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"Parabens" - what they are and why we should avoid them

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Article by Cara Phillips

“Parabens” – what are they and why we should avoid them

What are they?

There is a lot of information and media around at the moment about the use of “parabens” in skincare (and food). What are they? “Parabens” is the collective term used for a group of preservatives that are used in skincare such as - methylparaben, propylparaben, buytlparaben and ethylparaben – a mouthful I know. It is estimated that over 90% of cosmetics and skin care on the market contains parabens.


Why are they used?

They are used as a preservative, so they essentially give an extensive shelf life to products - which is great from a cost-effective production technique, but potentially not so great for you and I.  It is important to make the distinction here between parabens and preservatives. Preservatives are essential to most skincare products to provide some form of shelf life. Because of its high water content, skincare can very easily go rancid and “off” without the use of some form of preservative system, which as well as looking and smelling terrible could have some potentially harmful effects on your health.


Why there are concerns?

There is a lot of information out there, both for and against the use of parabens as a preservative system on skincare products.  They are an effective preservative in that they do their job of preserving the product they are used in. There are two concerns relating to the widespread use of Parabens. Firstly, they have been found to cause irritations to people with sensitive skin in some tests.  Often products which are aiming to treat skin conditions such as eczema, contact dermatitis, psoriasis etc contain parabens! Go figure? 


The second, and more alarming issue, is the links between parabens and breast cancer.  Parabens have not been found to be carcinogenic in themselves.  The issue relates to the fact that parabens are able to bind the oestrogen receptor  to activate genes controlled by these receptors, and to stimulate cell growth.  A 2004 study at the University of Reading in the UK found traces of parabens in some breast tumours. It is thought that this is due to their ability to mimic oestrogen in the body, which is a known driver of the growth of breast tumours. As a result of this, there is concerns that parabens are “endocrine disrupting chemicals” – that is, they can disrupt the delicate hormonal balance in our bodies. The endocrine system is important for the control and regulation of all the major functions and processes of the body such as – energy control, reproduction, our immune systems, behaviour and growth and development.  As parabens can mimic oestrogen, there is the potential for them to disrupt the delicate hormone balance in our bodies.  At this stage there is no direct link between the two, and what has been highlighted is the need for much more extensive research into this possible link.


Whilst the oestrogen effect of these chemicals on our bodies is much less than what our bodies themselves are capable of producing, I believe we need to be mindful of the amount of these chemicals that we consume every day/week/month.  Not just from our skincare products, but also in our diet.  Whilst we may be consuming the “safe” limit of these chemicals in our body wash, what about the added applications of body cream, face cream, deodorant, as well as foods and external chemicals...have you thought about how much you are consuming every day? 


What are the alternatives?

Essentially, the answer here is to avoid or limit your exposure to parabens, especially in products to be used in areas surrounding the breasts, such as deodorants, body crèmes etc.  Look for natural and non-harmful ingredients used to extend the shelf life of products such as Grapefruit Seed Extract, Natural Vitamin E, Rosemary Leaf extract as well as the use of some essential oils and carrier oils such as Jojoba, Tea Tree etc which help have excellent micro-bacterial properties. Not only are these kind to you, but they are also kind to our planet. There are some great non-harmful and natural preservatives on the market now, so find a brand you trust and stick to it.


The main differences to products not containing parabens is their shelf life. Products that are formulated using a combination of anti-microbial ingredients and natural preservatives get excellent shelf lives of 1-2 years or 6-12 months after opening. Look for products in a pump container rather than a jar as there is a high risk of contamination when fingers are put into jars, hence they will require larger amounts of preservatives.


With the ever-increasing rates of cancers, allergies, and health issues in our society, we need to start to ask – why? We can no longer put our heads in the sand when it comes to the impact of skincare (and food) ingredients on our long-term health.


Be armed with information to make informed decisions about your health and well being!


Cara Phillips

Carmajé Pure Botanical Skincare


10 Aug 2010

Last Update: 7 Apr 2015

Article/Information supplied by Cara Phillips

Disclaimer - Any general advice given in any article should not be relied upon and should not be taken as a substitute for visiting a qualified medical Doctor.