Parabens - cause for worry: part 1 – Plum Goodness
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Parabens - cause for worry: part 1

Hello again! The word PARABENS invokes feelings of fear, confusion and general cluelessness in most consumers. Many of us have heard that parabens are unsafe, paraben-free cosmetics are a good thing, and that you don't get enough of paraben-free cosmetics here in India. Here's a concise, action-oriented look - SO YOU KNOW WHAT TO DO NEXT!

We will take a systematic, simplified look at parabens, by answering the following questions:

1. What are parabens, why are they used?
2. Are parabens bad? Is the danger real?
3. Should I avoid parabens?
4. Are paraben-free cosmetics always safe?
5. How can I choose safer products?

We hate long posts, so we've split this post into two. Do take a look at Part 2 here.

What are parabens, why are they used?

Almost every cosmetic or personal care product you use has preservatives in it. And parabens are great preservatives - they keep cosmetics from going bad due to bacteria, yeast and fungi. They give a good shelf life and PAO life (read about PAO here), thereby making cosmetics safer to use. Being extremely effective, and cost-effective, they have been loved by the industry for a long, long time.
The parabens used in cosmetics are (INCI names): methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben, isobutylparaben and butylparaben. Parabens are typically used in levels of less than 0.5% each, and often a combination of parabens is used. 

Are parabens bad? Is the danger real?

Some people insist that parabens are safe, hence continue to use them. Our philosophy is simple: better safe than sorry. If something is iffy, don't use it on people. That's OUR philosophy - no offence to anyone here.

What is the evidence against parabens? We present a few latest ones below, to help you decide (we've simplified the findings to keep things understandable, advanced readers would do well to read the full reports):
  1. The EU, in its latest findings, considers propylparaben and butylparaben safe, BUT at levels not exceeding 0.19% . Concerns: reproductive toxicity and endocrine disruption. In plain words, concerns that these chemicals can behave like hormones inside the human body and cause disruption.
  2. Denmark has banned the use of propylparaben and butylparaben in products used by children of less than 3 years of age.
  3. EWG, a leading environmental health research and advocacy organization in the US, has given a hazard rating of 10 (highest hazard) to propylparaben and 7 to butylparaben

Is the danger real?

Scientifically, two key issues have prevented an all-out answer to this question:

  1. The difference between metabolism (how the body processes these chemicals) in rats (where the lab tests are conducted) and humans
  2. The cumulative exposure of humans to parabens - we use no less than 5 to 20 cosmetics per day, so imagine the cumulative effect of the parabens. This has not been studied in detail yet, on human volunteers.
There is a possible danger, that's all we can say at this moment.

Should I avoid parabens?

YESWe think so, here's why:

  1. Wherever maximum allowed dosages are so low (0.19% in this case), there's no telling the combined effect of these chemicals in our body. Too complex, and risky, to try and predict. 
  2. Many chemicals accumulate in our body over long periods of usage. Our use of cosmetics is increasing, so it's better to be careful as we go ahead.
  3. Stuff that is not deemed safe for children better not be around the house. Once again, better safe than sorry
  4. "Lack of data" is a big issue with ingredient safety - and in many cases, the chemicals are held innocent until proven guilty
In sum, data is being generated on safety but there's enough evidence to suggest that parabens are not entirely harmless and in fact need to be watched out for. So should you rush for paraben-free cosmetics, and how do you choose safe products? Answers in Part 2 in this series!

Till then, Be Good!