topic, here is a talk that was delivered by Dr. Dabre. In this talk, she specifically covered Parabens and Aluminium that is common in antiperspirants.


    [i] https://www.fda.gov/Cosmetics/ProductsIngredients/Ingredients/ucm128042.htm
    [ii] https://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/508430_1
    [iii] http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_IP-14-1051_en.htm
    [iv] https://journals.lww.com/dermatitis/Abstract/2015/11000/_Parabenoia__Debunked,_or__Who_s_Afraid_of.3.aspx
    [v] http://www.reading.ac.uk/biologicalsciences/ieo/biosci-casestudies.aspx
    [vi] Darbre, P. D., Aljarrah, A., Miller, W. R., Coldham, N. G., Sauer, M. J., & Pope, G. S. (2004). Concentrations of Parabens in Human Breast Tumours. J. Appl. Toxicol. JOURNAL OF APPLIED TOXICOLOGY J. Appl. Toxicol, 24(24), 5–13. https://doi.org/10.1002/jat.958
    [vii] European Commission - PRESS RELEASES - Press release - Consumers: Commission improves safety of cosmetics. (n.d.). Retrieved April 2, 2018, from http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_IP-14-1051_en.htm
    [viii] https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0043135414006605
    [ix] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19654335
    [x] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29525867

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