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Parabens- does the European Union really think they are safe

December 23, 2010 Reviewed by Marta 5 Comments
Parabens have been pronounced safe to use as cosmetics preservatives by a European Union safety committee.  Well kind of. Although the cosmetic industry is overjoyed by the decision, parabens have still not been give a full clean bill of health. Only butylparaben and propylparaben were considered and the committee wants limits on their use.

The paraben family of preservatives has come under attack in recent years amidst claims that disruptive effects on the hormone system. However, the cosmetic industry has consistently supported their use and submitted data to the European Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety SCCS on the safety of them.

Having reviewed that data, the SCCS concluded that human data was insufficient to fully see the effects of the parabens on the hormonal system, and so instead it has opted for a ‘conservative’ estimate on the maximum use levels for the compounds.

So, butylparaben and propylparaben are safe as long as their cumulative concentration does not exceed 0.19%. This maximum concentration level is lower than that stated in Annex VI of the Cosmetics Directive, which states that parabens may be used singly up to a concentration of 0.4% and 0.8% if more than one is used.

What does this mean exactly. Well, in the UK at least, the new level of 0.19% is consistent with the concentrations currently used, according to the UK cosmetics trade association the CTPA

Meanwhile, the SCCS said there was not enough data to conclude on safe use levels for isopropyl-, isobutyl- and phenyl-parabens. In addition, the SCCS opinion highlighted the lack of information on benzylparaben and pentylparaben, which it says are not listed in Annex VI – an anomaly it says may have effects on consumer safety and should be brought to the attention of the Commission.

So where does this leave us? Not much safer or even more knowledgeable than we were. The jury is still out on most parabens. And for those of us in the US, unlike the UK, we don’t know what the typical levels of parabens used in our cosmetics are.

Personally, I am not a complete paraben phobe. I tend to go along with EU in that there isn’t enough evidence against parabens to panic about them. And an important consequence of paraben paranoia has been that cosmetics look for alternatives that seem to be even worse, such as phenoxyethanol. Still, I’d rather not have too many parabens in my life: they have not been pronounced safe and we know that they can be irritants and environmental pollutants.
  • January 24, 2011

    by Dene

    Thanks for your support, Julie! If anyone else wishes to question the relevance of my personal "vested interest", or vested interest in general, they may like to follow this link:

    Julie is also correct in her observation about the use of pentylparaben and benzylparaben.

    Marta is NOT correct in her claim that parabens are environmental pollutants! I can provide references to demonstrate that only fractions of parts per trillion of parabens were detected in the outflow of a sewage treatment plant (and this is immediately by the outflow, before further dilution into the aquatic environment), and further references to prove that parabens can be used as a nutrient source by microorgansisms at these low concentrations. In other words, they are NOT environmental pollutants - they are biodegradable!
    Marta also calls them "irritants". Whilst all prservatives have a low potential to cause skin irritation (they ARE biologically active, otherwise they would not be effective as preservatives), parabens are amongst the ones that cause fewer skin reactions. The vast majority of consumers are not affected by parabens - or any other commonly used preservatives in cosmetics.

  • January 14, 2011

    by Julie Carter

    While I completely agree with Dene, and am familiar with his expertise in the area of preservatives, I also wanted to make a few minor comments. First, most of the parabens that you mentioned that the SCCS said had insufficient evidence are those that are far less likely to be used, in my experience. I've NEVER seen phenylparaben, benzylparaben, or pentylparaben used in cosmetics that I can remember, and I've only seen isobutylparaben and isopropylparaben used rarely (almost always by the huge companies). Obviously I don't know every formulation out there, but I would not be very concerned with those. The most popular parabens are the ones to be concerned with, and they have all been accepted as safe in the US and EU multiple times. The review boards, which are completely independent of the cosmetics industry, have reviewed parabens time and time again, and have always found them to be safe as used.

    Also, any expert who supposedly has a "vested interest" does not necessarily negate their expertise or interest in truth and science behind the ingredients. How would anyone not involved in the cosmetic industry or in academic research become an expert? It just doesn't make sense. People who work in the food industry aren't going to become experts on cosmetic ingredients any more than they'll become experts on the combustion engine. The people IN the industry are the ones you want to be the experts! (And no, I have no "vested interest" in any preservatives. I am simply a microbiologist who is frustrated by the continuing misinformation being spread around the internet, making formulation of products and keeping them safe virtually impossible sometimes!)

    And unfortunately, I think this article/post has fallen into the normal trap we see these days of only focusing on the negative information rather than the positives! Parabens are safe as used. There's no reason to think otherwise.

  • January 2, 2011

    by Dene Godfrey

    Hello Marta - I will happily answer your questions, but I will also make the point that "vested interest" does NOT automatically invalidate a point of view, especially if it is supported by FACTS. I am often accused of vested interest, but the fact of the matter is that, whilst I DO sell parabens, I also sell most of the other commonly used preservatives, plus some of the newer "secondary antimicrobials". It is also the case that my employer would make more profit out of selling "parabens alternatives" because (as is so often claimed - as a negative - parabens are cheap!). From a purely commercial point of view, I should not be defending parabens, but I comment on sites such as this in my own time, not my employer's, and I believe that the truth should be told to counter the misinformation and lies about parabens that are so prevalent.

    With regard to the Personal Care Truth web site, this is currently funded solely by the two creators; not by other commercial organisations. If you visit the site, you can find a full explanation of how the site is funded. I have no way of proving their claims of self-funding, but I would write my articles for the site anyway - it makes little difference to me - I am not being paid for them!
    And, finally, whether or not I have a personal vested interest in parabens, I am referring to the SCCS opinion. They are a totally independent panel of experts, with no direct connections to the cosmetics industry. THEY are the people who have judged parabens to be safe. It is not logical to suggest that any perceived vested interest on my part could possibly invalidate the SCCS opinion, surely?

  • December 31, 2010

    by marta

    Hello Dene, I note from your LinkedIn profile that you are the Technical Sales Manager - Preservation Systems at S Black Ltd, a company selling preservatives and other cosmetic ingredients. Doesn't that mean you have a vested interest in saying these ingredients are safe. The website that you link to and have written for is dedicated to defending such ingredients against what it calls "scare tactics". Who funds this website and can you guide me to a list of its supporters? Thank you.

  • December 31, 2010

    by Dene Godfrey

    With respect,although I appreciate your comment about not being a complete "paraben-phobe", I think that you should read the actual SCCS opinion, as you will then discover that they HAVE included a reiteration of the 2008 opinion about methylparaben and ethylparaben.

    Anyone interested in more detail on parabens might like the check out a series of articles I have written, beginning with the introduction on the following link:

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