Article by: Perry Romanowski

The most frequent type of formulation questions we get here on Chemists Corner are about preservatives.  Specifically, people ask about alternatives to parabens.  And while we’ve written about alternative cosmetic preservatives, the desire for these seems misplaced because it is based on the flawed notion that parabens are dangerous. 

Paraben Danger?

The idea that parabens are dangerous got it’s biggest boost in 2004 with a study published by Darbre.  Essentially, the claim was that parabens were present in human breast tumors and the implication was that there might be some causal effect.  There were also some studies suggesting an oestrogenic effect of parabens.  These studies were enough for chemical fearmongering groups to call for a ban of parabens.  Others called for the implementation of the Precautionary Principle which states that if an ingredient seems like it might be dangerous then it shouldn’t be used until it is demonstrated not to be dangerous.

Although, it seems the real meaning of the Precautionary Principle is that if an ingredient is suspected of being dangerous it should never be used again.  I come to this conclusion because of the recent declarations by the independent EU science-based organization the SCCS.

Who is the SCCS?

The SCCS stands for the Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety.  It is an EU-based group of  independent scientists who are responsible for evaluating research done on the safety of ingredients and advising the EU legislative bodies on whether things are safe or not.  The most important part of this organization is that they are independent and are not paid for by the cosmetic industry.  These are scientists who have no vested interest in the way that the science turns out.  If they found that parabens were dangerous, they would say so.  It is a common complaint in the US that the CIR, the group that has the same function in the US, is funded by the cosmetic industry.  But the SCCS is not industry funded and no conflict exists.

What did they find about parabens?

The SCCS has published a number of opinions on parabens since 2005.  Their most comprehensive study was published in 2011 which determined that Methylparaben and Ethylparaben were safe when used at approved levels (0.4% individually & 0.8% combined).  Since these are the two most commonly used parabens cosmetic chemists still have good formulation options.  They took some more time to look at butylparaben and propylparaben.  And the latest SCCS opinion…these are safe when used at the suggested concentrations of 0.19% or less.

So, will people who following the Precautionary Principle now back off and agree that parabens have been proven to be safe?

If not, what more information will people need?

Precautionary Principle Problems

This is the problem I have with the Precautionary Principle.  No one ever seems to define the time when an ingredient is deemed “proven safe.”  If you have independent scientific experts saying something is safe and you don’t accept that, what will critics ever accept?




  1. Lorraine

    Interesting article.

    There comes a point though that cosmetic scientists have to accept that they do not operate in a scientific bubble, they formulate and develop products that are sold to the public. If the public do not want parabens, then they do not want parabens. No amount of educating or blogging is going to change that opinion. That opinion is here to stay now and you might as well just accept it and get on with it, given the number of alternatives available. Otherwise you just start to sound like Shell re the sinking of the Brent Spar – possibly the best scientific option, but not want the public wanted. Did it do Shell any good to keep harping on about it? Not in the slightest, in fact it only damaged their reputation.

    1. Perry Romanowski

      In truth, the vast majority of people have no idea what parabens are or even care about the subject.

      1. Lise

        …why it is the duty of people who DO know about parabens to continue to educate. Please don’t stop Perry – there are members of the public who are interested.

        1. Perry Romanowski

          I’m sure I’ll keep at it. Thanks for your support.

      2. Lorraine

        I’ve no doubt that you’re right about that. 🙂

        1. Mark Fuller

          The general populations exposure to parabens is generally limited to the marketing that the encounter in their HBA aisle. Products are touted as “Paraben free.” The general perception is “it must be bad if they took it out.”
          I too used to lose sleep over parabens. However, there are numerous effective alternatives accepted under NSF, NPA and USDA/NOP standards. As anyone can attest this supersedes education. Some clients would sway with a coherent explanation. But as most can agree there is a finite point to which you should educate. In many cases they are set in their opinion and no amount of information will move them.

