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.