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What's the Risk: Paraben-Free Makeup

It seems every beauty label says its product is better because it's paraben-free. But what exactly are parabens, and should you be making the switch to paraben-free makeup? Here's what you need to know.

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It's no secret that cosmetics contain an exhaustive list of ingredients; some may be harmful, but most are just impossible to pronounce. Much like formaldehyde, synthetic dyes, and phthalates, parabens are next on the list of ingredients to be avoided. Innocent until proven guilty, get the evidence on paraben-free makeup before handing out a life sentence.

What Are Parabens?
To put it simply, parabens are preservatives. They are added to makeup and skincare products to combat bacteria and fungus in the bottles. Sounds like a good thing, right? Maybe not. There is concern that the use of paraben additives in cosmetics could have harmful side effects. Dr. Douglas Altchek, a New York City dermatologist, says, "Parabens can mimic estrogen in the body. They may have a cumulative effect, possibly leading to the formation of malignant tumors of the breast and reproductive system." Parabens need to be avoided because very little is known about their long-term effects. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and most countries in the world have not banned parabens; however, the EU has banned select parabens for use in cosmetics.

Alternatives to Parabens
While the inclusion of preservatives is important, parabens are not the only option. Altchek recently launched a skincare line sold at Ulta. In his line he uses blends of globally approved preservatives that are considered mild and low on a sensitization scale. This scale means the preservatives cause less allergic reactions and are very safe for use, even for sensitive skin types. "Many of my products," Altchek says, "such as the Glycolic Renewal Pads and Brightening Serum, contain fruit acids, which are good preservatives as well as antioxidant and anti-aging treatments." It is important to not use products beyond the expiration date. They don't work effectively, and they can irritate skin.

What to Buy
Check the ingredients label for parabens on all products. Use cosmetics with parabens in moderation. Medications with parabens should be avoided if possible. There are many cosmetics brands that do not contain parabens. Many of these are expensive, but drugstore brands are starting to follow suit. Don't confuse natural or organic labels with paraben-free. Paraben-free refers only to paraben compounds; common parabens in cosmetics include methylparaben, propylparaben, and butylparaben, while natural or organic refers to the ingredients list as a whole. "Don't assume that because something is 'natural' it is automatically good for you," Altchek says. "The use of the terms 'natural' and 'organic' is usually meaningless. After all, poison ivy is natural and organic."

Shannon Bauer

Shannon Bauer is a fashion and beauty writer and editorial intern at She just graduated from Iowa State University with a bachelor's degree in Creative Apparel Design and is still learning how to be an "adult". Shannon is a mascara hoarder and lipstick enthusiast.

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