“Do you know what parabens are?” It’s a question I asked a friend, a barista, and my dad. They basically all said something to the effect of, “No, but I know that they’re in beauty products and are bad for you.”
That they couldn’t explain what the chemicals actually are, but still harbored negative feelings toward them, supports a notion that clean-beauty warriors have incepted our minds on at least some level. “Paraben-free” has become a signal for consumers to believe that the product in front of them is well-formulated and safer than the alternatives containing the ingredient. But ask most cosmetic chemists about parabens, and you’ll likely elicit an eye-roll: There is no research proving that parabens, which are a class of preservatives, can cause harm beyond an allergic reaction.
“Because consumers just believe that parabens are bad, we’re forced to take those things out,” says Kevin Phifer, a cosmetic research scientist with nearly 40 years of experience.
The ubiquitous fear of parabens has led consumers and chemists alike down a very long and complicated journey with no real benefit. For example, two of the most common paraben alternatives—methylisothiazolinone and methylchloroisothiazolinone—aren’t gentle. (Every person I spoke to for this piece, who are experts in various industries, used different abbreviations for these ingredients—I’ll use MIT and CMIT, respectively.)
“They’re a nasty group of materials. They’re strong irritants to the skin and can probably harm tissue,” says Phifer. “Parabens are relatively safe. In the lab, we handle parabens with our hands” but MIT, for example, must be handled with gloves, he adds.
On the other end of the spectrum, some brands are under-preserving products, resulting in moldy concealers and rancid powders. And somewhere in the middle, brands are upping the cost of products to make up for using pricier preservatives that don’t rhyme with shmaraben. Skin-care experts would love to see a world where “paraben” isn’t a bad word, and where ingredient fearmongering is less rampant.
The vilification of parabens
In 1998, research conducted in petri dishes and on rats (read: not on humans) found that some parabens may “weakly” mimic hormones in the body, and study authors called for more research to assess potential harms. Then, in early 2004, researchers examined the tumors of 20 women with breast cancer and found that most of the tumors contained parabens. The study was quickly discredited for having such a small sample size and lacking a control group of breast-cancer-free women, but its initial correlation still spread like wildfire.
“The study didn’t conclude that parabens caused the tumors or that the parabens caused harm,” says Phifer. It just noted that the parabens were there. “In science, we’re engaged in this field of discovering, and we’re constantly observing things and hypothesizing about them,” he adds. “But the fact that you’re talking about humans and possible risks to health puts people up in arms.”
This information made its way to the public and sent people into a tizzy. Google Trends data show that searches for “paraben-free” saw a major peak in October 2004 and have been on a steady rise ever since. The fear went deeper when the European Union (EU) introduced paraben bans in 2014. (It’s worth noting that there are 21 types of parabens, and the five types of parabens that were banned are not commonly used in cosmetics made in the U.S.)
In the nearly two decades since that initial breast cancer study, the research that has linked parabens to hormone disruption and cancer formation has been observed on cells in a laboratory setting, not people, explains Robert W. Carlson, MD, a board-certified oncologist and CEO of the National Comprehensive Cancer Network: “In humans, it is less clear what the risk of parabens is relating to disruption of fertility or the development of estrogen-sensitive cancers like breast cancer,” he says. “From what we do know, if there is a risk to humans, it appears to be low, considering the amounts of parabens humans are typically exposed to. More research is needed to better understand the actual level of risk in humans.”
“Parabens are completely fine and safe to use. In fact, they’re really great preservatives. The reason we moved away from them was because of consumer perception.” —Desiree Stordahl
A 2019 review examined over 150 studies about parabens and their potential harms concluded that “no human studies have confirmed significant or even suggestive biological effects [of parabens] regarding hormone disruption, breast cancer, or skin cancer.” The American Cancer Society backs up this finding: “There is no current epidemiological evidence that parabens increase breast cancer risk,” reads its website.
Furthermore, chemists have found ways to avoid the absorption of parabens into the skin. “What we’ve tried to do is start using the larger paraben molecules,” says Phifer. “Parabens that are really small that might be easier to penetrate the skin, we would stay away from and then gravitate towards the larger ones.” But, many brands won’t even try that because they know the consumer is so resistant to parabens.
“The word ‘paraben’ has become so deeply ingrained in people’s minds as linked with breast cancer, that I’m still seeing pretty much every brand that comes through my door very proudly paraben-free,” says Merrady Wickes, brand director at beauty accelerator Crème Collective. “Oftentimes they’re not even putting ‘paraben-free’ on the label because it’s implied—customers just are not having it.”
“There is no current epidemiological evidence that parabens increase breast cancer risk.”—The American Cancer Society
Paula’s Choice Skincare, for example, has stopped using parabens in its products, but still classifies the ingredients as “good” on its ingredient glossary. “Parabens are completely fine and safe to use,” says Desiree Stordahl, director of applied research & education. “In fact, they’re really great preservatives. The reason we moved away from them was because of consumer perception—people didn’t want them. So we [figured] if we want people to use our products, we kind of have to eliminate them.”
For Marisa Garshick, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City, paraben concern comes up in reference to skin allergies. The last thing she wants is for patients to use a product that could irritate them. And in a world where people are overusing products and sensitizing their skin, avoiding potential allergens is top of mind for many patients. “For those with sensitive skin, some of these preservatives are harsher than others,” she says.
