What are Parabens & are Parabens in Makeup Safe?
Spoiler alert: The heroes saving the life of your product might moonlight as your skin’s arch nemesis. That’s right, the preservatives—known as “parabens”—designed to prevent yucky bacteria, mold, yeast, and fungi from finding their way into your cosmetic products could actually be irritating your skin and doing more harm than good. Worse yet, they have the potential to disrupt your reproductive system and may even be linked to cancer—yikes!
Nobody knows the importance of anti-pollution skincare more than Colorescience, so today we’re here to answer all your questions about parabens and educate you on these less-than-stellar preservatives that rank high on our naughty list of ingredients. What are parabens? Are they safe? What are the paraben dangers in skincare? Click on a link below to learn more—your skin will thank you later!
What are parabens?
Parabens are a group of commonly used ingredients that act as preservatives within personal care products and cosmetics. Why? Because any product containing water has the potential to be spoiled by the growth of bacteria and fungi. When these microorganisms make themselves at home in our favorite sunscreens, shampoos, or foundations, they can lead to nasty problems like mold, discoloration, malodor, and a degradation of the product altogether. If you’ve opened an outdated shower gel only to find a fungus formed around the rim of the lid, or maybe noticed a year-old mascara start to develop a bit of a funky smell, then you know what we’re talking about (and it's time to replace that mascara!).
Ironically, parabens prevent the growth of these microorganisms and enhance the shelf life of personal care products across a huge spread of cosmetic categories, thereby making them safer for consumers and their families to use. However, parabens present their own associated risks, which indicate that these preservatives come with more than one negative trade-off. Your face wash, hand cream, body lotion, sunscreen, toothpaste, makeup, etc. might last longer if they were to include parabens, but you’d be using a product that exposes hazards to your personal and environmental health.
Where are parabens found?
Parabens are derived from para-hydroxybenzoic acid (PHBA). PHBA occurs naturally in many fruits and vegetables, such as:
We sometimes get roped into believing that anything that comes from the earth is A-Okay to use on our bodies, but that’s nowhere near true. You wouldn’t eat just any berry you find in the woods, right?
The same concerns over toxicity apply to parabens: although parabens used in cosmetics are identical to the PHBA found in nature, it doesn’t mean that parabens are safe to use in the cosmetics applied to our skin.
It doesn’t stop at just cosmetics, though; these preservatives are also used to enhance the shelf life of various food and drugs, so paraben dangers are also present when eaten or consumed as medicine. Common foods that contain parabens include:
Jams and sauces
Frozen dairy products
Beer and soft drinks
Today’s world is increasingly aware of what we eat, so it’s not surprising that we’ve become equally concerned with what skincare ingredients we apply to our skin, too—and with good reason! Harsh, toxic chemicals can penetrate the skin and enter our blood stream, where they may then unleash a number of consequences to our skin and overall health at large.
Colorescience believes in making cosmetics that are good for your skin, your health, and your environment. That’s why we offer our line of paraben-free sunscreen and makeup—allowing you to look good without feeling bad—but it’s important to know how to avoid paraben dangers that you could face across all of your cosmetic products.
What are parabens in cosmetics?
Manufacturers include parabens for anti-microbial agents to extend the lifespan of wide array of personal care products—including everything from your favorite shaving products to moisturizers, top-shelf serums to hair care—but don’t expect these products to contain a large, red warning label slapped across their side. You’ll need to be more diligent than that in order to avoid the paraben dangers in skincare.
(Note: Parabens have been mostly removed from deodorant products, so you can be a little less careful when shopping in that aisle—but always watch out for aluminum!)
If you’re not sure whether or not the product that you’re eyeing contains these preservatives, read the ingredient label to see whether it lists one or more common parabens in cosmetics. We listed the most-used ones in bold so you can learn how to spot them quickly and move onto the next product.
List of Parabens:
Usually, a product ingredient label will list more than one paraben contained in its formula (which are pretty easy to identify based on the name). Learning how to read ingredient labels is important in order to become a well-educated consumer—one who can avoid paraben dangers found up and down the cosmetics aisles in most major drug stores.
