What are Parabens and why they’re bad?

What are Parabens? As life’s challenges continue to take its toll on people, the use of chemicals intentionally or otherwise continue to increase. People are busy trying to make ends meet, which takes up most time making it difficult to find time to research the common products we use on to be choosy about what goes into the body.

From food to cosmetics, types of chemicals used in various products are endless. When it comes to preservatives however, many people find themselves asking over and over “what are parabens?” as it seems to be the most common term in beauty, hair care and and personal care products.


With plenty of fungicidal and bactericidal properties, parabens help with different daily use in different industries. They belong to the group of 4-hydrobenzoic acid and have different compounds, which give them the power to work against several micro-organisms thereby making them ideal to be used as preservatives. They prevent the growth of unwanted organism such as mold therefore keeping the product fresh for longer periods.

How they work

Warm and moist conditions are usually unsafe for most products. Such conditions make it easier for micro-organisms within different products to multiply faster. Parabens aim to stop this, ensuring the products have a longer lifespan. Even though they don’t have any smell or color, they can still be absorbed into the body system through the skin.

Although their exact mechanism of function is unknown, parabens mainly work by preventing synthesis between RNS and DNA and enzymes. In addition to this, they can stop the unwanted organisms from reproducing by disrupting their membranes.


What are Parabens?

Parabens are a family of related chemicals that are commonly used as preservatives in cosmetic products. Parabens are a wide of preservatives used to keep a variety of products ranging from cosmetics, personal care and even food products. Although the subject much controversy around it with some praising it for its benefits and other questioning its demerits, its wide usage shows its becoming more of a necessity than an option.

Types of Parabens

The most common types of parabens include:



Containing many anti-fungal properties, this type of paraben is mainly used in food and cosmetics. It seems to be safer when used in smaller concentrations. Its higher concentration on the other hand has a lot of controversy around it with the major concern being that it is toxic. It can be absorbed into the body through the skin and is usually expelled through urine. It can also be used in animals without any problems.



It is also used for its many anti-fungal properties. Its use is however limited and should not exceed 0.8% quantity in a product due to safety concerns. It targets the growth of bacteria and fungi in products like deodorants and lotions among others.



Containing more microbial properties, this paraben is mainly used in food crop products specifically fruits and crops. Some animals and plants contain this paraben naturally though it is also used in beauty products. It works by preventing reproduction of bacterial organism in the products thereby prohibiting their growth.



In food, this paraben works by stopping microbiology organisms from spoiling the food. Heptylparaben fragrance free, flavorless or colorless and is mostly found in alcoholic drinks as well as beverages.



It has fungicidal properties that make it useful in beauty products. So far, it is the most preferred preservative since it’s less toxic. Despite this, it still has to be used in minimum quantities since larger amounts can cause problems to the body. Like the others, it has been surrounded by controversy with some countries like Denmark restricting its use in children who are 3 years or younger. Absorption of butylparaben into the body takes place through the lungs and skin and is released through the body waste.

Less common types are isopropylparaben, benzylparaben and isobutylparaben.


Paraben Uses

Lotions, concealers, shampoos and soaps are some of the beauty products regularly using parabens. The variety of food products using this preservative include dried meat, vegetables cereals and soft drinks among others. Conflicting reports have emerged that most antiperspirants and deodorants no longer use the preservatives as they did before. Some plants and crops contain natural parabens so they do not need the synthesized one. Identifying products that contain parabens is easy since it’s usually labeled on the packaging using number E. for example ethylparaben will be labeled E214 while heptylparaben will be labeled E209.


Why are Parabens bad?

With their skin penetration ability, parabens get into the bloodstream and the digestive system. Even though they are expelled later, their effect on the body during the time they stay in the system is questionable. They can mimic estrogen, one of the most important hormones in the body, which causes many challenges. This increases the hormone and cause disruption of the normal bodily functions. For instance, it can cause early puberty in children.


The connection between parabens and cancer still exist even though some people have refuted the claims. Using products containing the preservatives can harm the skin at the least especially for people with sensitive skin. In addition to all this, some types of parabens can react with the ultra violet rays causing more damage than good. Methylparaben for instance, can react badly with the sun and cause skin cancer. It can also ruin the DNA structure or cause cancer.


Like every other chemical, parabens can harm the body. Even when they leave the body, some traces remain. With continuous use, these residues can become too many and cause health problems, not necessarily cancer. Some properties of the parabens also have the ability to break down proteins. This poses a serious health concern since it can affect important cell membranes in the body.


Parabens don’t just affect human beings, it finds its way into the environment and affects other animals as well. Once it leaves the body, it goes into the water treatment system through the sewage systems and may end up into the natural water bodies such as lakes; this then exposes water animals like fish to the chemicals and can harm them. Once they get to the water treatment plants, the parabens undergo treatment where their composition is altered before being released. This continuous release leads to more products that are degradable to the environment being present thereby causing long-term negative effects.


