Parabens, Blueberries & Skincare: 8 Facts That May Surprise You

Parabens hit the cultural mainstage in 2004, when a study found trace amounts in breast tissue from breast cancer patients. Since then “Paraben -free” has become a popular selling point for new cosmetic products, and “parabens” has become a hot topic on beauty blogs, where parabens are often debated, advised against, and purported as health threats that cause cancer and infertility. In spite of all this, parabens continue to be the most popular preservative for cosmetic products.

Are parabens actually dangerous, or is it all just heresy? We compiled a list 8 facts, courtesy of the dermatologists at Skin Therapy Letter. You be the judge.

1. Parabens have been used as a preservative for over 80 years, and they’re everywhere. Parabens have been used in cosmetic products since the 1930s. A 2011 study found them in 44% of cosmetics tested. They have been found in sunscreen, hand soap, body lotion, shampoo, conditioner, face lotion, facial cleansers, foundation, lipstick, mascara, hair spray/mousse/gel, and toothpaste.

In addition to human tissue, paraben levels have been detected in wastewater, rivers, soil and house dust.

2. Parabens can be naturally-occurring. Lotion and hand soap aren’t the only means by which parabens can find their way into the human body. Parabens used in cosmetics are usually created in labs, but they can also be produced by living organisms, such as blueberries, carrots, olives, and strawberries. Although it would be accurate, we don’t expect the phrase “Chock full of parabens!” to be used to advertise fruit salad any time soon.

3. Scientists have not been able to prove that parabens cause breast cancer.Although it has been hypothesized and reported that parabens cause breast cancer, scientists have not been able to establish any actual correlation between the two.

4. Scientists haven’t been able to establish a connection between parabens and male infertility, either. It’s been rumored that parabens cause infertility in men, but findings are inconclusive. While one study found that human sperm were not viable after being exposed to high concentrations of parabens, researchers have not been able to replicate the results using lab mice. Men with fertility problems including low sperm count and decreased motility have been studied, and no correlation between sperm count or motility and parabens levels has been found.

5. Being allergic to parabens is a thing. A small subset of the population is allergic to parabens. The allergy commonly manifests as an eczematous rash. If you suspect you may be allergic to parabens, consult a dermatologist or allergist.

6. Governments have examined parabens and deemed them safe. Government regulatory boards have examined parabens and most have agreed that current concentrations of parabens are safe for consumer use, although many have set limits on usage. The European Union limits total paraben concentration to 0.8%. Canada and the United States recommend the same limit but it is strictly a guideline, meaning manufacturers are not required to adhere to it –which means that some American and Canadian products have concentrations of parabens that the government would deem unsafe, and it’s totally legal.

7. Danish children under the age of 3 are not allowed to use products that contain parabens. Citing research that suggests that young bodies may be more susceptible to paraben absorption, in 2011, the Danish government banned the use of parabens-containing personal care products intended for children younger than 3 years of age.

8. Preservatives used as alternatives to parabens are also associated with major health risks. Alternatives to parabens, such as formaldehyde, quaternium-15, imidazolidinyl urea, diazolidinyl urea and dimethyloldimethyl hydantoin, can cause allergic reactions and pose serious health implications. Formaldehyde, for example, has been linked with cancer. “Natural” preservatives like grapefruit seed extract, thymol, cinnamaldehyde, allyl isothiocyanate, citric acid, ascorbic acid and rosemary extract, can also cause health complications.

Dermatologist Dr. Richard Thomas, Clinical Associate Professor of Clinical Dermatology, Department of Dermatology and Skin Science, University of British Columbia, advises, “Before throwing out parabens, which are likely very safe, be certain that the chemicals replacing them are better.”