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Debate: Are Parabens Really a Problem in Skin Care?

Parabens in beauty products
March 23, 2017 Reviewed by TIA Community Member 5 Comments

Parabens are one of the most widely used preservatives in personal care products, but many health concerns have cropped up over the years. So, should you be worried about slathering them on your skin? It’s up for debate. While Marta has taken a stance against the use of parabens in skin care, her friend Nicki Benvenuti, founder and CEO of FutureDerm, sees less cause for concern. Here, they face off: Are parabens really a problem? Keep scrolling to read their discussion. 

What purpose do parabens serve in skin care formulas?

NB: “Parabens are naturally-occurring preservatives that are used to protect against a wide range of bacteria and fungi. They are more effective than the alternatives, and the six most commonly used include methylparaben, ethylparaben, p-Propylparaben, isobutylparaben, n-Butylparaben and benzylparaben. They are found naturally in fruits like blueberries and are made chemically as well. Parabens became popular because of their efficacy and are correlated with a low incidence of contact dermatitis, according to the American Journal of Contact Dermatitis.”

MW: “Parabens have been popular in skin care because, as Nicki points out, they protect against a wide-range of bacteria and fungi and formulators could rely on them to do their job. Companies that use them often mention that they occur naturally in plants as though this makes them somehow benign. Most parabens used in cosmetics tend to be chemically synthesized.

It is also important to keep an eye out for synonyms. Ethylparaben, for example, can go by the name of Ethyl 4-hydroxybenzoate. If you look up the chemical data on ethyl 4-hydroxybenzoate, you'll see that it is classified as a skin irritant.”

Marta, you are known to avoid parabens in skin care. What makes you believe parabens are unsafe?

MW: “I haven't always been convinced that parabens are unsafe. In the past, I was always careful to describe them as ‘controversial.’ However, recently, I have become more persuaded by the safety concerns and I do, generally, try to avoid them altogether.

Let me explain: Controversy around parabens arose after the publication of a 2004 study by Dr. Philippa Darbre, who found traces of parabens in breast cancer tissues. The study was criticized for not demonstrating cause and effect, only the mere presence of parabens. My take was that her research methodology could definitely be flawed, but that didn't give parabens a free pass and so I regarded them with caution. In 2012, Dr. Darbre came back with a study based on a larger sample and claimed that she not only repeated her 2004 results, but also found that paraben levels in the samples were now four times higher.

What’s more, new worrying evidence emerged last year. SUNY Downstate Medical Center's School of Public Health linked parabens to reproductive defects in newborns. The study found ‘a link between women with higher levels of butylparaben, which is commonly used as a preservative in cosmetics, and the following birth outcomes: shorter gestational age at birth, decreased birth weight and increased odds of preterm birth.’

So, yes, I have now gravitated from ‘controversial’ to ‘unsafe’.”

Nicki, you find these studies to be less concerning — will you please explain why?

NB: “This might be alarming, but beauty products are not a major source of parabens. Your body actually produces parabens — not kidding. Physicians and researchers call this ‘endogenous production.’ It has been speculated that your body may produce antibacterial and antifungal parabens in cancerous tissues, because it may be trying — ineffectually — to fend off the deceased cells. Like I mentioned before, they are also in many food products, like blueberries and strawberries, which naturally grow parabens to preserve from bacterial and fungal decay. Parabens are also found in the environment. You get exposure to tens of thousands of times more parabens through food, medicine, environment and your body's own endogenous production than you do through applying one ounce of a product that contains 0.025 percent parabens every day.

I bring this up because people interpreting Dr. Darbre’s study imply that parabens in products caused the parabens to appear in breast cancer tissue. But in fact, the parabens could have been naturally produced by the subjects’ own bodies, found in food or in the environment — and to a much smaller extent, absorbed by skin care and cosmetics.

As far as the butylparaben link, it has long been known that long-term exposure to butylparaben in the diet results in adverse effects on the reproductive system. Butylparaben is naturally found in foods like blueberries, strawberries and barley. Not because of pesticides, but because parabens are antibacterial and antifungal, and plants and fruits produce them naturally. Mind blowing, isn't it? Butylparaben is also used in foods to prevent lipid oxidation and to inhibit the growth of yeast and molds — in other words, in packaged and processed foods. These foods typically tend to feature many other ingredients that have been linked to decreased birth weights and preterm births. In those foods, butylparaben is found in much higher concentrations than in beauty products, which is 0.01-0.4 percent.

So, for this particular study, for one, I would argue that there aren't enough confounding variables eliminated. It would have to be established that butylparaben were controlled in each person's diet, that ingredients were associated with butylparaben production were controlled, etc. Furthermore, a conflicting study showed that urinary paraben concentrations were not associated with IVF outcomes among women undergoing infertility treatments, so the results are not repeatable.