Breaking down paraben alternatives
Once parabens became a major no-no in the court of popular opinion, brands pivoted to other preservatives. Some went to ingredients like benzoic acid and sorbic acid, which are considered “natural” because they can be derived organically (though most are synthetically produced). They do their job well, but to be effective, they must be used in high concentrations and combined with other preservatives, which makes them more expensive to formulate with, resulting in pricey products.
Other brands (including Paula’s Choice) shifted to using phenoxyethanol, another effective synthetic preservative. Although proven safe, it also carries concerns, with research linking it to negative nervous system effects in infants who ingest it and cancer in rats after prolonged exposure to high doses. However, many studies show that it is not a primary skin irritant, and EU cosmetic regulators have deemed it safe for use in concentrations of less than 1 percent
MIT and CMIT have emerged as favorites (use started to rise in the early 2010s) because they’re extremely effective preservatives against all types of microbes, including yeast and bacteria. So effective, in fact, that they can be used in low concentrations, making them a cost-effective option. But they’re also major irritants, and you’re more likely to be allergic to them than you are to parabens and other preservatives. (All preservatives present a risk of allergic contact dermatitis, which can show as an itchy rash, leathery hyperpigmentation, cracked and scaly skin, bumps and blisters, and swelling, burning, or tenderness.) Between 2013 and 2014, MIT and CMIT allergies peaked in Europe. And MIT was named the Contact Allergen of the Year in 2013 by the American Contact Dermatitis Society.
Paraben allergenicity ranges from 0.5 to 3.7 percent while that of methylisothiazolinone was reported at 13.4 percent, according to 2019 data from the North American Contact Dermatitis Group. “This can be hard to interpret because if parabens are removed from products, there’s less sensitization and exposure,” says Dr. Garshick. So as MIT and CMIT become more and more common in skin care, more and more people are developing (or simply becoming aware of) allergies to them.
“If you’re using [a paraben alternative] that’s too strong and too irritating on the skin and you actually irritate the skin barrier, then all of a sudden you’re creating a susceptibility that weakens the skin barrier.” —Marisa Garshick, MD
“The way to find out if you have an allergy is often through patch testing,” says Dr. Garshick. It’s how Thom Watson, who’s spent years working in the beauty industry and is now a marketing director for skin-care marketplace Humanery, learned about his MIT and CMIT allergy. An array of allergens were placed on his back and left for a week and two spots got pretty gnarly. “I go in for the check-in and the dermatologist says, ‘Yes, you are allergic to two very prolific preservatives, methylisothiazolinone and methylchloroisothiazolinone,'” says Watson. Intense itchiness turned into raw, painful welts. “It turns out I’m very, very allergic.”
Although preservatives are meant to only kill microbes growing in and on products, Phifer notes that “they don’t discriminate,” so there is a chance that in addition to causing irritation, they can mess with your skin’s microbiome and barrier. “If you’re using something that’s too strong and too irritating on the skin and you actually irritate the skin barrier, then all of a sudden you’re creating a susceptibility that weakens the skin barrier. That creates the entry for organisms and other things that could become problematic,” says Dr. Garshick.
On the flip side, some brands are under-preserving in an attempt to steer clear of preservatives in general, which results in extremely short shelf lives. For example, Wickes recently used a pressed powder that had a three-month expiration date. “I don’t know anyone who uses an entire press powder in three months,” she says. “Mine went rancid.”
When products don’t have a strong enough preservative system, they can grow mold, yeasts, and bacteria that are more than just gross to look at. “That’s where you can run into infections,” says Dr. Garshick. “You can also run into issues like breakouts and pimples, but really, the greatest risk is infection. We know our skin barrier does a really good job of protecting our skin from external irritants and organisms, but if you’re slathering something on your face all day, every day that has bacteria and other stuff in it, that can cause a greater risk.”
Just because an ingredient is natural doesn’t mean it’s good, and just because an ingredient is synthetic doesn’t mean it’s bad. But heedlessly going “paraben-free” is one of the last remaining tenets of the coconut oil-makeup, wash-your-face-with-honey, avoid-retinol-like-the-plague era of skin care. Wickes thinks that’s because there’s no visual benefit to reintroducing parabens.
“Customers are willing to take a risk if it means a result,” says Wickes. “Like, ‘mmm, I’ll just do a little hydroquinone’ or ‘I know that neon pigment isn’t safe for my eyes, but I like how it looks. I’m gonna use it anyway.’ There isn’t a visual appeal for a customer to use a paraben, and so they just demand that their products last forever without them and I don’t think they really care what’s on the other end of it.”
Ultimately, it seems the ingredient-fearmongering surrounding parabens created a host of “solutions” to a problem that didn’t exist. The only proven risk of parabens comes down to skin allergies. But say you’re allergic to lavender—you’re not going to lead a campaign to globally ban lavender—you’ll simply avoid it. The same can be done for parabens. “At the end of the day, no ingredient is perfect,” says Dr. Garshick. “We have to recognize that everything is going to have a trade-off and there’s going to be a risk and a benefit.”