          1. Dene

            I disagree, Mark – there is no finite point beyond which you should not educate, but there IS a finite point beyond which you CAN’T educate – this varies from person to person, though. Scientific ignorance is the great weapon in the armoury of the chemophobic scaremongers!

          2. Mark Fuller

            I agree Dene. In theory we need to be persistent. I am just stressing that this would be an entirely different conversation if held 10 years ago. There are numerous alternatives.
            I am in no way against education. I am just pragmatic and at a certain point in the conversation I can take my cue and move on. I have actually gotten to the point where I can guess what blog and what “Cosmetic Expert” they subscribe to. These bloggers have such a following that nothing will sway them.

  2. Lise

    The Nordic Swan label are among those who use the Precautionary Principle to exclude the use of ALL parabens in any personal care products carrying their label. They announced this directly to all of their manufacturers at the beginning of 2012. I have no doubt their sudden change of policy caused many to have to reformulate products if they wanted to continue carrying the Swan label.

    I have repeatedly tried to get them to explain why they are contributing to the confusion and fear of parabens created by scaremongers – most particularly since the SCCS have approved most of the parabens! It is deeply frustrating to see companies continuing to advertise ‘paraben free’ and implying anything with parabens as being a less safe product.

    If it has any interest, I wrote a post about the Nordic Swan label organization and the way they handled their policy change.

    Thank you for this post Perry. It cannot be said often enough. Someone has to keep pointing out the truth if we are ever going to see any changes.

    1. Perry Romanowski

      Thanks for the kind words Lise and the link! I can’t believe they admitted they banned parabens just to prevent losing sales. ugh.

      1. Mark Fuller

        Actually I think that is the primary motivation for most (if not all) companies that have ceased using parabens. I have yet to meet a client that can provide a substantial scientific reason to stop using them. In this industry “perception trumps reality.” In the case of parabens I have numerous alternatives so I let that one go.

        It is the same mindset behind avoiding SLS/SLES. Other things I have heard in the last year;
        -“Can you take out the Propylene glycol? That is antifreeze you know.”
        -“I don’t want Cetyl alcohol in the product. Alcohol dries the skin.”
        -“Glycerin is dehydrating.”

      2. Dene

        I can fully believe they did that! About 6 years ago, I presented a demolition of the Darbre study (along similar lines to the article Perry kindly linked in the article) and placed other studies on parabens in context to a meeting of the UK Soil Association’s Scientific Advisory Committee. They asked how the Darbre study ever got published, and generally accepted my arguments for the safety of parabens. However, the Chair of the group (a non-scientist) stated ” we can’t be seen to permit parabens; it would be perceived as lowering our standards”. It was also observed that I had a “vested interest”, and they would need independent verification of my claims. I offered funding for an independent toxicologist to review my claims – the offer was never taken up. THIS is what we’re up against – blind ignorance!

  3. Mark Fuller

    I agree one hundred percent. The parabens have been given a bad rap for little evidence.

    Now that said, still try and convince someone that they are safe. Much like sulfates the clients will approach you with the mantra “no parabens, they cause breast cancer.” Years ago I would have tried to persuade them otherwise. However in the last 10 years or so we have developed so many effective alternatives that I generally save my breath.

    Lastly (and I digress) NOT EVEY PRODUCT CAN OR SHOULD BE NATURAL! In the last year I have seen several products limited by the clients insistence that it be Natural. The other day I was approached by a client who wanted to make an Olay Regenerist type product BUT it “has to be 95% Natural.” I could write a whole article on this topic! Natural is nice and we perceive safer. However it is not always the best, especially if you are a start-up. It is a bit more expensive and generally this clients are working on a budget.

    1. Perry Romanowski

      It seems that some marketers only point of differentiation is that their products are “natural.” Of course, it seems EVEY small company wants to be the only “natural” formulation. lol.

