What Are Parabens? The Truth About Skincare's Biggest Bad Guy

Boycotting parabens but no idea what they actually are? We enlisted the experts to help decipher the science.

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Not all beauty products are good for your skin but there are certainly some that are better than others.

In a world where we're increasingly aware of what we eat, it's no surprise that we're equally aware of the ingredients in our skincare and what we put on our face.

But which product ingredients are good and which are bad? You don't need to be a dermatologist to know the answer to that one. Anyone who's skincare-aware will recognise one of the biggest names on the naughty list: parabens.

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So we're told parabens are bad for our health and our skin but what actually ARE they?

Bacteria? Bad particles?

It's a beauty myth that we've all commonly accepted without knowing much about them. Which is why we caught up with the pros to find out what parabens actually are and why we should be boycotting them...

What are parabens?

Michelle Scott-Lynch, founder of paraben-free haircare brand Bouclème says, 'Parabens are a type of preservative, first introduced in the 1950s. They're used to prolong shelf life in many health and beauty products by preventing the growth of mould and bacteria within them.'

Unfortunately, it's not just a case of looking for 'CONTAINS PARABENS' on the bottle.

When it comes to studying the label of your fave serum, the names to look out for are butylparaben, methylparaben and propylparaben aka the most commonly found parabens.

Why are parabens thought to be bad for us?

'Parabens allow products to survive for months, even years, in our bathroom cabinet; however when you use these products, they can also enter your body through your skin', explains Tom Oliver, Nutritionist & Personal Trainer.

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In 2004, a British study found traces of five parabens in the breast tissue of 19 out of 20 women studied. The study didn't prove that parabens can cause cancer but identified that the parabens were able to penetrate the skin and remain within tissue.

Parabens are believed to disrupt hormone function by mimicking oestrogen. Too much oestrogen can trigger an increase in breast cell division and growth of tumours, which is why paraben use has been linked to breast cancer and reproductive issues.

Why are parabens bad for the environment?

Parabens aren't just bad for humans, they impact the environment too. 'A scientific study reported that parabens have been found for the first time in the bodies of marine mammals', reveals Tom, 'Researchers believe that it is likely these parabens come from products we use that are washed into the sewage system and released into the environment.'

So we should stop using parabens ASAP, right?

Don't panic. It's important to note that the percentage of preservative in a formulation is generally very small.

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'It's difficult to say if parabens are categorically "bad" for us,' says Michelle, 'but there are many other preservatives now available so it's no longer necessary to use them.

'Manufacturers are creating new and effective preservatives all the time so there is a greater choice currently available.'

Some people assume that paraben-free and natural products are simply not as effective. 'Paraben is cheap to mass-market,' explains Tom, 'but there are so many synthetic-free products on the market that are just as effective, I don't see the need of using artificial ingredients which can cause irritation and stress, especially to sensitive skin types.'

Sometimes the simplest things can be so beautiful 🌷🍃 (📸: @humphreyandgrace)

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The conclusion? Make an educated decision about what you put on your skin

The term 'paraben-free' isn't always the final answer.

Tom warns that we should remain sceptical. 'Although it looks as though many beauty companies are responding to the public's concerns about parabens, some may be merely "greenwashing" - a term used when a "paraben-free" company markets themselves as a natural alternative, when in fact they contain other synthetic ingredients that may cause harm or irritation to the skin.'

In general, never take marketing and adverts at face value. With so much information available, it's easy to educate ourselves on the label content of our beauty products.

For an approved preservative listing, refer to ECOCERT - a certification body for the development of standards in natural and organic cosmetics.

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