Parabens have been used as a very cost-effective preservative in various everyday products for more than 80 years. And unfortunately, you can still find them in great abundance. They have an antimicrobial and fungicidal effect and are listed as a preservative in the European Cosmetics Directive. Parabens are still very popular because they do not negatively influence the long-term physical stability or the sensory properties of a formulation. Additionally, they are also widely used as bacteria-inhibiting substances in food, pharmaceuticals, tobacco products and other consumer goods.
In terms of chemistry, they are the salts and esters – i.e. derivatives – of 4 (para)-hydroxybenzoic acid, which is where the name comes from. Parabens are subject to heavy public criticism: their use is highly questionable as it correlates with health risks that have been investigated in a number of studies. Consumers therefore tend to avoid products containing parabens for understandable reasons. Regarding quantity, the Cosmetics Directive limits them (0.1 – 0.4%) depending on the application and the corresponding derivative. The concentration used should be as low as possible so that any hazards can be avoided. Even though parabens are naturally present in the form of plants (such as cherries, blueberries or cucumbers), their use in natural cosmetics is prohibited.
Parabens come into use in almost all cosmetic formulations. Both in water-based and fat-based formulations in order to protect the aqueous phase from bacterial contamination. Methyl-, ethyl-, propyl- and butylparabens and their sodium, potassium and calcium salts play a particularly important role. The first two in particular are frequently used in cosmetics.
THE RISKS OF PARABENS
Breast cancer is the most commonly discussed risk. Parabens are very similar to oestrogen in their molecular structure. Therefore, they may become integrated into the hormonal cycle, especially in women. This may cause uncontrolled growth of breast tissue, for example, which leads to breast cancer.
It is principally the two parabens propyl- and butylparaben which can have a hormonal effect on the body. These substances can lead to reproductive disorders and to what is called the feminisation of men. Studies have revealed that parabens lower testosterone levels and reduce sperm production. It is with this in mind that the German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) has stated that methyl- and ethylparaben may still be used in the permitted concentration range. However, butyl- and propylparabens have a higher oestrogenic potential and must comply with stricter regulations. For example, they are completely prohibited in baby products.
Besides the hormonal effect of parabens, other effects exist, such as that of contact allergens; parabens can trigger allergies.
Moreover, there have been studies indicating that children of women who used cosmetics containing parabens during pregnancy show an increased risk of obesity.
ALTERNATIVES TO PARABENS
Most consumers consciously wish to avoid the use of parabens and similar products that have come under criticism. In their role as preservatives, much more compatible products can replace parabens. We provide you with a wide range of natural multifunctionals. These substances that are not listed as preservatives – but still offer antimicrobial protection for your product are a prime example of this.
Glycols such as our COSMOS and Natrue-approved 1.3-propanediol (Cosphaderm Propanediol natural) or our natural pentylene glycol (Cosphaderm Pentiol natural) are also effective in inhibiting bacteria and have a positive effect on the skin.