Side effects of Parabens

l They can cause skin problems like rashes or other allergic reactions

l Can lead to premature aging

l They interfere with bodily functions by causing hormonal imbalance

l Can affect an unborn child through transmission from the mother

l Affects the entire ecosystem negatively

Parabens and Cancer?

Over the years, conflicting reports have been released with regards to whether parabens cause cancer. In 2004, some researchers found parabens in breast cancer tissues. This raised a huge debate as to the participation of the preservatives to cancer.

The research on breast cancer did not provide details about their findings, which also raised many questions like the exact type of paraben that was found. The study also failed to mention the likely source of the parabens considering the wide range use.


According to another previous claim, preservatives found in body products like deodorants easily get into the blood stream through the skin. This worsens when the skin is weak such as immediately when one shaves. Applying deodorant after shaving leads to the absorption of substances that can cause cancer, which are then kept in the lymph nodes. Since the sole purpose of a deodorant is to prevent sweating, the deposited harmful substances lack a way to get out of the body. This is turn causes buildup, which then leads to formation of cancer cells. Relation of this to breast cancer came due to the fact that most breast cancer cells are formed in the upper part of the breast area that is the closest to the lymph nodes.


These allegations were contradicted by bodies such as American cancer society who came out to say that parabens are safe and do not contribute to cancer cells in any way. According to the body, though it is true that the skin is fragile after a shave, the possibility of cancer causing cells reaching the breast cells through this method is minimal.


In yet another study conducted in 2002, most women diagnosed with breast cancer admitted to using deodorants frequently. The study compared younger women with cancer diagnosis with older women with the same. It was found that the former group shaved and used the cosmetics more than the latter group who were also diagnosed later in life. Despite this, the American cancer society insisted that there aren’t any links between deodorant or antiperspirant use and breast cancer.


The lack of concrete proof connecting parabens to cancer makes the topic more inconclusive but the dangers of these preservatives are hard to ignore, which is why their use is restricted to a limited amount.


Products that contain parabens

Parabens in Shampoos

Shampoos contain many ingredients meant to perform different functions, one of them being parabens. Others like zinc pyrithione, which helps in destruction of dandruffs and sodium lauryl sulphate, which removes stubborn dirt from the hair are also available in the product. The main function of the parabens is to keep the shampoo fresh for longer by stopping any formation of molds.


 Parabens in makeup


While makeup seems to be on high demand, they still require a longer shelf life. Facial scrubs and cleaners for example contain parabens due to their ability to prohibit the growth of microbes. Other makeup products containing this ingredient include anti aging creams that are meant to slow down the aging process and make you look younger, and foundations that are used to give you an even skin tone by masking pimples and other rashes on your face.



Parabens in Lotion

Since lotions contain water, bacteria can easily contaminate them within a short time. To ensure you use your lotion for longer, parabens help by preventing bacteria from thriving in them. Though some companies claim not to use them as part of ingredients, they still use them in smaller quantities. Other companies admit to using them but insist on their safety and effectiveness in preservation. Nivea, for example uses this preservative in majority of their products, insisting that it doesn’t have any negative effects, short term or long term.


Parabens in Deodorants

Some companies dealing with deodorants may fail to name them on the label but they use the ingredient. For those that list them, identifying them is easy since they all end with the word paraben. Like other beauty products, the preservative’s purpose in such products is to keep them in consumable state for longer.


How to find Paraben free products


Check the labels

The first step in finding paraben free products is knowing what to look for and what to avoid. If any of the ingredients on the product ends with paraben then you should avoid it.


Create your own products

This mostly applies to food. You can grow your own vegetables and fruits in your home and enjoy their freshness. Alternatively, you can buy foodstuff that has been preserved through natural means such as salting or sun drying. Another opinion is to buy from the farmers market in small quantities that you can easily finish. This way you won’t have to preserve them.



The use of internet has made it easier to find out any type of information one needs. Use a skin deep database that can identify all ingredients used in a product. All you have to do is type in the name of the product to find out all the information about it. This can also help you avoid other ingredients you’re not sure about.


Find Alternative Beauty Products

Beauty products enhance beauty making them essential part of people’s lives. However, one can use other options to get the same results without consuming any chemicals. An example is not using any creams with the preservative and using pure oils instead. Essential oils are also a good alternative to the chemical filled ones.



Despite all the negative use of parabens, their use seems to continue to grow. The market is however filled with other healthier options that one can use. Instead of feeding your body chemicals, try healthier options. It’s advisable to be cautious when purchasing any product especially when it is online since most of them may falsely deny having any parabens. The more you use them the more you put your health at risk.


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