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Are Parabens in Hair Products Something to Be Afraid Of?

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Table of Contents

Image of magnifying glass hovering over the word "parabens".

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The debate over the safety of parabens in hair products and cosmetic products is widespread, with varied opinions. In essence, parabens are synthetic preservatives with antimicrobial properties used across various products to prevent the undesirable growth of bacteria and fungi.1

These microorganisms can flourish in products without preservatives, leading to spoilage characterized by discoloration and foul odor.2,3 Parabens, which have been reliably preserving products for 80 years, are now facing increased scrutiny over potential health risks associated with long-term exposure.4,5

This article taps into the knowledge of a PhD-qualified expert in hair science and cosmetic formulation to clarify the debate surrounding the safety of parabens. We will delve into the critical issues concerning paraben safety, their use in hair care products, and the regulatory framework governing them in the EU and North America. Additionally, our expert will simplify the fundamental chemistry of parabens, enhancing your grasp of their role and their associated concerns.

What are Parbens?

Parabens, which are the esters derived from para-hydroxybenzoic acid, consist of a core acid compound attached to varying chemical groups – specifically, methyl, ethyl, propyl, or butyl groups.6 These variations in their chemical structure, which can be visualized in the provided graph, are what define the different types of parabens.

Among these, methylparaben and propylparaben are most frequently utilized in hair care products due to their effective combined antimicrobial properties, offering a more potent preservation effect when used together.

Role of Parabens in a Hair Care Formulation

In hair care formulations, parabens serve as a crucial line of defense, particularly against fungi and gram-positive bacteria, while their efficacy against gram-negative bacteria is comparatively less robust. These preservative molecules exert their protective action by disrupting the critical processes within the cells of these microorganisms.

They interfere with nutrient transport across the cell membranes and impair mitochondrial functions, which are vital for energy production in cells. Through this interference, parabens halt the growth and proliferation of these organisms, thereby preserving the stability and longevity of hair care products.1

Are Parabens Safe or Dangerous?

Parabens have been a cornerstone of product preservation in the cosmetic industry since the 1930s, esteemed for their safety and efficacy. They are utilized in hair care products within regulated concentration limits to ensure consumer safety. Despite their long-standing reputation, parabens have been scrutinized due to claims of potential carcinogenic effects, leading to a significant shift in both consumer preference and industry formulation practices.7

The controversy began in 1998 with a study that reported parabens’ weak estrogenic activity.8 This study suggested that parabens could interfere with estrogen’s natural activity in the human body and potentially induce cancer cell formation. In 2004, concerns heightened when researchers detected paraben traces in breast cancer tissues,9 leading to public outcry and increased pressure to restrict paraben use.

In response to safety concerns, Denmark enacted a precautionary ban in 2011 on using parabens in products intended for infants below three years of age. This action prompted a thorough reassessment of parabens by the European Commission’s Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety (SCCS).

The SCCS study determined that, apart from certain products used in the diaper area, parabens do not pose a safety risk for children of any age group. Building upon this, the FDA’s Cosmetics Ingredient Review (CIR) panel conducted its review and in 2011 confirmed the safety of parabens in cosmetics.10,11,12,13

Research on the safety and toxicity of parabens is ongoing, focusing on ensuring consumer safety. Critics have thoroughly evaluated the initial studies that sparked concerns, uncovering protocol limitations and leaving important questions unanswered.

Currently, there is no conclusive evidence linking parabens to cancer; they are considered potential risks, not definitive causes. Multiple toxicological assessments have consistently recognized parabens as safe for cosmetic preservatives. Therefore, based on the available data, there is no substantiated reason for alarm; parabens are deemed safe and are not considered a health hazard.

Should Parabens Be Avoided?

Under current regulations and dosages, parabens are considered safe for consumers. Nevertheless, researchers have been exploring alternative preservatives in response to consumer advocacy.14, 15

Some examples include:

  • Hexylene glycol
  • Sodium benzoate
  • Potassium sorbate
  • Benzyl alcohol
  • Clove oil
  • Lemongrass oil
  • Sodium anisate

Consumers should be aware that many alternatives to parabens are relatively new and need a more extensive history of use than parabens have in the personal care industry.

Parabens, on the other hand, have been used for decades, earning a reputation for both their effectiveness and safety.

While it’s true that consumers can opt for products without parabens, given the availability of alternatives, it’s important to weigh the long-standing trust in parabens against the newer options.

