Ask the Expert: What Are Parabens in Cosmetics & Are They Safe?

January 21, 2019
Jessica Khorsandi
By: Jessica Khorsandi | by L'Oréal
Ask the Expert: What Are Parabens in Cosmetics & Are They Safe?

In a recently-released memo, Kiehl’s—one of our favorite brands under the L’Oréal portfolio—announced that not only will their beloved Ultra Facial Cream be getting a formulation makeover without parabens, but that all Kiehl’s formulas in production will be paraben-free by the end of 2019.  And they’re hardly the only brand out there making this shift. As more and more beauty brands begin to ditch parabens in their formulations, it’s worth investigating deeper into parabens to try and understand why they are so vilified. Are parabens really that bad? The U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) does not have sufficient information showing that parabens used in cosmetics are unsafe, so what gives? To get to the bottom of the paraben debate, we tapped board-certified dermatologist, and consultant, Dr. Elizabeth Houshmand (@houshmandmd).  

What Are Parabens?

Parabens are hardly new on the skin care scene. They are a type of preservative and have been around since the 1950s, according to Dr. Houshmand. “Parabens are used to prolong shelf life in cosmetics by preventing the growth of mold and bacteria within them,” she says. 

Keep in mind that most product labels won’t use the limited space given to boast preservatives front and center. Chances are you’ll need to look on the ingredients list to see if parabens are present. “The most common parabens in skin care are butylparaben, methylparaben, and propylparaben,” Dr. Houshmand says.

Are Parabens Safe?

If Kiehl’s and other beauty brands are eliminating parabens, it must mean that there’s something very terrible about using products formulated with them, right? Well, not exactly. There are many reasons as to why a brand would want to remove parabens from their product lineup, one of which could be in direct response to a consumer demand or desire. If more and more people would like to use products that are free of preservatives (parabens included), brands will undoubtedly respond in kind.  

While the FDA is continuing to evaluate data related to the safety of parabens, they have yet to discover any health hazards associated with parabens in cosmetics. Much of the public discontent and paranoia about parabens can be attributed to a study that found traces of parabens in breast tissue. “The study didn’t prove that parabens can cause cancer, but it identified that the parabens were able to penetrate the skin and remain within tissue,” Dr. Houshmand says. “This is why they are believed to be harmful.”

Should You Use Products Formulated with Parabens?

This is a personal choice. Research into the safety of parabens is ongoing, but no risks have been identified by the FDA at this time. “It’s important to note that the percentage of preservative in a formulation is generally very small,” Dr. Houshmand. “Plus, there are many preservatives available so less parabens are being used.” 

If you would like to ditch parabens in your skin care routine, our list of paraben-free skin care products is a great place to start! Dr. Houshmand warns, however, that just because a label says “paraben-free” doesn’t mean it’s truly free of irritants or other preservatives. “Paraben-free may mean that other preservatives are used containing synthetic ingredients that may harm or irritate the skin,” she says. “In general, I advise all to read the labels but also to be mindful of skin reactions. Not everyone will have the same reactions to products.” If you have any questions about product use or parabens, your dermatologist is a great resource. “We offer specialized patch testing to see what you are specifically sensitive to,” Dr. Houshmand says.  

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