What are Parabens? The Good, the Bad & the Ugly About This Controversial Ingredient

Elizabeth Marglin

by | Read time: 5 minutes

You might have been hearing a lot about parabens lately, a group of chemicals widely used as artificial preservatives in cosmetics, personal care and household products since the 1920s. Because they are broadly antimicrobial, cheap and rarely prompt an allergic response, they became the preservatives of choice. While the job parabens perform is essential, the concern with these chemicals is that they can disrupt hormones in the body, harm fertility and reproductive organs, affect birth outcomes, increase the risk of cancer, and irritate the skin.

Woman in Yellow Dress Wondering What are Parabens While Shopping for Products in Market

For a bit of context, the U.S. lags in cosmetics regulations. More than 80 countries have enacted rules regarding the safety of cosmetics and personal care products. Some of these nations have restricted or completely banned more than 1,600 chemicals from cosmetic products, whereas the U.S. has only nine banned or restricted chemicals (and parabens are not included in that list).

But there is reform a‘coming. At the end of 2022, President Biden signed into law the Omnibus Spending bill, which included the Modernization of Cosmetics Regulation Act of 2022 (MOCRA), the first time federal cosmetics law has been updated in over 80 years. Several states, such as California and Maryland, have enacted laws that will go into effect in January 2025, banning additional chemicals (including two types of parabens) based on the growing observational evidence against them.

Additionally, major retailers in the U.S. have planned or already have in place active bans or restrictions. Leading the way, in 2008 Whole Foods Market banned all four parabens as part of its premium body care standard. Just over a decade later, in 2019 CVS removed parabens in CVS store brand products. The Target Clean label, introduced in 2020, denoted that beauty, personal care and baby products with that label would be free of parabens as well several other chemicals.

The parabens paradox

In the midst of this paraben purge, several articles have pointed out that the science behind paraben-free dictate might be shaky. The points that gird this argument are twofold: The major study that linked parabens to cancer was considered problematic and the substitutes used in countless “paraben-free” products can have major, albeit at this point unknown, side effects.

Apropos the first point, according to a 2019 “Parabens Toxicology” review, no study of parabens has definitively concluded that they contribute to hormone disruption, breast cancer or skin cancer in humans. Researchers who claim that paraben concerns are overexaggerated believe that the data is controversial and conclusions regarding the dangers of parabens are premature.

Secondly, the idea that getting rid of one known toxin for a riskier unknown is a principal tenet of greenwashing. Swap out a demonized toxin for a lesson known one and voila, call it clean beauty. It’s also the case that because alternatives to parabens may be less efficacious, and mold can grow and contaminate products without sufficient preservatives.

An article published in 2022 in the Washington Post, “Shaky science led to a rush of ‘paraben-free’ beauty products,” mentions that “on the FDA’s ‘Cosmetics Recalls and Alerts’ page, several ‘clean’ companies have voluntarily recalled products in the past two years because of the presence of mold, yeast and bacteria.” The article points out that the new, paraben-free formulations are potentially more harmful than their counterparts, because the preservatives used in place of the parabens are less studied and potentially more likely to cause an allergic response or allow product contamination.

Parabens do cut down risk of contamination—that is the goodness of parabens. The bad is that the cure can be worse than the disease, meaning the paraben alternates may do more harm than parabens. This was the case with BPA, bisphenol A, an industrial chemical used to make certain plastics. According to Environmental Health News, “a near-ubiquitous ingredient in plastic products, BPA is increasingly replaced by cousin chemicals—such as Bisphenol F (BPF) or BPS—due to mounting health concerns. However, scientists are now uncovering that these replacement chemicals may be as harmful as BPA.”

The ugly is that both sides can be cherry-picking information to make the case for or against parabens. Because the data is inconclusive, it may be best, like so many things when it comes to health, to err on the side of caution. As a rule of thumb, researchers say that people should choose products that don’t increase overall exposure to toxins when and where they can. This is particularly important when the body is undergoing crucial cellular and hormonal changes, like during pregnancy, early childhood and puberty.

This doesn’t mean overhauling your entire routine overnight. In fact, many researchers who study environmental toxins admit that they still use a few favorite products with dubious ingredients. Most think of the shift to safer household and personal care products as a slow, lifelong process, akin to eating healthier food: Reevaluating what you put on, or in, your body from time to time and slowly updating your choices with better options when you are restocking.

How to phase out parabens

To avoid parabens in future purchases, try consulting a database geared to evaluating the safety of personal care products. The Environmental Working Group and Think Dirty can let you look up a product to find ingredients of concern. They also provide a score based on the number of hazards linked to various chemicals.

Third party certifications can also be a good indication of a products’ toxicity. Sephora, Target, CVS, Walgreens and Rite Aid all have their own safety standards. Third-party certifications and seals of approval such as E.W.G. Verified, help consumers vet better alternatives amid aisles full of competing products. U.S.D.A. Organic, for example, denotes products made with organic ingredients, while “COSMOS Natural” products reflect not only ingredients but also manufacturing processes and eco-friendly packaging.

Featured Products

Mrs. Meyer's Clean Day Dryer Sheets
The Unscented Company Shampoo Bar Fragrance Free
Humble Brands Vegan & Sensitive Skin Deodorant Unscented