What Are Parabens, Exactly?

It's time to get to know the gluten of beauty products.

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The internet has brought us so many great things (sweet potato toast, prancercise, cats vs. cucumbers...), but it's also made us way paranoid about sneaky nasties lurking in every aspect of our daily lives (carcinogenic bacon, wood pulp in cheese, mold in children's toys...).

This is especially true when it comes to our beauty regimens. One of the biggest sources of beauty paranoia these days can be found snuggled up on the ingredients label next to skin- and hair-softening hydrators like glycerin and shea butter: a word or two ending in "paraben." These ingredients keep your water-based lotions and creams from turning into a moldy germ-fest while they sit on your shelves, but they've developed a bad rap for their purported hormone-disrupting characteristics.

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Let's take a closer look at the latest uncool ingredient in the world of skincare products and see what — if anything — we actually have to fear.

What Are Parabens, Anyway?

Put simply: They're the mold and germ police that keep your products from getting dangerously rank.

"Parabens are a family of antimicrobial chemical preservatives used for preventing the growth of mold and bacteria in cosmetic products," says Jim Hammer, a Massachusetts-based cosmetic chemist.

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The most common parabens are listed on ingredients labels as methylparaben and propylparaben, and are approved safe to use in concentrations of 25 percent of entire product by the FDA, but the reality is the concentration is typically well under 1 percent.

The point of parabens is to keep the product from growing bacteria and other harmful organisms after sitting out on your counter for weeks (or, let's be honest, months!).

"If there were no preservatives in beauty products, they would last about the same amount of time fresh produce does at the supermarket," says Joshua Zeichner, MD, director of cosmetic and clinical research at Mount Sinai Hospital's department of dermatology.

Before you say it's easy enough to monitor your beauty products like you do your produce, think of that sad spinach you left wilting away in the crisper last week. Yes, preservatives are pretty important for our health — they prevent us from spreading mold and bad bacteria all over our skin on a regular basis.

So Why All the Hullabaloo?

Parabens have been called endocrine disruptors, but the majority of these tests and studies have been done by feeding lab rats high doses of these ingredients, which makes it more of an apples-to-oranges situation when compared to the small amount found in beauty products that we aren't eating.

When you slather on your favorite lotion, there's only so much your skin can absorb, and minimal amounts of ingredients you put on your skin are actually absorbed into your bloodstream, says Dr. Zeichner. Take that and the fact that parabens are such a small portion of the formula, and your exposure is way lower than you'd think.http://www.drozthegoodlife.com/beauty/makeup/how-t...

"A study... in the Journal of Applied Toxicology showed breast cancer patients had parabens in breast tissue, however, parabens are typically not used in antiperspirant products," says Hammer, "The reality of the situation is, with the exception of butylparaben, parabens are quite safe and effective for use in products. This is why they continue to be the most commonly-used preservative in pharmaceutical products."

There are natural options, such as lavender essential oil and tea tree essential oil, which did hold their own against bacteria growth when compared to chemical preservatives in a study in the Journal of Applied Microbiology, but ultimately the oils didn't protect against as many types of bacteria as the chemical preservatives did.

Paraben allergies are a thing, leaving itchy rashes as their warning sign, but dermatologists estimate this is only the case for less than 5 percent of the U.S. population. If you think parabens and your skin aren't playing nice, you should ask your derm for a patch test to confirm your suspicions.

The Verdict on Parabens

"There is no definitive data to substantiate the idea that parabens are harmful to our overall health," Dr. Zeichner says. If a product's label says it's "paraben-free," it might contain another preservative like diazolidinyl urea, methylisothiazolinone, sodium benzoate, or emollients like caprylyl glycol, which act as both moisturizers and preservatives. These have all been proven to be effective, Hammer says.

If you have sensitive skin and want to just play it safe, also look for products that are fragrance free and have ingredients like ceramides, which protect the outer layer of your skin from damage, and hyaluronic acid, which brings in moisture from the air to your skin (and holds 1,000 times its weight in water). Or look for the National Eczema Association seal on products — they're gentle enough for even the crankiest skin types.

Ultimately, if you have an allergy, definitely keep parabens far away from your skin. But if you don't, you can go ahead and keep using your favorite paraben-containing products without fear.

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