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What are Parabens and are they safe?

September 29, 2021

Jose Iturrieta

There seems to be a lot of confusion for people around parabens. Many people perceive them to be bad or harmful without understanding how they are used and the benefits they can sometimes offer. We will cover what parabens are, a brief history and an explanation of misinformation. We’ll also look to see if they really are safe, what standards need to be met and what chemists and other professionals think. By allowing yourself to truly understand parabens in hair care, you can offer better-suited products to your clients, without completely eliminating paraben products.

What are Parabens? 

Let start by saying that parabens were first used in the 1920s.  They can be found naturally or be man-made.

They are a preservative used in a formula to help prevent the growth of bacteria, fungi, and mould inside the packaging, which helps to prolong the shelf life of the products.  This also protects the end-user, as we are not using a contaminated product on our hair, which could cause harm to us.

May I point out that parabens are not only used in personal care, but they are also preservatives used in the food, beverage, and pharmaceutical industry?

Why the bad press?

Way back in 2004 the University of Reading, UK was conducting research into parabens.  The scientist took a biopsy of a breast tumour and found that there were parabens inside the tissue.  This became their theory to state that parabens can increase the risk of breast cancer.  This study has been widely criticised by their peers which pointed out that the researchers did not carry out tests on healthy breast tissues to determine if there were parabens present.  Also, questions were asked about the use of cleaning products used on the equipment to carry out the test.  Were the cleaning products paraben-free? This was just one of the many questions that have been asked. Without a proper controlled test environment and control, you can’t accurately record fair data and get reliable results.

Unfortunately, all the negative publicity that parabens receive stems from studies like this. Also, be mindful that not all parabens are the same, due to sharing the same name, they are all put into the same basket. People often hear bad things about Sulphates in haircare too and are quick to judge.

Are parabens safe in my products?

Yes, they are one of the most studied ingredients in the cosmetic industry.  Independent experts in Europe and the USA have conducted safety assessments on the different types of parabens to confirm their safety.

The European Union suggest a maximum total concentration allowed in consumer products is 8 grams of parabens per kilogram of the cosmetic product. Also, with no single paraben having a higher concentration than 4 grams per 1 kilogram.

The ASEAN Cosmetic Committee (ACC) Statement on Parabens had this to say; parabens are, non-irritating and non-sensitizing to individuals with normal skin. However, they can cause contact dermatitis in individuals who are sensitive to parabens, which comprise a small percentage of the general population.

There have been reports on the use of underarm cosmetics containing parabens and possible links to breast cancer. The European Commission’s Scientific Committee for Consumer Safety (SCCS) has issued an official statement confirming that there is no evidence of any risk of breast cancer caused using underarm cosmetics, including those that contain parabens.

ASEAN Regulatory Authorities and ASEAN Cosmetics Association (ACA) will continue to review and monitor closely any emerging safety data related to the use of parabens in cosmetic products and will take appropriate action when necessary, to protect the health and welfare of consumers.

Regulatory authorities from around the world have independently reviewed the chemical in cosmetics and found them to be safe.  Organisations such as Cancer Research UK, the NHS and the American Cancer Society all state that a link cannot be made between parabens and breast cancer.

How else are they used?

Parabens are being used for preservation in some foods, include beer, sauces, desserts, soft drinks, jams, pickles, frozen dairy products, processed vegetables, and flavouring syrups.  Blueberries are one of my favourite fruits that naturally contain them. However, the benefit of this delicious berry is something special.  Some medications also use them as their preservatives too.

With the information I have given you, you as a hairdresser can make an educated decision if a product that has parabens in its formula is the right product for you and your clients.  But it does not give us the right to shame products because the manufacturer decided to use parabens as their preferred preservative.

What are your favourite brands, what do they contain? Share your experiences with us in the comments below.


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