Are parabens safe?
Lately, products free of parabens can be found in any shop that sells cosmetics. Society has a poor view of parabens, as everyone has heard that they are bad for the skin, can cause cancer, can affect growth hormones, etc. To better understand them, we will look at their origins.
These preservatives were discovered in 1924, and were immediately used in all kinds of cosmetic products. The concentrations used varied from enormous to tiny quantities. They were not regulated and everybody used them. There was no risk in using them.
Parabens are used topically and orally. Several studies found that ingested parabens are absorbed well by the intestines and fully removed through urine, but when applied topically their metabolisation is not as simple and quick.
From the beginning, parabens were known to be an anti-fungal and work as a preservative for products. They are widely used in all kinds of cosmetics to preserve and protect the safety of products. They are usually employed as a combination of different parabens with other anti-microbial agents, aiming to achieve a synergistic effect. One of the main advantages, compared to other preservatives that only work in acid conditions, is that they work in neutral conditions (pH 7) and are also cheap to produce.
Around 1940 the first irritation and sensitisation reactions began to appear in the population, but it was not until the 60s that the first cases of serious and long-term eczema were seen. In 1984 it was decided that their use was safe up to 25%.
Based on these facts countless studies have been carried out to test the toxicity or non-toxicity of parabens in cosmetic products. Alarm bells started ringing when, in 2004, a study found a relationship between breast cancer and traces of parabens found in tissue. Later studies have tried to produce conclusive evidence regarding this finding, but nothing has been proven.
Even so, the alarm had been sounded, and based on these studies the case for the safety of parabens was re-opened, and new limits were established. This was not so good for all the manufacturers that had developed a large number products that included them. Now, as well as having to reformulate existing products, they would have to find new preservatives that were as effective and cheap as parabens.
Currently, parabens are allowed to be used as long as this is within the permitted concentration (0.4% for methyl and ethyl paraben, and 0.14% for propyl and butyl paraben, and the mixture of various parabens cannot exceed 0.8%), which is established in European Regulation 1223/2009 on cosmetic products. These ingredients are not bad, they are needed in order to preserve products.
Ana María Herández
PRODUCT SAFETY & REGULATORY AFFAIRS MANAGER