A group of preservatives that prevent the growth of microbes, such as yeasts, molds, and bacteria, parabens can be found in just about every type of personal-care product: deodorant, shampoo, conditioner, lotion, sunscreen. Five parabens have been banned in Europe: isopropylparaben, isobutylparaben, phenylparaben, benzylparaben, and pentylparaben. Others are strictly regulated.
Again, they’re not regulated in the United States. The FDA’s website states, “At this time, we do not have information showing that parabens as they are used in cosmetics have an effect on human health.”
The Environmental Working Group (EWG), a nonprofit environmental research and advocacy organization, disagrees. Citing studies that have connected parabens to reproductive harm, it notes: “Parabens can act like the hormone estrogen in the body and disrupt the normal function of hormone systems, affecting male and female reproductive-system functioning, reproductive development, fertility, and birth outcomes.”
If we were exposed to parabens only occasionally, the body might be able to detoxify them. But because they’re ubiquitous — and often found in products that are used daily — their cumulative effects add quickly to the body’s toxic burden, or the sum total of chemicals stored in fat cells.
As for less harmful preservatives, there are many. Dana Jasper, manager of renowned clean-beauty store Merz Apothecary in Chicago, says that some companies are using plant-based alcohols as alternatives to parabens. “Witch hazel is really good, too,” she says, “and it has a naturally antibacterial property to it.”