The consumption of parabens is what I estimate to be a source of 10-100 times more than topical application. And when you're eating parabens, you are putting them through your digestive tract, which was designed to absorb to begin with. Conversely, when you put an agent on your skin, your skin was designed to protect. Is there still absorption? Yes, some, but not at all like in the digestive tract. So, what is the greater source of parabens: Ingesting 100 percent of a 3 oz. food with 0.5 percent butylparaben (0.015 ounces), or topically applying a 0.1 oz. formulation with 0.3 percent butylparaben and perhaps absorbing 50 percent of it (0.0015 ounces)? That's 10 times less exposure per dose.

Add in the fact that parabens are found not only in food, but are also naturally produced within your body and are ubiquitous in the environment, and I see beauty products as a very low source of parabens, even when applied multiple times a day.”

MW: “Even though 10-100 times is a big range, your argument that we source more parabens from our food consumption than personal care and beauty products is persuasive. I went off to do a bit of research of my own and read that maple syrup is a major source of parabens. They have been found in animals and insects, as well as plants, and one researcher called them "intrinsic and fundamental to all respiring and anaerobic life." I was about to throw in the towel. But then....

In the USA, the average total paraben exposure per person is estimated to be approximately 76mg per day (1.3mg/kg/d for a person weighing 70kg). Cosmetics and personal products provide the bulk of exposure at 50mg per day, whereas drugs (medicines) supply 25mg per day and food accounts for approximately 1mg per day. The concentration of parabens in foods is usually less than 1 percent, as reported by Medscape. I think it is also worth noting that parabens as chemical preservatives are added to food in America. In Europe, they are banned.

Parabens absorbed by the body were once thought to be fully metabolized by esterases in the liver and kidney, excreted in the urine, and not to accumulate in the body; however, recent evidence points to the contrary. Nakazawa and colleagues found that individual parabens were not detected in human blood and milk but that para-hydroxybenzoic acid, the main metabolite of parabens, was detected in all patient blood and milk samples tested.

So, while I might continue to add maple syrup to my pancakes, I still feel worried about them in my skin care products.”

NB: “But the study here appears wrong on many counts. By using their ‘Tier 1’ approach, the researchers estimate the products have 2 percent butylparaben. In reality, the upper limit of butylparaben allowed in products is 0.4 percent — one-fifth of the butylparaben these researchers estimate to be in all products.

When you take this into account, cosmetic and personal products would not provide the bulk of exposure at 50mg per day, but rather only 10 mg per day. Drugs [medicines] would supply 2.5 times more — 25mg per day — and would by far be the biggest source of parabens in your diet. But you don't see people going after parabens used in the drug industry, because it would set people up for a lot of fungal and bacterial infections if you used less-effective preservatives in oral medicines than parabens.”

MW: “I think what is compelling about the Soni et al research is that it is widely referenced by other academics. When it comes to dosage, it isn't so much about the concentrations in one product, but the cumulative effect of all the very many personal care products that we use over the course of time.”

So, do you recommend products with parabens over other alternative preservatives?

NB: “I believe parabens may even be beneficial, as opposed to some paraben alternatives. Scores of paraben alternatives are not recommended for sensitive skin. These include methylisothiazolinone, which has been associated with many types of allergic skin reactions and benzoic acid, which penetrates the skin better than caffeine or testosterone.

Furthermore, paraben alternatives like benzoic acid interact only with the cell wall of microorganisms. This does not kill bacteria that do not have a cell wall; it only kills some bacteria and fungi. By contrast, parabens will interfere with the metabolic pathways of bacteria and are very effective against most bacteria and fungi.

MW: “I definitely agree that some of the alternatives used as preservatives, such as methylisothiazolinone, are undesirable and could even be worse. It is encouraging that greater consumer awareness is leading to the invention of safe yet effective alternatives, such as radish root ferment.”

So, Marta, do you feel that the type of paraben used matters, or that some are more unsafe than others?

MW: “If I had to come down against one particular paraben, it would be methylparaben. Japanese researchers from the Kyoto Prefectural University of Medicine, applied lotion containing just one type of paraben — methylparaben— twice a day for a month to the skin of 12 Japanese volunteers. They found that methylparaben did not metabolize in the strateum corneum, the outermost layer of the epidermis, and suggested that its presence accelerated skin aging. So being the founder of a website about aging, I'd have to say that methylparaben is at the top of my list.”

What are your closing arguments?

NB: “Ever noticed how one study will be released that shows coffee is harmful for you, then another study shows it is preventative against heart attacks? Or, how egg yolks and fats like coconut oil were the devil in the 1990s, but are considered to be fine, even beneficial, today? It isn't that these materials have changed or that our bodies have vastly evolved over the course of a few decades. The answer is in the interpretation of scientific results. The philosopher Robert Anton Wilson has pointed out that the mind behaves as if it has two parts, the thinker and the prover. Whatever the thinker thinks, the proved tries to disprove.

