What The Hell Is A Paraben, And What Is It Doing In My Shampoo?

I tried to ignore it.

Then I heard the word again. And again. I started Googling, and my heart started sinking. Parabens.

I like using shampoo and conditioner, and having nice shiny hair that smells like fruit. Yes, I was aware they weren’t great for the environment, but I protested (in my head) that my budget didn’t stretch to the organic, natural options. After all, some of them are frickin’ expensive. But now that I know what parabens are, I’m determined not to rub any more of them into my scalp.

What are parabens?

Parabens are chemical preservatives that have been hanging around since the 1930’s. They usually come with prefixes: methylparaben, ethylparaben, butylparaben, propylparabens are common. Pretty names for ugly toxins. While some parabens are found in nature, there is a difference between those naturally occuring parabens and the synthetic ones used as preservatives:

Parabens occur naturally at low levels in certain foods, such as barley, strawberries, currents, vanilla, carrots, and onions, although a synthetic preparation derived from petrochemicals is used in cosmetics. Parabens in foods are metabolized when eaten, making them less strongly estrogenic. In contrast, when applied to the skin and absorbed into the body, parabens in cosmetics bypass the metabolic process and enter the blood stream and body organs intact.

Where are parabens found?

Nearly everywhere! You can find parabens in most commercial shampoos, moisturisers, shaving gels, shower gels, personal lubricants, topical pharmaceutical creams, spray tan, make-up, toothpastes and sunscreen. Parabens are also added to processed food to stave off mould so that the “food” can sit on the shelf for months without going off. Lovely!

A Green Party survey in 2004 found that 81% of cosmetics available in New Zealand contains parabens. The real number is likely much higher as parabens which are mixed into perfume are simply listed as fragrance, and other companies may not disclose their ingredient lists. Good magazine asserts that “almost everyone will be exposed to them daily, unless they deliberately choose paraben-free products.”

Unlike the Prell lady, I don't find that thought particularly reassuring.

What’s up, Doc?

Like Bisphenol A, parabens are xenoestrogens. That means they mimic they way eostrogen acts in the human body and interfere with normal hormone function. In women, this can drive the growth of breast cancer. In 2004, researchers from Reading University discovered parabens in breast tumours. Back in 2002, a study from Tokyo found that newborn male mammals exposed to butylparabens showed that the parabens adversely affects the secretion of testosterone and the function of the male reproductive system.  There is a growing collection of reports with similar findings; that parabens affect normal hormonal function.

Other studies show that methylparaben applied on the skin reacts with UVB leading to increased skin aging and DNA damage. Kinda ironic if spendy anti-aging creams are actually causing premature skin aging.

Finally, parabens are skin irritants and can cause allergic reactions in some people.

What regulations does New Zealand have regarding parabens?

It took a while for this penny to drop.

I couldn’t find any information on New Zealand legislation regarding parabens in cosmetics. Then I realised, there aren’t any.

The Auckland Allergy Clinic says,

Cosmetics in New Zealand are only self-regulated by CTFA (Cosmetics, Toiletry, and Fragrance Association). The CTFA in NZ was formed in 1972 by a core group of cosmetics companies who were manufacturing their products in NZ at that time. In NZ there is a reasonable code of practice through the local CTFA. The problem arises where cosmetics are brought in from Asian countries where no similar requirements are applied. Some of these products can have undisclosed allergens, including peanuts.

What is even more worrying is the fact that there are at present no regulations in New Zealand that cover cosmetic ingredient labelling… In New Zealand it is still possible to buy cosmetics with no proper labelling, with known allergens omitted from the label or with the term “hypoallergenic” used loosely on the label.

…In New Zealand Product Safety Standards are regulations made under section 29 of the Fair Trading Act 1986. The purpose of these regulations is to prevent or reduce the risk of injury to any person. At the present time cosmetics are not included under the Product safety standard. From verbal communication with Medsafe & Consumer Affairs, there is no proposal for cosmetic labelling in New Zealand at this stage.

Even the head of the CTFA, Garth Wyllie, concedes “compliance [with the guidelines] is a problem.” That was enough to put me right off my Wella Balsam.

What now?

  • Go paraben free. Buy products which explicitly state they are free of parabens, and look out for parabens on package labels. Not all products will list parabens, but there are plenty which do and you can avoid these.
  • Many paraben-free products replace parabens with other synthetic preservatives, so check the ingredient list
  • Buy unscented/fragrance free products. These products may not actually be fragrance free, as they can contain both fragrance and masking agents to hide the fragrance. But you are likely to find fewer parabens in an “unscented” product than one which fills the room with flowery scents. This is partly because fragrances are often volatile chemicals, which require more preservatives so that the perfume does not diminish over time
  • Buy from this list of products (which admittedly needs updating) from the Green Party, which claim to be paraben free
  • Read Wendyl Nissen’s list of recommended beauty products. Nissen says that Living Nature and Dr Haushka are the only beauty products to be investigated by consumer that do NOT contain synthetic preservatives

Or make your own shampoo and conditioner! I haven’t tried it yet, but having read through the page on Frugal Kiwi’s blog, it really doesn’t seem that hard at all.


  1. wow, great blog post. I have been trying to eliminate parabens from our lives, but finding it really hard. I was washing my girls hair with Dr Bronners liquid castille and rinsing it with Apple cider vinegar – and it was LOVELY… but the vinegar smell a bit much.
    It is terrifying that NZ has no cosmetic regulations!

  2. Thanks Leonie! It is hard to eliminate parabens, they’re just in so many things. I’ve only just started the elimination process. I imagine that, while it’s easy to switch a few things, it rapidly gets harder to be completely paraben-free. And I agree, it is terrifying – think our government has totally dropped the ball on this one.

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