Parabens - Friend or Foe?
TV commercials, magazine adverts, beauty articles, they often talk about how the products they want us to buy are free from various bad things. As such, the words 'paraben', 'phenoxyethanol' and 'formaldehyde' are nothing new, but many people still don't really have much idea what they actually are, or why they might be so detrimental to our continuing efforts to look fabulous and stay healthy - nor can we pronounce most of them! So, Beauty Without The Beasts has turned detective and find out more. In the first article in our new ingredients series, our editor, Joanne, profiles pesky parabens.

Beating the bacteria

Parabens should be familiar to beauty lovers as they are the most widely-used preservatives in personal care products. 

Almost any product that contains water needs preservatives such as this to stop fungi, bacteria and other nasty bugs from growing, especially when most of the time we keep them in warm bedrooms or moist bathrooms, which are perfect breeding grounds. You'll find reference to parabens on the back of many of your favourite bottles and pots - often referred to in more scientific terms, including methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben and isobutylparaben. Yes, they help to keep products unaffected by potentially-harmful crawly things, but there is growing evidence that, while they might be lethal to bugs, they could also be having a detrimental effect on our health too.

Can chemicals protect and harm at the same time?

A cancer link?

Over recent years there has been increasing evidence to suggest a possible link between parabens and cancers, in particular breast cancer. The evidence is not overwhelming, but certainly gives food for thought as parabens, which scientists have found have a weak ability to mimic oestrogen, have been discovered in breast cancer tumours and there are even whispers that they may be to blame for declining sperm counts among men.

One of the most vocal researchers is Philippa Darbre from the University of Reading. A senior lecturer in oncology, she has been looking at the impact of oestrogen on breast cancer development. As long ago as 2004 her team published a study that detected parabens in 18 out of 20 samples of tissue from breast cancer biopsies.

While the study doesn't prove they cause breast cancer, it does give food for thought. Darbre said: "We've known for more than 25 years that oestrogen exposure is linked to breast cancer development and progression; it is the reason tamoxifen (commonly prescribed to women with breast cancer) is used to disrupt oestrogen receptors. So it is not such a leap to be concerned that repeated, cumulative, long-term exposure to chemicals that weakly mimic oestrogen might be having an impact."

Certainly, she is taking the risk seriously herself and is particularly concerned about lotions and deodorants being applied under the arms or near to the breast. This led her to stop using deodorants 10 years ago. This might seem a bizarre precaution, but her research found that in around 55% of breast cancer cases the tumours occurred in the upper portion of the breast, the area closest to the armpit.

And she is not alone in her concern. Another study in Holland detected parabens in the blood and urine of healthy young men a few hours after lotions containing parabens were applied to their skin. Despite no formal statement on the issue, the beauty industry has reacted and now there are many brands and thousands of products that are 'paraben-free'. This includes many of the cruelty-free brands on our Where To Shop list.

Deciphering the science  

When looking for products that do not contain parabens you need to keep an eye out for those long scientific names we mentioned earlier, particularly:

  • Methylparaben
  • Ethylparaben
  • Propylparaben
  • Butylparaben
  • Benzyl-parahydroxybenzoic acid
  • Methyl-parahydroxybenzoic acid
  • Ethyl-parahydroxybenzoic acid
  • Propyl-parahydroxybenzoic acid
  • Butylparahydroxybenzoic acid
  • Parahydroxybenzoic acid
  • Parahydroxybenzoate

Basically, if it's got 'para' in the name it's worth checking out.

Paraben-free products

Those companies who are addressing this issue are replacing parabens with ingredients such as grapefruit seed extract and Vitamin E as well as essential oils like cinnamon, eucalyptus, lavender, lemon and tea tree, which are distilled and turned into natural preservatives. In the cruelty-free beauty market, there are loads of paraben-free products, including those from Bath Potions,
Cioccolatina, Faith in Nature and The Little Bubble Company.

Green People also boasts 100% paraben-free ranges. The company was founded by Charlotte Vøhtz, whose daughter, Sandra, suffered badly from skin allergies to synthetic ingredients commonly found in skin and body care products. She vowed never to use any 'questionable' ingredients in the natural product range she went on to create.


The cruelty-free Green People range offers more than 170 paraben-free products

"Parabens have been brought into the spotlight several times by various scientific studies, so from the very start it was decided that Green People would offer paraben-free products. Over the years, the Green People range has grown and grown, and it now stands at over 170 paraben-free products."

The efforts of some of our favourite animal-friendly brands mean that, even if there is no official proof of the risks, there are alternatives if you want to err on the side of caution. 


To download a copy of this feature and others from our library, click here.

The information given in this feature (ie the cruelty-free status of the brands, product information and prices) is correct at the time of publication (June 2013). For an up-to-date list of cruelty-free brands and their contact details, please see our Where To Shop Guide.