What Are Parabens? And Should You Be Concerned About Preservatives in Skincare?

A cosmetic chemist breaks it down.

While we know that our favorite makeup and skincare products make us look better on the outside, some are concerned about what they could be doing to our insides, especially when it comes to preservatives in these products. While “clean beauty” has been a major trend in recent years, going "too clean" can have consequences, too, such as preservative-free products potentially allowing mold or fungus to develop. But are preservatives, including parabens, really safe? Here’s what you need to know. 

Is It Safe To Use Products Formulated With Preservatives?

Most preservatives are safe, according to Georgia Smith, cosmetic chemist and founder of Skin Sister. “Preservatives in skincare must be used within safe limits set by the government of the country you live in. It is usually around 1 percent. This level of input has been studied and has been proven to be safe for skin care applications," she says.

How Do I Know If There Are Preservatives in a Product?

Read the label. “The most common preservatives used in skincare are phenoxyethanol, potassium sorbate, sodium benzoate, and certain types of parabens,” Smith says.

What Are Parabens?

Parabens are a type of preservative that has been highly debated in recent years. First introduced in the 1920s, they are antimicrobial, cheap, and most people aren’t allergic to them. So it’s easy to understand why they are widely used. Methylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben, and ethylparaben are the most commonly found parabens in skincare and cosmetic products. 

While the FDA and CDC have declared parabens safe at any concentration, the European Union’s Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety considers parabens safe, but only at low levels. They recommend that the combined concentration of propylparaben and butylparaben in a product should not exceed .19 percent, because of the potential endocrine-disrupting effects of these parabens. They also note that more research needs to be done, as much of the research looks at the effects on rodents, not humans.

If parabens are a concern, they’re pretty easy to avoid. Choose products that have a "Clean at Sephora" label or are sold at Credo Beauty, which has high ingredient standards for the products they sell.

Should Some People Avoid Preservatives in Skincare?

If you’re allergic to a specific type of preservative, it should definitely be avoided. But, it’s nearly impossible to find any type of commercial skincare or makeup product that doesn’t contain some type of preservative. “if you want to use water-based cosmetics, such as creams, serums, lotions, butters, foundations, body wash, face wash, or similar products—you should accept these products must contain preservatives to keep them safe from contamination," Smith explains.

Preservatives Can Actually Be a Good Thing

“Any product that contains water, or comes into contact with water during use (for example, your wet hands dipping into a tub of body scrub) will attract bacteria and microbiological contamination will occur. This includes the growth of mold, fungi, yeast, and several bacteria. It’s much safer to choose a product with preservatives present,” Smith says. 

Easy Ways to Prevent Bacteria Growth 

Products that are lower in preservatives or labeled “clean” are generally more subject to bacteria growth than those that aren’t. So, you should take extra precautions when using them. For example, wash your hands and dry them with a clean towel before applying any type of product—especially those for the face and eyes. 

Opting for products where each usage or “dose” is individually packaged is also a great way to curb contamination. Noble Panacea is a line worth considering because each use is packaged in an individual sachet. 

Alternatively, choosing products that are dispensed with a pump or dropper is another way to keep bacteria at bay, since you won't introduce water or bacteria from your hands into the product.

It’s also important to check the shelf life of the cosmetic noted on the label. Using expired products isn't worth the risk and they should be disposed of. 

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  1. European Union Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety. Opinion on Parabens. Accessed April 19, 2023.

  2. FDA. Parabens in Cosmetics. Accessed April 19, 2023.

  3. CDC. Parabens Factsheet. Accessed April 19, 2023.

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