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Preservatives & Parabens in Makeup & Skin Care: Facts vs. Myths

By: Dan Ketchum , Reviewed By: Dr. Emmy Graber

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As natural skin care becomes increasingly popular, the cosmetics industry has made steps to become more transparent about what goes into its products. But it's still important to know the ingredient list on the back of your bottles. Parabens are used to preserve the integrity of a product, but misinformation persists around these ingredients. That said, informed consumers are smart consumers, and separating fact from fiction is essential to making good skin care choices.

Cutting Through Paraben Myths

Plenty of noise has been made about a potential link between parabens and breast cancer, and that noise does actually have a source — a much-cited 2004 study from the "Journal of Applied Toxicology" found the presence of parabens in breast tumors. But despite the ongoing research this study spurred, no evidence exists to directly link parabens to cancer. Essentially, we know parabens stay in the bloodstream, but there's no concrete evidence suggesting that they're harmful.

Know Your Preservatives

In 1984, the Cosmetic Ingredient Review determined that parabens — which are naturally occurring chemicals — are safe for use in cosmetic products up to a concentration of 25 percent; typically, cosmetics feature paraben levels of about 0.01 to 0.3 percent. It's important to note, there is more than one type of paraben, and the most commonly found types in cosmetics include methyl- and propylparabens. Butylparabens and isopropylparabens are the kinds that have demonstrated greater safety concerns. It's also known that without preservatives, cosmetics are subject to microbial growth — typically bacteria, mold and yeast. While research on parabens continues, you can be certain that spoiled cosmetics infested with bacteria pose a definite threat.

Potential Side Effects

Although individual cosmetic products seem to be in the clear, parabens — just like many natural ingredients — can affect hormone function, which in turn affects breast cancer risk and reproductive health. It is possible, though still unknown, that cumulative exposure to parabens and other ingredients across several personal care products may cause potentially harmful spikes in estrogen levels. It's also true that while the FDA has found no reason to ban paraben use in the U.S., the European Union does not allow parabens in cosmetics.

Your Products, Your Choice

Numerous cosmetics makers offer paraben-free products, or those containing preservative alternatives ranging from sorbic acid (a common food preservative) to coconut derivatives. If you do opt for preservative-free products, reduce your risk by paying extra-close attention to the expiration details — these products don't last as long as those containing parabens, but it's fairly likely that you'll go through daily-use cosmetics before they expire. In any case, FDA regulations require retail cosmetics to list all the ingredients on the label, so an informed choice is — oftentimes literally — in your grasp.

This article has been reviewed by board-certified dermatologist Dr. Emmy Graber.

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