If you’re in the habit of reading cosmetic labels, you may have noticed that a common ingredient in moisturizers, shampoos, body washes and makeup is one of the group of most-used parabens: methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben or butylparaben. You may have also noticed other personal care products proudly labeled as paraben-free. So what’s the deal with parabens?

What Parabens Do

Parabens are a family of chemicals that act as preservatives, preventing mold and fungi from growing in lotions, creams and prepared foods, extending their shelf life and making it less likely that a consumer will find a crust of mold in her shampoo bottle. This seems like a good thing, right? While it’s important to protect prepared foods and body care products from spoilage, there is some evidence that parabens can cause disruption to the body’s hormone systems.

Parabens, Estrogen and Endocrine Disruption

One way parabens may be problematic when widely consumed in prepared foods and personal care products is due to the fact that parabens mimic the action of estrogen in the body. This effect is small - naturally produced estrogen is 100,000 times stronger than the estrogenic effect of parabens, but it’s there all the same. This kind of endocrine disruption has been linked to concerns about estrogen’s role in tumor growth, especially in breast cancers, and the disruption of sperm production in men. Parabens are very widely used and have been added to foods and cosmetics for the past fifty years. The evidence against parabens is not exactly conclusive, with some studies only testing a handful of people and not properly balancing their research. However, the evidence that is there suggests that reducing our exposure to parabens would be a smart move. Eating a whole foods diet and choosing natural and paraben-free personal care products is a great place to start.