The Truth about Parabens I – What they are

Anything that has much water in it will go mouldy and harbour germs if it isn’t preserved in some way. As most cosmetic products contain water they need some kind of preservative.  One of the most popular families of preservatives are the parabens.  These are  used in pharmaceuticals and food as well as cosmetics.  They are listed on food packs by their E numbers for example,  E218 is methylparaben.

Chemically speaking parabens are derivatives of benzoic acid.  That is where the ‘bens’ bit in the name comes from.  Specifically they are derived from para benzoic acid, hence ‘para’.  Even more specifically they are esters of para hydroxybenzoic acid.  In an ester you have a side chain added to the main molecule by a particular kind of link called, straight forwardly enough, an ester link.  If you add a methane to this ester link you get the methyl ester of para  hydroxybenzoic acid.  Or methylparaben for short.

So armed with this knowledge you can work out the structure of any paraben you see listed on a pack.  Butylparaben for instance is the butane ester of para-hydroxybenzoic acid.  So, now you can have some fun looking on the backs of the packs next time you are in the bathroom.

Parabens do occur in nature, but they are rare.  All the parabens that are used commercially are man-made.  Any company claiming that parabens are natural should be avoided on the grounds that if they say that they will say anything.

Like nearly all preservatives, they are toxic. The trick is using them at levels that are too low to have a harmful effect.  That is pretty much how preservation works. They do cause sensitisation and allergic reactions in a very small number of people,  but its a surprisingly small number given how widely they are used.  In fact parabens probably have the best safety track record of any widely used preservative.

Your exposure to parabens

Parabens are so widely used that most people welcome into contact with them on a daily basis.

Daily exposure in America is estimated to be 76mg a day. The figure in Europe is likely to be the same. They have been shown to accumulate in fat tissues in the body, as we will see.  So whatever you think about the parabens, you have already become intimately connected with them.  For this, if for no other reason, I think it should be welcome that they have become the subject of some debate.

What makes Parabens controversial?

Parabens have attracted a lot of attention in the last six years.  There are now a lot of people who make a point of avoiding them.  Ranges of products are sold that make a virtue of being paraben free.  Some companies have ignored the issue, but the majority are busy reformulating.

So what has happened?

This the first part of a transcript of  the parabens article on Colin’s Beauty Pages podcast 6.

Part II The Case Against Parabens

5 thoughts on “The Truth about Parabens I – What they are

  1. Dene

    I think it can be misleading to describe parabens are derivatives of benzoic acid. They could equally be described as derivatives of phenol or of benzene. They are not esters of p-aminobenzoic acid, however, they are esters of p-hydroxybenzoic acid. Methylparaben is methyl 4-hydroxbenzoate. And, strictly speaking, butylparaben is the butyl ester [of p-hydroxybenzoic acid], not the butane ester.

  2. Colin Post author

    Hi Dene – I knew it was only a matter of time before you found this and that you would have a word or two to say when you did find it.

    Parabens get a terrible press in the blogosphere. Some of it is from charlatans who are simply out to scare people into buying their products. Some of it is from people who are concerned but not terribly well informed. And a lot of it is simply that people have heard that there is something wrong with them and have accepted the fact without giving it any further thought. I appreciate that you are trying to defend them and that you have a very strong set of arguments. Anyone who reads your comments on this series of blog posts will realise that pretty quickly themselves.

    But I don’t want to get into a pro or anti position myself. I want to keep an eye on the data as it comes in and make as good a judgment of what it means as I can. Epidemiology is the only way could ever have shown for sure what the effect of parabens is one way or the other, but they are now too widespread to do that.

    Thanks for this and for your other comments.

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  4. Colin Post author

    Thanks for the correction on the chemical name. I have never thought that parabens were the esters of para amino benzoic acid. I have no idea where that came from. Lets call it a senior moment. I have corrected it now. I did deliberately simplify the nomenclature a bit in the hope of making it easier on non-chemists.

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