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Everything You Need to Know about Parabens

"Preservatives are added to products for two reasons: first to prevent microbial spoilage and therefore to prolong the shelf-life of the product; second, to protect the consumer from a potential infection." International Journal of Cosmetic Science (Vol. 31, No. 3, June 2009)

What are parabens?

Parabens are a family of chemical preservatives that are used to prevent the growth of harmful bacteria and mold in perishable goods. The parabens used most commonly in cosmetics are methylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben, and ethylparaben.

How do parabens work?

Different parabens have different ways of stopping microbes from spoiling a product. “Think of bacteria as little jelly discs,” says cosmetic scientist and Lush product inventor Daniel Campbell. “Preservatives like methylparaben punch holes in bacterial cell walls or membranes, much like pulling the plug out of a bath. This means that the bacteria are unable to reproduce. Others like propylparaben prevent the cell wall from forming properly, so the bacteria can’t close itself in. This means a second generation of microbes can’t form.”

The effectiveness of each synthetic can be boosted when two preservatives that work in different ways are teamed up. Much like a doubles tennis team, one preservative can defend at the net while the other covers the back of the court, both waiting to tag-team microbes.

What is the law on parabens?

The maximum amount of methylparaben and propylparaben cosmetics companies are allowed to use is decided in relation to the entire make up of a product. This means that 0.4 percent of a formula can be methylparaben and 0.4 percent propylparaben, as per European Union (EU) regulation. The EU has much stricter policies around preservatives in cosmetic ingredients than Canada and the U.S. do. EU regulations limit the maximum concentration that cosmetic companies can use of each preservative in one formula, but not the number of preservatives they can use in each product.

You can find a press release from the EU here.

Are parabens safe?

Parabens have been used safely since the 1930s and have also been subject to numerous and comprehensive safety checks. Despite this, their use has been questioned since the University of Reading, U.K., published findings relating parabens to cancer in 2004. The conclusions drawn have since been thoroughly investigated and widely criticized by experts in the field.

Does Lush use parabens?

Lush prefers to use natural preservatives and we are working hard on eliminating all synthetic preservatives from our products. In the meantime, however, we use a maximum of two synthetic preservatives in any one product. Generally, this is either a team consisting of two types of parabens: methylparaben and propylparaben, or a team consisting of the chemical compound phenoxyethanol/2-phenoxyethanol and an alcohol called benzyl alcohol.

We use half the amount of paraben allowed by the EU in order to limit disruption to an individual’s protective microflora. “We could use double and make products last twice as long,” says Campbell. “But why would we want to when we could disrupt the skin’s protective microflora? We also believe that products are best used fresh and it’s better for a customer to get the right advice and use that product freshly when the ingredients are most active than have a product which sits in the bathroom and never goes off.”

Does Lush make products without parabens?

Yes. In every category, you will find products that are self-preserving, meaning they are preserved using natural ingredients and clever formulation. Take a look at solid shampoo bars, massage bars, bath bombs, bubble bars and more. As of 2016, 65 percent of our liquid products have been reformulated to be self-preserving.