If you’re an avid makeup buyer, you’ve probably seen a barrage of products that proudly proclaim “Paraben free!” But what does that even mean? Sure, it’s paraben free, but why do we need to get rid of parabens in the first place? And what the heck is a paraben anyway? Today I want to answer those questions and hopefully help everyone gain a little more understanding about the products you’re purchasing.
What’s a paraben?
Let’s start with the basics. The term paraben is short for parahydroxybenzoate. The name refers to a group of chemicals that all share the same basic structure. All parabens have the same structure as the picture above, just the the “R” group changed. The “R” represents any of a number of alkyl (carbon) groups that could be attached at that location.
Parabens are just preservatives used to make cosmetics and hygiene products last longer. They function by inhibiting the growth of microorganisms including fungi and bacteria. We think they can do this by disrupting the transport of important molecules across the lipid (fat) membranes of cells. This prevents the cell from getting the things it needs to survive, killing it before it can grow in the makeup.
Why is everything paraben free?
Back in 2004, a group of English researchers published a paper stating that they had found parabens present in breast tumors from cancer patients. Though the study didn’t make any claims about parabens causing breast cancer, the media took the study and ran with it, calling for companies to switch a more organic preservative options.
That same year, the FDA conducted a study and found no connections between parabens and breast cancer, but the damage was already done. Consumers had now associated parabens with cancer and there was nothing anyone could do about it. Ironically, the panic about parabens caused companies to quickly switch to more organic, but possibly less safe preservative options .
It’s been 12 years, and neither the FDA, the European Commission’s SCCS, American Cancer Society, or the Cancer Institute have been able to show any connections between parabens and breast cancer, or any other type of cancer for that matter. They have stated at this time that parabens are safe in the stated levels for each country.
Should I be worried about parabens?
Short answer: no. Long answer: maybe. Individuals can still have a sensitivity to parabens, and if you’re one of those people, you should obviously avoid them as much as possible. But in general, there is no reason to be concerned if your product has parabens in it.
There you have it! The truth about parabens! I hope that this cleared up some common misconceptions about parabens! Honestly, this is just one of a series of topics I could talk about where this awful anti-science rhetoric has been used. People are so scared of “chemicals” that they don’t stop to wonder what a chemical is. Spoiler alert: everything is a chemical. I hope that when you read this it will help you to be a more conscious consumer and maybe do some research next time you see something marked “________ free.”
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