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Beauty Philosophy: Parabens

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Paraben use in all manner of beauty and personal care products has become a hugely controversial subject lately – and, I feel, for very good reason. Peer-reviewed studies have conclusively determined that there are links between parabens and certain breast cancers and have shown that parabens act similarly to estrogens once absorbed into the body.

That said, most of what you read likely has overstated the effects and links between parabens and cancer. To date, no causal link has been uncovered between parabens and cancer – and as any good scientific researcher will tell you: correlation does not imply causation! While it is definitely worthwhile to be concerned when a chemical is found to be present in tumors, it does not mean that the chemical caused the tumors to grow.

Additionally, the degree of “estrogenic activity” that parabens exhibit (how much they behave like estrogens when absorbed by the body) is extremely minimal, to the point of being almost imperceptible in certain forms of parabens. What this means is that there is no easy way to measure and conclusively determine the hormonal impact of paraben absorption – while it is clear that parabens have some kind of estrogenic activity, it appears to be negligible.

Overall, the hype about parabens is probably way beyond what science has determined is warranted, but I do think there is enough information that science has actually proven to justify the attitude that if it’s possible to avoid them, it’s probably better to do so rather than not worrying about them at all.

In the past 25 years or so, parabens have become ubiquitous in beauty and personal care products. Walk into any average drugstore today, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a shampoo, conditioner, styling product, facial cleanser, moisturizer/lotion, eyeshadow, mascara, eyeliner, foundation, lipstick, or deodorant that doesn’t have parabens in some form or another as one of the preservatives. Believe me, I’ve tried to! It is a monumentally time-consuming project. Time-consuming, but I do think worthwhile.

I endeavor to avoid parabens whenever possible without sacrificing quality in the product I’m purchasing. Fortunately, a lot of mid-range to high-end brands are starting to make the ability to tout a “paraben-free” label a priority in their product development and production, so it’s definitely getting easier to find paraben-free products, especially if you aren’t too concerned about spending a little more money on your items. Then you have beauty suppliers like Sephora that are starting to make a point of including lists of what a product is free from (such as parabens, perfumes, talc, etc.) as well as providing the option to search for paraben-free products on their Web sites. They are making it much easier to shop for items that are paraben-free without having to scour ingredient lists and labels, chancing that you’ll miss the paraben in all that fine print.

All that said…at the end of the day, if I find a mascara that does exactly what it says will do and what I’m looking for it to do, I won’t toss it in the bin when I see “propylparaben” and “methylparaben” in the ingredient list. By making a point to avoid them in my overall beauty and personal care product purchases, the odd product here and there is not going to present a concern worth stressing over. The vast majority of my beauty and personal care products can proudly brandish “paraben-free” on their labels, but the small amount in my favorite mascara? Or the smidge in an eyeshadow I use but a few times a year? It’s so not worth developing my first grey hair over!