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Why You Should Avoid Parabens

written by: Lindsay Evans•edited by: Niki Fears•updated: 5/31/2010

Labels on many natural personal care products tout that they are "paraben-free." But what are parabens and why should you avoid them? What are the associated dangers of parabens?

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    What Are Parabens?

    Parabens are commonly used as preservatives in personal care products, topical pharmaceuticals, and, sparingly, as a food additive. Parabens are easy to identify by looking at a package's ingredients list for words that include "paraben", such as methylparaben, propylparaben, or butylparaben. Several parabens are often used in combination and/or with additional preservatives to protect products from microbial growth.

    You can find parabens in most shampoos, conditioners, cosmetics, shaving products, personal lubricants, and countless other personal care products.

    Parabens have been shown to be readily absorbed by the skin, then metabolized and excreted by the body. Parabens are not known to bioaccumulate in the body, according to the Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep Database.

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    Are Parabens Dangerous?

    To answer definitively whether parabens cause health issues, additional scientific studies need to be conducted. Parabens have been used in cosmetics and other products for decades, yet no studies have addressed the long-term effect of paraben use. In the basically self-governing personal care and cosmetic industries, manufacturers may use nearly any ingredient without rigorous tests for safety. In a 2006 online paraben fact sheet, the FDA's Office of Cosmetics and Colors states, "in general, cosmetic manufacturers may use any ingredient they choose, except for a few ingredients that are prohibited by regulation."

    The controversy over the safety of paraben use stems from the results of a 2004 study that found parabens in breast cancer tumors. The study also pointed out how parabens can mimic estrogen and act as a possible endocrine disruptor in the body. Subsequent studies have concluded that parabens act as weak estrogen mimickers. Since estrogen and estrogen-like chemicals have been strongly associated with the development of diseases such as breast cancer, avoiding parabens seems like a reasonable idea until adequate research can prove otherwise.

    For more information, see the Breast Cancer Fund's The Connection Between Cosmetics and Breast Cancer, an informative chart to help you avoid chemicals in cosmetics that have been associated with increased breast cancer risk.

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    How to Find Paraben-Free Products

    Many companies have heard consumers' cry for paraben-free products. Easy to find paraben-free brands include Burt's Bees, Aubrey Organics, and Tom's of Maine. More companies are improving the formulas of their products and replacing harmful parabens with alternative preservatives all the time.

    The best way to ensure the products you use are paraben-free is to check the ingredient list for any word containing "paraben." Before you buy online, check the EWG's Skin Deep Database, which lists ingredients for thousands of personal care products and their safety rating.

    Check out the blog parabenfree.org for information and updates on products and companies that are paraben-free. Being an informed and choosy consumer will help you avoid parabens and other harmful substances while sending a clear message in support of non-toxic products to manufacturers.