Should Parabens Be Avoided in Personal Care Products?

Friday, May 6, 2022

Many personal care products, such as cosmetics, shampoos and moisturizers, contain chemical compounds known as parabens. These compounds are beneficial for manufacturers because they make self-care products more shelf-stable and pleasant for consumers to use.

However, in recent years, parabens have drawn scrutiny for their potential adverse health implications. Some companies now market their personal care products as paraben-free to distance themselves from questions about parabens and their safety.

Why do we use parabens, and are they harmful to people who encounter them in their makeup and facial creams? Let's take a closer look at the evidence and consider some potential alternatives for customers looking for green, healthy solutions.

What Are Parabens?

Parabens are a class of preservatives. They see widespread use in cosmetics and other personal care products, especially those with high water content, to prevent microbial growth and help products last longer.

Parabens, or esterified para-hydroxybenzoic acids, get their names from their chemical structure. A paraben contains a benzene ring with an ester group and a hydroxyl group bonded at carbons 1 and 4, also known as the "p" or "para" position. The primary forms include methyl-, ethyl-, propyl-, butyl-, isopropyl- and isobutylparaben, with the prefixes indicating the length and configuration of the hydrocarbon chain bonded to the ester group.

Some of the personal care products that contain parabens include:

  • Shampoos
  • Conditioners
  • Moisturizers
  • Cosmetics
  • Skin and facial cleansers 
  • Toothpaste
  • Deodorants
  • Shaving creams
Most parabens used commercially are not natural, but synthesized in laboratories. They are similar to specific phenolic compounds found in nature, though synthetic parabens differ in containing an ester group.

We should also mention polyethylene glycols, which are preservatives similar to parabens. These ethylene glycol polymers also find widespread use in cosmetics and other personal care products. They keep products stable and thicken those with high moisture content, giving them a consistent, pleasing, silky texture. They can also act as emollients to soften the skin.

Why Do Personal Care Products Use Parabens?

Many personal care products use parabens because of their essential preservative qualities. They have been in use in cosmetics since the 1920s. Cosmetics contain many chemicals that will break down over time, so companies add parabens to slow down the process and boost their products' longevity. Parabens also prevent the growth of harmful mold and bacteria.

At 18c by Acme-Hardesty, we offer parabens specifically selected for their efficacy and environmental benefits. Our parabens and similar compounds come from responsibly sourced palm oil and coconut oil, so they help us create sustainable, bio-based personal care solutions. Customers looking for ecologically responsible ingredients will know their purchases have a minimal environmental impact and help them do their part to keep the planet healthy.

Are Parabens Bad for You?

Some sources indicate that parabens and polyethylene glycols can be harmful.

One complicating fact is that many parabens are hormone disruptors. They act like weak forms of hormones in the body, interfering with reproductive function. The World Health Organization officially classified them as endocrine disruptors in 2017. Scientific evidence suggests parabens may be able to harm reproductive organs and reduce fertility. They can also alter birth outcomes and might link to the development of some cancers.

The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, a Breast Cancer Prevention Partners project, currently lists parabens on its red list of cosmetics to avoid because of the risk of long-term health challenges like reproductive issues and cancer.
Because parabens are so widespread in personal care products, many people experience consistent exposure to them. For example, in the United States, studies have found parabens in almost all urine samples tested for them. In the mid-2000s, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found various forms of parabens in 93 to 99% of analyzed urine samples.

These results hold across various demographics. For instance, one 2019 study found that adolescent girls who consistently wore makeup every day had more than 10 times the levels of parabens in their urine than those who never did.

Unlike parabens, polyethylene glycols in their pure form are generally safe for consumers. However, some PEGs contain impurities, including 1,4-dioxane, a known animal carcinogen and probable human carcinogen. The Environmental Working Group estimates that 22% of all cosmetics may contain these harmful PEG impurities.

What Does the Latest Scientific Research Say About Parabens?

So far, evidence suggesting parabens' carcinogenicity has come primarily from animal subjects, and there is mixed scientific opinion about the hazards of using products containing these ingredients. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration currently considers parabens safe for use in cosmetics and similar products. On the other hand, the European Union has banned the use of five parabens in cosmetics and restricted some others.

Researchers have completed a few studies on parabens' health effects in humans. In one, researchers from Harvard's School of Public Health linked propylparaben to decreased fertility. Another study associated low levels of paraben exposure with diminished fertility, as evidenced by shortened menstrual cycles. A separate study also showed an association between parabens in mothers' blood cord and urine and increased incidences of premature births and low birth weights.

One study discovered propylparaben could alter gene expression in breast cancer cells. Another found that low doses of butylparaben could combine with other compounds to switch on cancer genes and increase growth in breast cancer cells.
However, the relatively low levels of parabens used in personal care products may not be carcinogenic. These results raise questions — more research on the carcinogenic effects of parabens in humans will likely be necessary to draw definitive conclusions.

Substitutes for Parabens in Personal Care Products

In light of the medical evidence above, some consumers may want to switch to alternative products. For instance, customers concerned about possible health risks may want to avoid synthetic PEGs. At 18c by Acme-Hardesty, we offer plant-based PEGs as an alternative solution. These greener, sustainably sourced options help customers feel better about the care products they put on their bodies.

Acme-Hardesty also sells several green alternatives to parabens and PEGs. For example, we offer Galesan® C as an alternative to D4 and D5 silicone. Galesan® C is a vegan ingredient suitable for use in makeup, skincare products and other personal care items. Additionally, we offer green preservation solutions to substitute for synthetic ingredients like parabens, sodium lauryl sulfate, SCS and phenoxyethanol.

We've partnered with Sharon Laboratories to provide natural and natural-like preservation systems for use in personal care products. When researching and developing new products, Sharon Laboratories screened many natural elements and food ingredients for their anti-fungal and anti-bacterial activity. They discovered Maltol, a naturally occurring organic compound found in pine needles and more, can provide appealing properties as a preservative. Natural Maltol is now the base for some of Sharon Laboratories' most innovative preservation solutions, SharoSENSE™ Plus and SharoSENSE™ Plus Natural.

SharoSENSE™ Plus combines natural and synthetic to find an environmentally friendly preservative solution that offers uncompromised antimicrobial efficacy for the personal care industry. Meanwhile, SharoSENSE™ Plus Natural brings the best features of natural ingredients. Unlike many other natural preservative solutions requiring higher use of preservatives for less effective results, SharoSENSE™ Plus Natural can achieve better broad-spectrum protection while using less.

Our partner Sharon Laboratories offers several product lines in addition to the SharoSENSE™ line, so we have fully natural preservative solutions and "preservation-free" options.

Bio-Based, Sustainably Sourced Personal Care Ingredients From 18c by Acme-Hardesty

If your business needs plant-based, responsibly sourced ingredients for personal care products, partner with 18c by Acme-Hardesty. We have an extensive catalog of ingredients, including fatty acids, fatty alcohols, glycerine and castor oil, preservatives and green preservative substitutes for parabens. We can help you provide ecologically sustainable products consumers will feel good about using.

Contact us today to learn more about our products, or read up on what you should know about parabens and safety.