Everything you ever wanted 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 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 is 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 campanies are allowed to use is decided in relation to the entire make up of a product. This means that 0.4% of a formula can be methylparaben and 0.19% propylparaben, as per EU regulation. 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, UK, published findings relating parabens to cancer in 2004. The conclusions drawn have since been thoroughly investigated and widely criticised by experts in the field. You can find out more here.

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 either a team consisting of two types of paraben: 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,” explains Daniel, “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. An increasing number of liquid products are also being reformulated to be self-preserving - 65% as of 2016.


Comments (2)


about 1 year ago

It's good that Lush are transparent with product ingredients - but disappointing that they still use parabens. I appreciate that the research linking parabens to health issues may be flawed. However its not just about health issues. Paraben's are derived from petrochemicals - which harm the planet. I find it conflicting that a unique selling point for Lush, is how much they are reducing / plastic free / helping the planet - when one of the worst things they can do is to use petrochemicals! It seems counter productive. There are MANY skincare companies that don't use Parabens - so the technology is there. I do hope they can review this and change for the good of the planet. xx (07/18)

about 2 years ago

I am quite shocked that Lush use parabens, I don't buy products containing parabens for my own personal use. 5 yrs ago I had breast cancer and at that time I read an article linking parabens to breast cancer and made the decision to avoid parabens from that time.