      1. Mark Fuller

        Natural has become (in many cases) a useless mantra that the clients I deal with approach me with. They are working with a marketing definition, not an objective standard. In many cases they don’t have a definition in mind “just, you know, natural.” At this point I will educate them briefly about the standards (USDA, NSA, NPA).

        What is frustrating is that many of these companies are start-ups and they have a shoestring budget. In many cases they are compromising the performance while simultaneously raising material and manufacturing costs by 30%.

        This, hands down, is what I have been seeing as the major reason in 2012 that many start-ups were doomed for failure. I will commit heresy, but I still maintain it doesn’t always have to be natural and in some cases it should not be natural.

        1. Perry Romanowski

          I agree with you there.

          1. Mark Fuller

            It is sad actually. I will talk with the clients and feel out their financing. I warn and warn but ultimately it is their decision. Unlike in 2006 when I first started seeing requests for “natural”, we now have many as effective (almost as effective in some cases) materials that are “natural.” However they cost more.

            At this point they are “money is no issue, I want the safest product possible.” We get a prototype that they like and they approach a manufacturer.

            Suddenly I get a call. “The product is too expensive to make. What can we change?”

            It happens so often that I have actually deferred on several jobs just to avoid the end result.

  4. Becky

    Some people are terrified of synthetically produced chemicals even if they’re found in nature. I’m not exactly sure what constitutes natural or synthetic to them. If they created water (pure H2O) in a lab, would they deem it not safe? If you want to get really technical, bread isn’t found in nature.

    As for the concern about breast cancer, a woman’s ovaries contribute a LOT of estrogen to her body — naturally. With the rise of hormonal contraceptives, I’m not surprised there has been an increase in breast cancer.

    Personally, natural or not (bee stings, poison oak, or synthetic substances), if it’s harmful, I want to avoid it. As a backpacker, I would much rather put my life in synthetic climbing rope, than natural cordage which cannot come near the strength of synthetic ropes.

    Oh, people…

    1. Perry Romanowski

      Great points Becky!

  5. Dene

    Great article, Perry!

    The Precautionary Principle is a nonsense or, at least, it is completely misused by those who are, basically, chemophobic (or, more accurately) “synthetic chemophobic”. It just doesn’t fit in with the agenda of groups such as the EWG to ever retract warnings about synthetic substances, no matter how compelling the evidence of lack of danger (within prescribed limits).

    Another issue is the common habit of referring to parabens as a single entity, and allocating the same properties to all. The decision of the SCCS to remove isobutylparaben and isopropylparaben from the list of permitted preservatives is seized upon as evidence that (all) parabens are not safe. I have see it gleefully reported that “parabens are banned in the EU” – which is, of course, absolute nonsense! What some people fail (or refuse) to accept is that these parabens are being removed SOLELY due to a lack of supporting data, and NOT due to any evidence of a risk to health. In my view, industry should have produced the data requested by the SCCS, but they chose to hope that the SCCS would “read across” from the data on the other parabens. This did not happen. The cost of supporting such very low usage parabens probably did not warrant the expenditure purely on the basis of those 2 parabens, but they did not consider the distorted view the fearmongers take of such things.

    1. Perry Romanowski

      Yes, Precautionary Principle seems to be code for BAN IT and we’ll never approve it again.

      I am pleased that the EU has the SCCS who can not be said to be “in the pockets” of the cosmetic industry. The CIR in the US is funded by the cosmetic industry so people make that claim (even though it’s not true).

      1. Dene

        I agree that the SCCS has a great advantage over the CIRin terms of perception, but if people don’t want to accept the facts, there is little point in either organisation. I well remember a discussion with Stacey Malkan (whatever happened to her?), where she said she wanted studies that were generated by industry to be subject to scrutiny by totally independent scientists. When I pointed out that the SCCS met (and exceeded) her criteria with their Opinion on parabens, she stopped responding – this on her own blog. Science will rarely overcome stupidity and prejudice.

        1. Perry Romanowski

          Sad but true.

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