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What Are Parabens―and Do I Need to Worry About Them?

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These preservatives are common, but health concerns have cropped up.

Parabens have been widely used in products to prevent bacteria growth since the 1950s. “About 85 percent of cosmetics have them,” says Arthur Rich, Ph.D., a cosmetic chemist in Chestnut Ridge, New York. “They’re inexpensive and effective.” New York City dermatologist Fran E. Cook-Bolden explains, “Parabens have a long history of safe use, and that’s why they’re commonplace. New preservatives have less of a proven track record.” In fact, typically, more than one form of the ingredient is used in a product. The most common are butylparaben, methylparaben, and propylparaben. Over the last few years, however, in response to customer concerns, many brands have started to manufacture (and label) paraben-free products, including lotions, lipsticks, shampoos, scrubs, and more.

So What’s the Problem?

In the 1990s, parabens were deemed xenoestrogens―agents that mimic estrogen in the body. “Estrogen disruption” has been linked to breast cancer and reproductive issues. And in 2004 British cancer researcher Philippa Darbre, Ph.D., found parabens present in malignant breast tumors. As a result, experts in many countries are recommending limits on paraben levels in cosmetic products. What’s more, watchdog organizations worry that if parabens can be stored in the body, over time they could have a cumulative effect and pose a health risk.

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