What are paraben dangers?
Now that you know what parabens are and how they’re used in cosmetics, we can look at the reasons why paraben’s aren’t safe—and how these lifesaving preservatives might actually be complexion-killers.
True, brands have included parabens in their ingredient formulas since the 1950s to prevent the growth of bacteria within their products. However, recent science suggests that parabens present a number of health controversies and side effects that may do more harm than good.
Paraben side effects
Our skin can absorb the products that we apply to it, meaning ingredients found within these products have the potential to make their way into our blood stream.
One of the major concerns about parabens is that they not only penetrate the skin, enter our blood stream, and remain in our tissue, but once they’ve made their way into our bodies, these chemicals mimic the effects of estrogen.
Estrogen is a sex hormone that affects a huge number of bodily functions—especially in women but also in men. The list of potential paraben side effects stemming from these chemicals’ estrogenic action and related properties include, but are not limited to:
Affecting one’s complexion by causing inflammation, promoting premature aging, and triggering allergies
Altering reproductive health by impairing sexual behavior, interfering with sexual brain development, and leading to fertility issues
Disrupting the endocrine system and presenting problems such as early puberty, which may lead to more issues down the road
Increasing the risk of potential breast, endometrial, uterine, ovarian, and skin cancers
Presenting safety concerns to the ecosystem with paraben levels present in animals and environmental samples
We’ll take a deeper look at each of these side effects of parabens in the sections below.
Parabens and complexion
Have you ever purchased a skincare product that’s advertised to solve your complexion woes, but no matter how diligently you perform your day- and night-time skincare routine, the problem just won’t seem to go away? Yeah, us too. We know how frustrating it can be.
Sometimes, the reason that stubborn skin stickups won’t go away is because the ingredients contained within your acne-fighting or wrinkle-erasing products actually make your pesky problems worse, not better—and the same applies in the presence of parabens, especially for oily skin types.
Parabens and acne
Ever heard of a hormonal breakout? For some, those are distant memories of puberty’s past, but for others, hormonal breakouts are very real problems that last far beyond coming of age, well past pregnancies, and far into adulthood.
Hormonal breakouts are no fun; the blemishes usually appear along the jawline, but they’re embedded deep within the layers of the skin—meaning bacteria is difficult to get to and even harder to blast away. Couple that with your body’s natural spike in hormones when stressed out or around that time of the month, and you might be looking at one difficult fight, indeed.
If you struggle from hormonal acne, you’re probably aware of the role estrogen plays on the complexion of the skin. If too much of is it present in the blood stream, your body will try to balance itself out, sending the estrogen to the androgen receptors in your skin cells that are waiting on standby to capture these hormones and excrete them through your body’s outer barrier. Translation? Massive inflammation, breakouts, and flare ups. If you use acne products that are rich in parabens (which mimics estrogen in the blood), you could be setting yourself up for failure in your fight against acne.
Parabens and aging
Let’s be real, we’re all secretly after the fountain of youth (and if you aren’t on the hunt yet, trust us, you will be!). So whether you’re looking to prevent the signs of aging in the first place or in search of beauty products that can help roll back the clock a bit, hear this message loud and clear: in one study, parabens were found to promote skin aging, AKA the development of fine lines and wrinkles.
Basically, methylparabens (MP, one of the most common parabens in cosmetics) decreased the proliferating ability of keratinocytes. Keratinocytes are the skin cells responsible in the epidermis for producing keratin, the extremely strong protein that’s known for giving skin its strength. Together, keratin, collagen, and elastin prevent your skin from sagging, losing its stretchiness, and developing wrinkles.
Although your keratin production decreases naturally with age, you’re not doing yourself any favors by applying parabens that make it more difficult for keratinocytes to regrow. Double check your ingredient label next time you’re shopping for anti-aging products to make sure it’s free of parabens!
