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Are parabens safe in skin care?

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Whilst we might not all agree on what’s best when it comes to skin care, we can probably all agree that the ingredients used in our beauty products should be safe.

Some of us think that we need chemical ingredients such as salicylic acid in our skin care products, whilst others believe that all natural products derived from nature are the way forward. Others among us believe that somewhere in between is best.

But all those beliefs and skin care needs aside, the belief that the products we can buy to put on our skin are safe, is common among all of us.

But what if there were products, very common products, that contained an ingredient that at best, has a large question mark hovering above its safety but is allowed in skin care products?

We’re talking about parabens, a group of ingredients found in everything from facial moisturisers and antiperspirants to shampoos and body washes. Over the years there have been many studies into the safety of parabens, with mixed results (hence the big question mark).

So what exactly are parabens, are they safe in skin care and how can we avoid them if we’d like to? Here’s our lowdown…

What are parabens and why are they used in skin care products?

Parabens are a type of chemical preservative that are added to many skin care formulations to lengthen their shelf life. They’ve been in regular use in beauty products since the 1920s.

They help to inhibit the growth of bacteria and fungi that can spoil toiletries and beauty products, causing them to go ‘off’ or no longer be effective. Parabens also help to keep the ingredients in our bathroom products stable, which also helps to prolong how long they’re effective for.

They’re usually only found in water based products, rather than oil based products such as body oils or hair oils. This is because water based products tend to be less stable for shorter lengths of time than oil based products where the oil acts as a natural preservative.

Some products contain one type of parabens, whilst others contain two or three. We have more advice on spotting parabens in skin care products below. Incidentally, some food products also contain parabens. In food, they do the same job of protecting against food spoilage organisms such as certain bacteria, yeasts and moulds.

Why are parabens not considered safe in skin care?

Parabens are considered safe for use in all kinds of skin care products. But studies have cast doubt over their actual safety, because the long term effects of being exposed to parabens on a regular basis are only just being understood.

The problems are thought to stem from the ability of parabens to mimic the female hormone, oestrogen. Oestrogen is mainly found in female bodies, but males do still have a certain level of oestrogen.

The fact that they can mimic this hormone means that it’s possible that they can affect the natural hormone balance of the body, so called endocrine disruption. Therefore it’s possible that parabens could interfere with hormone related biological functions and processes such as puberty, menstruation and fertility.

There are also concerns that parabens could be linked with breast cancer and child development issues. Studies have found the presence of parabens in breast cancer cells, meaning that there could be a link between the use of parabens and breast cancer, although it is not yet conclusively proven.

At the very least, it’s been proven that parabens can be absorbed into the skin and enter the bloodstream.

The Environmental Working Group conducted a study on teenage girls, testing their urine for the presence of parabens. Although the cohort was small, only 20 participants, 100% of them tested positive for the presence of two types of parabens.

So it’s clear that using skin care products that contain parabens on a regular basis can cause them to accumulate in our body. The bad news is, the research at the moment is inconclusive as to how harmful this may be.

The good news is, we can avoid them if we wish to wait until the evidence proves conclusive one way or the other. Also, in the study of the 20 teenage girls, their levels of parabens significantly reduced, by almost a half, after three days of avoiding parabens.

What should I look out for when choosing skin care products?

If you’d like to avoid using parabens in your skin care products, you’ll need to become a label reading pro.

Some brands do make things easy, by labelling their products “paraben free”. Others, you’ll have to do some digging. Most of the time, if a product is paraben free, then the brand will want their discerning and informed customers to know. So they’ll shout it from their product packaging and website (like we do).

So you can nearly always assume that if a product isn’t labelled as being free from parabens, it’ll more than likely contain them. And that’s when you need your chemistry lesson hat on, as parabens have lots of different, and often unpronounceable, names.

These include the main four parabens found in skin care products - methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben and butylparaben. (Helpfully, they all end in the word “paraben”, making them fairly easy to spot.)

Scanning the back labels of products for their ingredients list might feel like you’re shopping for food and trying to spot milk powder sneaking in there (if you're dairy intolerant, vegan or plant based, you’ll know). But you’ll soon get used to it, although you might need a magnifying glass as the print is often very small!

All of our cleansers, moisturisers, serums and masks are free from parabens. We designed them to be suitable for all skin types, especially stressed out, non conformist skin that’s prone to acne, rosace, and psoriasis, or is particularly oily or dry.

Our hero ingredient is silica salt, an alkalising agent ideal for nourishing and supporting the skin. So if you’re looking for your ideal paraben free skin care, why not check out our range?


Hannah de Gruchy BSc(Hons)

About Author

Hannah de Gruchy is a freelancer writer who specialises in health and wellness. She has a keen interest in the biology of skin and loves using her words to help separate the real science of skincare from the pseudoscience of some skincare brands. Hannah has a degree in Human Biology and many years’ experience working in laboratories around London. Using this experience, Hannah enjoys turning complex science into interesting, engaging and easy to digest pieces to read. In her spare time, Hannah runs, practices yoga and loves cooking plant based foods.

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