There are certain buzzwords in every industry, and they tend to change with the tides. For example, “oil-free” has been a common one in skincare for ages, and today one of the most common terms you’ll hear is “paraben-free.” What does this term really mean, and do parabens actually matter?
As a natural inquisitor, I had to find out for myself before I hopped onto the anti-paraben bandwagon. So, I dug into some research and now I’m breaking it down for you.
What Are Parabens?
Parabens are a class of preservatives that have been used since around the 1950s. They inhibit the growth of microorganisms like mold and bacteria. This gives skincare products (and shampoos and cosmetics and many other types of products) a longer shelf-life. There are many different parabens, but the most common are butylparaben, methylparaben, and propylparaben.
The Benefits of Paraben-Free Skincare Products
So if parabens help products last longer, why are so many people against them? While it probably wasn’t known to anyone back in the ‘50s, studies today show that parabens may pose several risks to our health and to the environment.
Maintaining Our Natural Hormonal Balance
Parabens are believed to be hormone disruptors, meaning that they can interfere with our body’s natural hormonal balance. In the case of parabens in particular, this hormone disruption might come from two angles.
First, parabens mimic estrogen in our bodies, so our bodies may think that we have more estrogen than we do. Because your endocrine system is on a constant balance beam to keep all your hormones in the proper proportions, this could create a problem.
While the estrogen-mimicking effect is weak, some studies have found potential links between parabens and decreased fertility. Because higher amounts of estrogen can raise your risk for cell division in breast tissue and the development of breast tumors, there’s also some concern that parabens could increase the chances of breast cancer.
In addition to acting like estrogen, parabens may also disrupt your body’s ability to produce some other hormones it needs. This throws off your overall hormonal balance even further.
Protecting Environmental Health
More and more, we’re finding out how much our own actions and products impact the natural ecosystem around us, and parabens could be included in that growing list. Studies show that certain parabens can kill coral when they get into the oceans, and spoiler alert: parabens are getting into the oceans. Coral are key contributors to creating healthy habitats for many other species, so if the coral population drops, it could lead to a devastating ripple effect.
I mentioned above that parabens have made their way into the oceans. How do we know that? Because we’ve found parabens in the bodies of some marine mammals. Since parabens are synthetic compounds meaning that they don’t appear in nature, we know that humans and our products are the culprits.
Note that because we’re mammals, those marine mammals’ bodies are fairly similar to ours. If parabens have potentially harmful effects on us, they could be putting large populations of animals at risk too.
Avoiding Potential Irritation
Have you ever had a product that seemed to irritate your skin but you weren’t sure why? It’s possible that parabens were the reason. Like most synthetic ingredients, parabens can cause skin irritation for some people, especially those with sensitive skin.
A Note on the Science
With all those scary possibilities above, let’s make sure to be thorough about this. There’s a reason you saw a lot of words like “possible” and “may” and “potential” above. Studies into the risks of parabens are still pretty sparse, with many of them being small and not especially in-depth. As a result, the risks of parabens aren’t conclusively confirmed.
There are many loose associations and theoretical possibilities, and while further studies might give us more solid information, the risks aren’t definitive today. In other words, no one can say 100% that avoiding parabens will have health benefits, but it’s more of a “better safe than sorry” situation.
Do Paraben-Free Products Have a Risk of Bacteria or Shorter Shelf Lives?
As I mentioned above, parabens are used because they’re preservatives that give products a long shelf life by keeping bacteria and mold from growing. Does this mean that paraben-free products will only last a short time or that they have a higher risk of growing microorganisms that no one wants to put on their face?
Usually not. There are many preservatives out there that don’t have the potential problems of parabens, so most paraben-free products just use those other preservatives instead.
How Do I Know if My Products Are Paraben-Free?
Ah, the age-old question: “how do I know what’s really in my skincare products?” Don’t assume that products containing parabens will advertise it in bright, bold letters.
For starters, look for the words “paraben-free” on the label or, when shopping online, categorize the products to look for paraben-free skincare products in particular. In any case, though, the one reliable strategy is to read the ingredients list. Parabens are easy to spot because they end in the word “paraben,” with some kind of prefix in front of them (case in point: “butylparaben”).
Top Paraben-Free Products to Try
If you’re kicking off your paraben-free journey, the most fun part is trying out some new products for your skincare routine. Check out these top picks.
iS Clinical Smooth & Soothe Kit
Anti-aging products have a reputation for being harsh on your skin in some cases, but not this one. iS Clinical’s Smooth & Soothe Kit both reduces wrinkles and eases skin irritation so you’ll both look and feel better.
Revision Skincare Exfoliating Facial Rinse
The first step toward healthy skin is clean skin, and that begins with the right cleanser. For a cleanser and exfoliant that steers clear of parabens, look no further than Revision Skincare’s Exfoliating Facial Rinse.
Great Skin and Great Health
We all want beautiful skin, who can deny that? You don’t want to put your health at risk in the process, though, and thanks to the growing movement of paraben-free skincare products, you don’t have to.