Parabens and skin sensitivities
If you have sensitive skin, you should be especially careful to know what parabens are and how to avoid them. These preservative ingredients are incredibly strong and are likely to trigger a reaction in your delicate complexion, particularly if you do not use specially made, sensitive skin makeup products. Many people have reported allergies to methylparaben, displayed as contact dermatitis such as:
Blisters and bumps
Dry, scaly, or flaking kin
Burning, stinging, swelling, or tenderness
Sensitivities to parabens can also worsen existing rosacea symptoms. If you’ve added a new product to your skincare routine and are experiencing any of the above reactions, check the label to see if MP or another paraben might be the culprit.
Parabens and reproductive health
Estrogen is a sex hormone, so it makes sense that the estrogenic action of parabens can play a role in our reproductive health. For example, one study showed that the presence of butylparaben impaired sexual behavior in female subjects.
The same study revealed that sexual brain development may be more sensitive to the effects of butylparaben. As a result, families with small children should be extra cautious to avoid paraben dangers in skincare and food.
Ladies, if you think that men are immune to parabens’ effect on reproductive health, think again: experiments have shown that parabens may lead to infertility in males. Parabens adversely affected the vitality of sperms both iv-vitro (outside of the body) and in Vivo (inside of the body). That means your entire household should be stocked with safe, paraben-free products—not just your own personal beauty cabinet!
Parabens and endocrine system
By mimicking estrogen, parabens disrupt hormone functioning within the endocrine system. The endocrine system is responsible for an impressive amount of bodily functions such as reproduction, waste eliminations, digestion, and metabolism; science is only beginning to scratch the surface of the ways in which parabens might display endocrine-disrupting effects.
For example, one study conducted at the University of Berkley concludes that paraben chemicals in personal care products were linked to earlier puberty in girls. The study goes onto explain that this is problematic because earlier puberty increases girls’ risk of mental health problems and risk-taking behaviors as teenagers, but also increases their risk of breast and ovarian cancer in the long term.
Even if you don’t have an adolescent daughter whom you need to protect from the dangers of parabens, pregnant mothers should be advised that human exposure to these chemicals in the womb may disrupt endocrine development before birth.
Parabens and cancer
Estrogen (and synthetic chemicals that act like estrogen such as parabens) play a big part in stimulating the division of breast cells, as well as affecting other hormones that stimulate breast cell division. Your body has a pretty rough time at breaking down synthetic estrogen, causing it to accumulate in fat cells—most notably in breast tissue. High exposure to estrogen and its synthetic counterparts can increase risk of breast cancer, so it’s understandable why researchers found large concentrations of parabens in human breast tumors.
Manipulated estrogen levels not only increase the risk of breast cancer, but parabens’ estrogenic activity may also increase the likelihood endometrial and uterine cancer as well as fertility issues.
A number of toxicology studies have found other cancer risks and related side effects of parabens. For example, one experiment tested to see whether skin treated with methylparaben showed adverse reaction when exposed to sunlight. At low UV exposure, the difference was negligible, but at increased levels of sun exposure, skin displayed faster cell death and nitric oxide production.
Their findings indicate that products with methylparaben may cause skin damage when exposed to the sun, which could increase risk of skin cancer, DNA damage, and premature photoaging. If you apply sunscreen containing parabens before heading outside, you might be making yourself more vulnerable to the sun as opposed to protecting yourself from it, so consider choosing paraben-free and chemical free sun protection as superior options.
Parabens and the environment
The trouble doesn’t stop there, though. Similar to oxybenzone, these preservative ingredients are now being found within the bodies of animals such as fish, black bears, and birds, including the endangered bald eagle and albatross. These findings indicate that parabens are not only unsafe for humans, but they may also present safety concerns for the environment at large. We can theorize about the effect of parabens present within the human species, but it’s uncertain what negative side effects these chemicals might have on the metabolism, reproductive health, or genetic expression of our animal counterparts.
