What are parabens and are they dangerous?

Chances are you’ve heard of parabens – this little word has been the cause of debates, arguments and panic all around the world. Opinions are often based on hearsay, which means a lot of what’s said isn’t necessarily fact. Nothing is as frightening as the unknown, so we’re here to clarify and explain a few common questions. That way, you can make up your own mind.

What exactly are parabens?
Parabens are a type of preservative used in most beauty (and some food) products, and have been a popular ingredient in cosmetics for over twenty years. Though many are made up of a similar structure, there are slight differences between them, making some more efficient than others. Different types are also used in different kinds of products, as some aren’t water or oil-compatible.

Why are they used?
Parabens are included in cosmetic formulas in very small amounts to prevent dangerous bacteria from growing in the products. Without preservatives, bacteria known as microbes develop and grow, and have proven to be disease-forming, and in some cases, even fatal. Including a paraben (or two) is a way of preventing dangerous germs, bacteria, mould and yeast from forming in your beauty stash.

Why do people think they’re dangerous?
The fears surrounding parabens started in 2004 when a doctor from the University of Reading ran tests on twenty breast tumours, and found that each of them contained parabens. Dr Philippa Darbre who conducted the study, as well as other doctors or professors, haven’t been able to explain why they were there or where they came from. They couldn’t determine whether normal, healthy tissue contained parabens either, and as a result it was commonly believed that the parabens were connected to the cancer.

Are they dangerous?
As yet, no one has been able to prove or disprove whether parabens are harmful. Scientists are unable to find conclusive proof that they’re dangerous or cancer-causing, but they are also unable to prove that they’re not.
So what should you believe? The scientists at The Beauty Brains say, “Preservative alarmists may have a point and the industry is constantly on the lookout for new, effective ingredients. They just haven’t found any. But the risk posed from these ingredients is so small that it’s not worth worrying about.”
They also added, “No matter how bad parabens are, microbes are worse.” On the contrary, many environmental activists believe that because our skins are porous, it absorbs parabens and chemicals, and that we put our health at risk by allowing unnatural and so-called ‘dangerous’ ingredients to enter our bodies. Many natural cosmetic products contain natural preservatives like grapefruit seed extract and sorbic acid, but this has sparked even more debates. Most scientists believe that they are inferior, while environmentalists argue that they’re as effective as any chemical paraben.

So what do we think?
It’s a tricky one rubies, but to be perfectly honest, parabens aren’t causing us sleepless nights – yet. Because there isn’t any evidence showing that they form cancerous cells, and cosmetics contain such minuscule amounts, we don’t feel that they pose a risk. We do, however, love natural and organic products (free of parabens) too, and think it’s amazing that scientists are finding new, natural ways of preserving cosmetics. So the bottom line, is that it’s up to you to decide for yourself.

If you’re keen to try paraben-free beauty, choose from a selection of greenies like Africology, Esse and Yves Rocher.