Parabens are a group of chemical compounds which are widely used as preservatives, especially in cosmetics. In addition to being used in cosmetics, parabens are also utilized by the pharmaceutical industry, and they sometimes appear as food additives as well. Parabens have been a topic of some controversy, due to consumer concerns about their safety, which explains why you may find products voluntarily labeled as “paraben free,” using their ingredients as a selling point for concerned consumers.
These chemicals are esters of para-hydroxybenzoic acid. Esters are defined as chemical compounds in which an acid molecule has bonded with an alcohol molecule, displacing a water molecule. Some parabens actually appear in nature, generated by plants as a way of defending themselves from fungal and bacterial invaders. The parabens used commercially are typically generated synthetically, ensuring that the products remain consistent, so that companies can be assured that they will work.
Typically, the concentration of parabens in cosmetics is very low, often less than 1%. A mixture of parabens may be used to create the best preservative effect, ensuring that molds, fungi, bacteria, and other unwanted visitors will not contaminate a product. It is also possible to use naturally derived preservatives, such as grape seed extract, but many of these substances have not been fully tested for efficacy, raising concerns about the safety and shelf life of products preserved with these substances.
Concentrations of parabens in other products, like foods and pharmaceuticals, are similarly quite low. As a general rule, companies use a minimal amount of preservatives, using laboratory testing to determine the best concentration.
Health concerns about parabens are primarily focused on their potential to act like estrogen compounds in the body. Substances which behave like estrogens are known as estrogenic compounds, and they do pose some health risks, especially when consumed in high volumes. Estrogens primarily impact the endocrine system, potentially creating an increased cancer risk. People who are concerned about parabens argue that their estrogenic traits make them too dangerous to use in food, cosmetics, and pharmaceuticals.
However, there have been a number of studies on this issue, both from inside the cosmetics industry and outside of it. These studies have found that while parabens certainly do have estrogenic qualities, they are probably safe in very small amounts. People and companies who adopt a “best practices” approach may choose to stay away from parabens, as future risks may be identified, or they may turn out to bioaccummulate in the body.