There’s also been paraben levels detected in wastewater, swimming pools, rivers, soil, and house dust. Why? Because products that contain toxic chemicals and are applied to the skin have the potential to be washed away within our sewage system and released into the environment—whether it’s washed down the shower drain or flushed away within our urine—thereby threatening our ecosystem in a number of ways. If you don’t believe us, just read up about coral reef safe* sunscreen and how only one drop of oxybenzone in an Olympic-sized pool is enough to kill a species that’s been around for thousands of years. Seriously! So next time, consider using specially made reef safe* sunscreen when you head to the beach.
If that sounds shocking, we don’t blame you for being surprised. Most big-name manufacturers in the cosmetic industry don’t exactly broadcast the dangerous side effects of their cheap, mass market ingredients. But it’s up to you, as a responsible consumer, to read all about anti-pollution skincare and how you can do your part simply by making informed, eco-conscious shopping decisions. By browsing our line of safe Colorescience cosmetics, you don’t have to worry about reading labels all day long; you can rest assured knowing that our products are both good for the environment and great for your complexion.
The FDA does not regulate the use of preservatives in cosmetics, meaning they have no special rules on paraben ingredients or the amount of parabens that can be used within a specific product formula. It’s up to you to seek out product information to avoid paraben dangers within your cosmetics. When shopping for parabens-free products, remember that just because something is labeled as “organic” does not necessarily mean that it’s devoid of parabens, so don’t get tricked into buying a seemingly-trustworthy label.
Of course it’s possible to find paraben-free cosmetics without all the hassle! Sunscreen and makeup from Colorescience is all paraben-free, so you’ll never need to spend time trying to decipher ingredients on product labels. Our safe sunscreen comes as a tinted powder or liquid, so you can effortlessly reapply your 2-in-1 foundation and sun protection throughout the day.
Best of all, our hypoallergenic sunscreen is safe for all skin types—no matter how dry, oily, or sensitive you may be—allowing you to protect your delicate skin without causing it further irritation. Preserve the integrity of your skin while also perfecting it? Yes, please!
Other unsafe ingredients to avoid in cosmetic products
Are parabens safe? Although the FDA nor the American Cancer Society have not released and official statement warning against paraben dangers, an increasing amount of scientific evidence suggests that consumers should stay away from parabens in skincare cosmetics and personal products, which is why we highly recommend safe to use makeup with skin-friendly ingredients.
But don’t stop there! Educate yourself on all the hazardous ingredients and toxic chemicals manufacturers sneak into their formulas so you can learn how (and why!) you should avoid them like the plague. Other big no-no’s on your ingredient list should include:
Oxybenzone — This ingredient is common in chemical sunscreens, but despite its protective qualities, it’s been shown to penetrate the skin, cause photo-sensitivity, and increase harmful free radicals. These free radical agents are devastating to marine wildlife, so much so in fact that Hawaii has passed legislation to ban its use altogether. Colorescience sunscreen is all-natural and non-toxic, so you can worry more about protecting your complexion and less about your environmental impact.
Artificial dyes and fragrances — We believe in keeping things au natural, which is why we exclude artificial dyes and synthetic fragrances from our cosmetic lines. These ingredients can dry out your skin and wreak havoc on delicate complexions, so we offer chemical-free cosmetics instead.
Talc — Did you know that talc is the main ingredient in baby powder used to dry skin and prevent diaper rash? It’s also usually listed as the first ingredient in most mineral formulas, but we don’t understand why you’d want to wear a powder on your face that dries out your skin. That’s why Colorescience mineral makeup is always talc-free, allowing your skin to stay beautifully hydrated even with all-day wear.
With the Colorescience cosmetic collection, boycotting parabens and other harsh chemicals has never been easier! Shop with confidence knowing that 100% of Colorescience formulas are free of not only parabens, but also phthalates, synthetic fragrances, talcs, dyes, drying alcohols, and chemical sunscreens. We’re on a mission to help you beautify your complexion—minus all that yucky stuff!*Reef safe as defined by Hawaii’s legislation related to the ban of SPF sunscreen products that contain oxybenzone or octinoxate.