The Plight of Parabens
Fine for Us, Maybe Not So Great for the Frogs
[read in the voice of Jim Halpert impersonating Dwight Schrute]
Question: What kind of paraben is best?
<That’s a ridiculous question>
<Well that’s debatable. There are basically two schools of thought.>
Fact: All parabens are best. Bears. Beets. Battlestar Galactica.
Hehehe ok I had my fun.
Now to wax poetic about the ridiculousness that is the hysteria surrounding parabens.
Parabens aren’t bad for you.
I know, shocking.
The "human-harmfulness" of parabens has nothing to do with science, and everything to do with cultural hysteria.
In a mistaken response to a study published in 2004¹, marketers pounced on an opportunity to raise concern, and profit from, sensationalized alternatives. Labels implied the harmfulness of parabens by boldly proclaiming their absence from products.
But I’m putting my foot down: You shouldn’t be afraid of parabens’ biochemistry.
If anything, you should be afraid of the marketers who decided that they have the expertise to make rulings on bio toxicity, and design cosmetic labels that imply as much. Misinformation in pretty packaging is dangerous. (But stick with me kid and I’ll teach ya how to recognize it).
The scientific community has since dispelled the claim of paraben toxicity; The FDA reports no threat posed by parabens to consumers². But hysteria reigns. It’s so annoying.
Skeptics seem obsessed with the idea that parabens can mimic estrogen and disrupt hormone levels³. (Oh me oh my!) But your lady parts can rest assured, it’s all just hot air. (Phew).
The fact remains that there is no conclusive scientific evidence to support a claim of parabens’ direct and indubitable toxicity.
There is, however, plenty of evidence to suggest that parabens pose no immediate danger at the levels currently used in cosmetics and personal care products. This, my friends, is an established, agreed upon, and reproducible finding.
To make you feel even better: The FDA does not specify “safe” levels of parabens as preservatives in cosmetics⁴. Not because the research hasn’t been done—it has. But because the FDA feels no immediate need to regulate parabens. (The absence of FDA regulation isn’t always a good thing, but in the case of parabens, it’s perfectly fine).
Game over skeptics. You lost.
There is, however, a small caveat in the paraben parable, a Catch 22 to the conscientious consumer.
Parabens have been proven to be safe for human use at the levels and form present in cosmetics. We’ve established this. Parabens have yet, however, been proven to be totally harmless to our amphibian friends.
This is not to say that parabens kill frogs; just to say that there are whisperings within the environmental scientific community that we should pay more attention to the chemical content of our wastewater, in the chance that what goes down our shower drains may end up in frogs in such a way that doesn’t have a Disney ending.
We can’t prove a negative, but we can start the research.
The last thing I want to do is squash one bit of scientific hysteria only to spark another. But in confirming the safety of parabens, I don’t want to leave you with an image of sunshine and rainbows. It would be against my scientific consciousness not to mention the possibility of future frog fatalities.
(I would also be remiss not to mention the fact that alternative preservatives have not been proven to be safer—for your skin or the environment—than the parabens they replace. To stay true to the “paraben free” label, chemists will often use a class of molecules that aren’t exactly the safest. There’s plenty of fucked-up marketing schemes and product claims in this category to keep my curmudgeon-self busy for a while yet, but I’ll spare you a rant. For now).
Our cosmetic choices have consequences beyond our pretty faces. This is nothing new. Human consumption habits spark nuanced, yet extensive butterfly effects that cannot be ignored.
As consumers, we shouldn’t be forced to make a choice between the health of our bodies and the health of our environment. In buying products, we shouldn’t have to choose between the lotion that hurts the frogs, and the lotion that may or may not harm us.
Of course preservative choice cannot be directly linked to human or Earth health. I refuse to fall into the same unsupported pop-science trap as beauty marketers by making such a broad stroke. But the confinement of lotion options currently available because of our cultural hysteria over parabens does make me a tad bit uncomfy.
In writing this article I realize I’ve only succeeded in bringing up a sticky situation, and not in presenting a definitive solution.
But at least being aware of the possible implications that our choices as cosmetic consumers make is a start. If only a tadpole-sized one.
Are you more afraid of parabens, or the monsters under your bed? Let me know in the comments below!
- Darbre, P. D., Aljarrah, A., Miller, W. R., Coldham, N. G., Sauer, M. J. and Pope, G. S. (2004), Concentrations of parabens in human breast tumours. J. Appl. Toxicol., 24: 5–13. doi:10.1002/jat.958 <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14745841>
- Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. Consumers - Cosmetics Safety Q&A: Parabens. <https://www.fda.gov/Cosmetics/ResourcesForYou/Consumers/ucm397393.htm>
- Methylparaben. EWG’s Skin Deep Cosmetic Database. <http://www.ewg.org/skindeep/ingredient/703937/METHYLPARABEN/#>
- Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. Ingredients - Parabens in Cosmetics
- <https://www.fda.gov/cosmetics/productsingredients/ingredients/ucm128042.htm >
- Paula Begoun does a lovely job demystifing paraben hysteria.
- The American Cancer Society discusses parabens, and their supposed link to breast cancer.
- The CDC describes the bio activity of parabens.
- In 2008, the European Commission’s Scientific Committee on Consumer Products squashed rumors of parabens’ adverse effects on the male reproductive system.
- In a 2016 edition of the Royal Society of Chemistry’s Water Research & Technology, Australian researchers discuss parabens as a class of pollutants that deserve more comprehensive study