I truly believe parabens in beauty products are to the 2000s what eggs and fat were to the 1990s. It seems plausible that they could be harmful, but I find them to be perfectly safe in low concentrations and actually a lot gentler and more effective against harmful bacteria and fungi than a lot of the alternatives. Parabens are ubiquitous — in our food, naturally-occurring in some of our fruits and vegetables, in our environment, and are even naturally produced by our bodies. Plus, parabens are cleared from the body every one-and-a-half days, according to Cosmetics Design. They're a part of our natural world because they're antibacterial and antifungal agents that work. I think it's sad that so many consumers avoid them now and that companies have been forced to take them out of products as a result. I really don't see a problem in low, reasonable doses.

I have no issue with using any products with parabens. If anything, if I am using a product like a mask once a month and know I will be storing it for a long time, I look for parabens.”

MW: “Yes, while science is up for interpretation, it is my job as a journalist in this field to help interpret the research as objectively as possible so consumers can make their own educated decisions based on all of the facts presented to them. This is after all, the mission of Truth In Aging. Based on my understanding of the studies available today, I will continue to look for alternatives to products that use parabens.” 

What's your take on the use of parabens in beauty products? Let us know in the comments below! 

*Nicki Zevola Benvenuti is the founder, CEO and President of FutureDerm, Inc. She studied at the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, and worked in biological and biomedical laboratories for nearly a decade. 

  • April 5, 2017

    by Grace

    Interesting debate. I feel compelled to agree with Marta, however. There is enough controversy about parabens to indicate that consumers should be cautious about applying them via products for the skin and hair. Nicki Benvenuti talks a good game, but she has no idea of the cumulative effects of parabens when used over time. Parabens produced by the body or those occurring naturally in food products are one thing, but there may be a problem when you add parabens from laboratory sources into the mix. Where there's smoke...

  • March 23, 2017

    by Kat

    I found this article to be most interesting since it directly applies to me. I grew up in Upper New York and have used parabens probably my whole life and never knew it. I visited Florida in the mid 2000's and got the most awful rash that felt like someone was burning me with lit cigarettes. It then turned to an itchy rash after a few burning days, that kept me up all night. It seem to appear after I had been out in the sun and then took a hot shower. I found natural aloe plant that I put in the refrigerator to be soothing short term. I was told it was sun poisoning and stay out of the sun for a few days. It never got better just worse and worse. I even called a doctor and he said to avoid the that is possible in Florida. I suffered greatly for a good few weeks before I got proactive and starting doing research online. I discovered I had polymorphic skin eruptions. I was allergic to the sun and parabens were to blame. I also learned on my own that cotton material seemed to let the sun still in but polyester did not. Yes I know there is a joke in there but it wasn't funny back then. I tried to eliminated all of my paraben products and oh boy it was everything I had brought with me on my visit. All of my personal care products I had brought with me from NY had to go. I was very sad I had to throw away quite a few hundreds of dollars of things, I had come to love and rely on. Everything had parabens in it. Back then 2005 no one seemed to know or care about this condition and information was hard to come by. I eliminated as much parabens from my life as possible since then, I read each and every ingredient in products I buy. It was almost impossible to find paraben free products back then so I had to go all natural and shop at organic stores which were incredibly expensive compared to store bought. Just when I thought I figured it out and had a handle on it, I again kept getting bouts of polymorphic skin eruptions. I then started learning that food products contain parabens too, I had no idea. ointments were good, creams had parabens. I was amazed at how many parabens are in everything that touches my life. I also found that if someone is wearing paraben loaded sunscreen, lotions etc. I will get an attacked by contact. We had to make our house a paraben free zone. I actively read labels, shop in paraben free stores like Origins for lotions etc. I like that a lot of products are actively trying to make paraben free products these days. I wish I had them 12 years ago, I literally had Aussie Shampoo and condtioner and Ivory soap back then and what I could find paraben free in a health food store. It was a extremely painful, frustrating, hard and seemingly futile experience, I hope no one has to experience, but at least now we know more. Today I find that as long as I am extremely watchful, and stay out of the sun and keep parabens out of the house I can survive. I can not however control what other people bring into my house as far as parabens so I still get a bout now and then. Most importantly, I am doing wonderful compared to back then and have learned to survive. I hope this helps someone who is as lost and confused as I was then.

  • March 23, 2017

    by Andrea

    A compelling argument but I wonder about the difference between naturally produced paragens in food vs. those created in a lab as preservatives. I just bought barley soup and blueberries. Not concerned about that!

  • March 23, 2017

    by Elizabeth

    I agree, Marta that we should be diligent in choosing our personal & beauty products and find healthy alternatives wherever possible. In today's selection of products and having so much controversial reports, choosing these products are more difficult than ever. It takes me quite a while to make a choice on skin care, makeup items and other personal products because I do my best to research all the ingredients that I am not familiar with before making a purchase. I believe the US should ban items that are shown to be dangerous or unhealthy for use and consumption alike. It would be so nice to find the skin care and makeup products that are indeed healthy alternatives to all the chemicals and feel at ease when using these products. It's a job for sure!

  • March 23, 2017

    by ha

    Now I'm scared to eat blueberries and strawberries. just kidding.

    Good debate.

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