Valerie Monroe
Photo: Jonathan Skow
Q: What are parabens, and do I need to be wary of them?.

A: Parabens are preservatives used in many beauty products (among other things, like toothpaste and food). Do you need to be wary of them? (I know, you just asked me that. I'm stalling.) On the one hand, studies have indicated that parabens can be absorbed by the skin and can disrupt the body's endocrine activity by mimicking estrogen. Yikes. On the other hand, according to the FDA, levels of parabens in cosmetics are so low that it's "implausible that [they] could increase the risk associated with exposure to estrogenic chemicals," meaning that the FDA thinks they're safe. The Cosmetic Ingredient Review, an organization that assesses the safety of ingredients in cosmetics, supports that conclusion. And parabens do keep nasty microbes from invading our lotions and creams. 

Bottom line: The very good question many people are asking is, Why not use other, potentially less harmful preservatives? Some companies are, which is why you're now seeing more products labeled "paraben-free." If you're the kind of person who double-locks your doors, you'll use them.