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Parabens in Shampoo: What Are They?

Geraldine Orentas

Parabens in shampoo

Today, most of us are becoming more aware and sensitive of what we put in and on our bodies. Thanks to ingredient transparency and consumer education, we’re no longer blindsided with confusing and sometimes unhealthy ingredients in our beauty products. One ingredient, particularly in shampoo, that was questioned over the last decade was parabens.

Researchers found that close to 90% of grocery items -- including soft drinks, jams, frozen dairy products, and processed vegetables contain measurable amounts of parabens. Then, why are we so concerned about parabens in beauty products? 

Let’s break down parabens in shampoo to learn more about how they work and all you need to know about your safety when using these products. 

What Are Parabens?

Let’s start with the basics. Parabens are used as preservatives in cosmetics. According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), parabens can prevent mold and harmful bacteria growth. Parabens come from para-hydroxybenzoic acids (PHBAs) that occur naturally in fruits and vegetables. And our bodies produce some form of parabens by the breakdown of amino acids

Why Are They in Cosmetics?

The efficacy and affordability of parabens make them popular choices for cosmetics, with roughly 85% of cosmetics containing parabens. Cosmetics containing parabens include makeup, moisturizers, hair care products, and shaving products. Primarily, parabens are used in cosmetics to protect against microbial growth and maintain product integrity. Usually, products with a shelf-life of six months or more need parabens or other types of preservatives to prevent them from going bad. 

Are Parabens Bad for You?

The answer to this question is, well, complicated. Some parabens are generally recognized as safe by the FDA. Keep in mind, this labeling was done in the 1970s, becoming a bit outdated. 

Endocrine Disruption

Recent evidence sheds light on alarming connections between parabens and hormone-related illnesses. While parabens can help prevent the growth of mold and bacteria in our products, there’s evidence that suggests parabens can be endocrine disruptors. 

These studies show that certain parabens behave like estrogen hormones and can interfere with estrogen production. High estrogen levels could trigger an increase in breast cell division and tumor growth, which is why parabens are linked to breast cancer and reproductive issues. To make matters worse, scientists have recently found that breast cancer cells often contain quite a high concentration of parabens.

However, some confronting research still says they have not found a direct link between cosmetic products and cancer. Some scientists agree that there is no endocrine-disrupting effect from the use of parabens in cosmetic and personal care products because their action, if any, is so weak.

Skin Irritation

Beyond the endocrine side effects of parabens, some evidence suggests skin can become sensitized to products containing parabens, resulting in irritation. Depending on the type of paraben, the potency of irritation and sensitization can vary. People with sensitive or dry scalp may be more prone to experience these effects. 

Studies show that parabens can be especially inflammatory to those with pre-existing psoriasis, eczema, or contact dermatitis. 

Parabens and Sulfates

Parabens in shampoo alone may not cause significant damage. However, most shampoos containing parabens also contain sulfates. Sulfates are salts that help your shampoo create that signature lush lather. Sulfates like sodium lauryl sulfate and sodium laureth can irritate your skin and trigger sensitivity. 

On average, sulfates and parabens make between 25-50% of your shampoo. These levels are considered safe if they’re properly rinsed off, which is why using a scalp brush or a vigorous washing technique can be critical for protecting your scalp from these chemicals. 

Even if there isn’t a clear link between parabens and health risks, some individuals may be more sensitive to parabens than others . 

How to Identify Parabens in Shampoos

Personal care products are the most significant contributors to paraben exposure. According to the Environmental Working Group, over 2,600 products in one study showed the presence of propylparaben, which can be somewhat hazardous for your health. 

Unlike sulfates, parabens are trickier to recognize in shampoo formulas. Still, most cosmetics must have a list of ingredients by their common name; the most commonly used parabens actually contain the word “paraben” in their name. Some of these include methylparaben, propylparaben, iso-butylparaben, butylparaben, and ethylparaben.

However, parabens can also hide as Alkyl parahydroxybenzoates in shampoo. Other less common parabens are iso-propyl and phenyl paraben, but their use is technically restricted, so you shouldn’t find them in your cosmetic products. 

Sulfates are also very easy to identify. In most hair care products, sulfates and parabens are among the first ingredients listed because they’re present in high concentrations. Common sulfates used in shampoo are sodium lauryl sulfate, laureth sulfate sodium, lauryl sulfoacetate sodium, lauroyl isethionate, and sodium lauroyl taurate. 

A safer alternative to these stripping sulfates could be sodium lauryl glucosides hydroxypropyl sulfonate. This hard-to-pronounce ingredient is a natural sulfate alternative that’s safe for sensitive skin and can cleanse your hair and body without stripping it of its natural oils. 

Tips to Shop for Paraben-free Shampoos

Luckily, the rise of paraben-free shampoos and cosmetics have made it easier to shop for safer alternatives. Usually, these products use less-irritant ingredients like phenoxyethanol or sodium benzoate. Both are natural and safe preservatives that do an excellent job at keeping harmful bacteria, fungi and mold at bay. 

Unfortunately, as some cosmetic companies look for other preservatives, sometimes parabens are traded for not-so-beneficial preservatives. For example, formaldehyde is a popular preservative, but it’s known to cause skin irritation and carries cancer risk labels

Other ingredients to avoid in paraben-free shampoos are polyethylene glycol (PEG), an ingredient used in cleaning products to remove grease stains; diethanolamine (DEA) and triethanolamine (TEA), both help stabilize the pH of common hair products but can also be eye irritants and allergens. 

Does Mother Dirt Use Parabens?

No. Mother Dirt’s hair care products are all formulated without parabens, sulfates or harsh surfactants. We develop products that support the skin microbiome and restore scalp microbiome balance -- our hair care products don’t contain any aggressors that might disrupt this ecosystem

The Takeaway

There’s a lot we still don’t know about parabens in shampoo. However, if you’re concerned about your health, prevention is always better. Besides, nowadays, it’s easy to find paraben-free shampoos and conditioners that nourish and protect your skin from breakage and damage. So, why compromise? 

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