Parabens - safe or not safe

Parabens, guilty or not?

The Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) Expert Panel – which is comprised of world-renowned dermatologists, toxicologists, chemists, consumer protection advocates and public health experts – have cleared parabens of being wrongfully accused of being unsafe and have stated that there are safe parabens.

In its latest review relating to the issue of whether parabens are safe for human use issued in September 2018, the panel concluded that there were 20 parabens including those most commonly used in cosmetics i.e. methylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben, and ethylparaben that are safe for use in cosmetics under present practices of use and recommended concentrations.


According to Botanichem’s very own, Robyn Brown, who has been formulating cosmetics for more than 25 years, this conclusion is welcome news and will hopefully put an end to the speculation and debate regarding paraben safety.

Parabens are amongst the most effective and safe for use in cosmetic and skin care formulations. In fact, parabens have more than 100 years of safe usage history and have the lowest rate of skin problems in dermatological patients. Alternatives are expensive and can cause skin reactions..

Skin care companies have, however, been pressured into in opting to use alternatives in order to allay the fears of their customers

Parabens have a chemical structure that is similar to estrogen and can mimic the effects of that hormone in the body. But they seem do this weakly and as a result, researchers never considered them a significant risk.

Concerns surrounding parabens first surfaced in 2004 due to a report which was published referring to the concentration of parabens in human breast tumours. The report suggested that parabens in underarm deodorants and antiperspirants could be absorbed into the skin and migrate to breast tissue close by.

The study was widely criticised by the scientific community due to the methodology used and the conclusions which had been reached.

The problem with the study was that no comparative analysis of healthy tissue was made.  This is important, if there had been traces of paraben in healthy tissue (which has subsequently been proven) it would have ruled out the link to breast cancer.

Furthermore, at the time of the study, parabens were detected in the blank control samples which was explained as being due to contamination from the glassware. However, if this was the case, then why was the same conclusion not made regarding the detection of parabens in the breast tissue?1

Regardless of questions being raised regarding the integrity of the study, it has dominated the debate regarding preservative choice and use by the industry for the past decade and a half.

The latest review will hopefully restore some confidence in the use of parabens, however, there remains some concern regarding the build-up of parabens in tissue over time and the safety of this.

Quoting the CIR expert panel’s findings, “The panel also discussed concerns about the bioaccumulation potential of parabens noting that as lipid-soluble chemicals, parabens may theoretically distribute to tissues despite metabolism.  Recent studies have demonstrated the presence of parabens in human tissue, but the data shows that parabens are metabolized to 4-hydroxybenzoic acid which is considered safe under typical use conditions.”

The key message to take out of this latest research is that parabens are SAFE for use at prescribed and current usage levels. The reality, however, is that damage has been done and it will take some time to change industry perceptions but at least the current evidence now supports paraben use.


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