Current Regulatory Status

Globally, regulatory bodies permit using parabens as preservatives in hair care products, but with restrictions on the maximum allowable concentration in a formulation. The CIR and SCCS reports indicate that the total concentration of all parabens in a product must not exceed 0.8% level in a formulation

Globally, parabens are permitted as preservatives in hair care products, subject to restrictions on the maximum concentration allowed in a formulation. The CIR and SCCS reports,10,11,12,13 indicate that the total concentration of all parabens in a product must not exceed 0.8% level in a formulation.

  • Methyl Paraben – 0.4%
  • Ethyl Paraben – 0.4%
  • Propyl Paraben – 0.14%
  • Butyl Paraben – 0.14%

How Do You Recognize Parabens on the Label?

Identifying parabens on product labels is straightforward, thanks to the International Nomenclature for Cosmetic Ingredients (INCI), which widely employs their traditional names. These names are recognized globally and commonly utilized in labeling practices.

Look for terms such as:

  • Methyl paraben
  • Methyl paraben
  • Propyl paraben
  • Propylparaben

Summary

Parabens, known for their antimicrobial properties, are commonly used as preservatives in hair care products, among others, due to their effectiveness in product preservation and shelf-life extension. Despite their long-standing use, parabens have been the subject of controversy regarding their possible role in contributing to the development of cancer cells in humans.

However, this debate needs more definitive evidence, leaving the issue unresolved. Parabens are globally accepted and utilized in hair care, skin care, and pharmaceuticals. Regulatory bodies, including the CIR expert panel in the USA and the SCCS in the EU, have established maximum dosage limits for parabens and deemed them safe for cosmetic use under these guidelines.


References

  1. O’Lenick, A. J., Microorganisms and Cosmetics. Allured Business Media: 2009. ↩︎
  2. Davidson, P. M.; Sofos, J. N.; Branen, A. L., Antimicrobials in Food. CRC Press: 2005. ↩︎
  3. BRANNAN, D. K., Cosmetic preservation. Journal of Society of Cosmetic Chemists 1995,  (46), 199-220. ↩︎
  4. Wilkinson, J. B.; Moore, R. J., Harry’s Cosmetology. Chemical Publishing: 1982; Vol. 749. ↩︎
  5. Croshaw, B., Preservatives for cosmetics and toiletries. Journal of the Society of Cosmetic Chemists 1977, 28 (1), 3-16. ↩︎
  6. Steinberg, D. C., Preservatives for Cosmetics. Allured Books: 2012. ↩︎
  7. Kirchhof, M. G.; de Gannes, G. C., The health controversies of parabens. Skin Therapy Lett 2013, 18 (2), 5-7. ↩︎
  8. Routledge, E. J.; Parker, J.; Odum, J.; Ashby, J.; Sumpter, J. P., Some alkyl hydroxy benzoate preservatives (parabens) are estrogenic. Toxicology and applied pharmacology 1998, 153 (1), 12-19. ↩︎
  9. Darbre, P. D.; Aljarrah, A.; Miller, W. R.; Coldham, N. G.; Sauer, M. J.; Pope, G., Concentrations of parabens in human breast tumors. Journal of Applied Toxicology: An International Journal 2004, 24 (1), 5-13. ↩︎
  10. Cherian, P.; Zhu, J.; Bergfeld, W. F.; Belsito, D. V.; Hill, R. A.; Klaassen, C. D.; Liebler, D. C.; Marks Jr, J. G.; Shank, R. C.; Slaga, T. J., Amended safety assessment of parabens as used in cosmetics. International journal of toxicology 2020, 39 (1_suppl), 5S-97S. ↩︎
  11. Andersen, F. A., Final amended report on the safety assessment of methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben, isopropylparaben, butylparaben, isobutylparaben, and benzylparaben as used in cosmetic products. Int J Toxicol 2008, 27 (Suppl 4), 1-82. ↩︎
  12. SCCS, OPINION ON Parabens SCCS/1348/10. Consumers, E. C.-D. f. H. a., Ed. 2011 ↩︎
  13. SCCS, OPINION ON Parabens SCCS/1514/13. Consumers, E. C.-D. f. H. a., Ed. 2013. ↩︎
  14. Ziosi, P.; Manfredini, S.; Vandini, A.; Vertuani, S.; Fraternali, M., Caprylyl glycol/phenethyl alcohol blend for alternative preservation of cosmetics. Cosmetics & Toiletries 2013, 128, 538-551. ↩︎
  15. Papageorgiou, S.; Varvaresou, A.; Tsirivas, E.; Demetzos, C., New alternatives to cosmetics preservation. Journal of Cosmetic Science 2010, 61 (2), 107. ↩︎

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