Parabens: What are they, and are they really that bad?

Parabens are a common cosmetic ingredient—and, lately, the object of much vilification. Find out what they really are and whether you should be seeking out paraben-free products

By Anne Mullens

Parabens: What are they, and are they really that bad?

You may have noticed lately that “paraben free” labels have been popping up on some beauty products at the drugstore and elsewhere. Parabens are the most widely used preservatives in personal care products; they stop fungus, bacteria and other microbes from growing in your favourite creams and makeup, especially in the moist, warm environment of a bathroom.

Their names are a mouthful—methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben and isobutylparaben. You’ll find them listed on thousands of personal care products such as shampoos, mascara, foundations and body lotions. But over the past few years, a debate has been building among scientists, product safety regulators and cosmetic manufacturers about whether these ubiquitous chemicals, used for almost 70 years, may actually be harmful to our health.

Some of the questions being asked: Is the rising incidence of breast cancer linked in part to the fact that parabens, which have a weak ability to mimic estrogen, have been found in breast cancer tumours and can be isolated from other body tissues? Are declining sperm counts and increasing rates of male breast cancer and testicular cancer related to the fact that these chemicals can be absorbed into our skin, potentially disrupting our endocrine systems?

We don’t know yet. But some researchers feel there may be reason for concern. One of the most vocal is Philippa Darbre, a senior lecturer in oncology and researcher in biomolecular sciences at the University of Reading, in England. She specializes in the impact of estrogen on breast cancer. In 2004, Darbre’s team published a pivotal study that detected parabens in 18 of 20 samples of tissue from breast tumour biopsies. Her study didn’t prove parabens cause cancer, only that they were easily detected among cancerous cells. The study was criticized for not comparing paraben levels in normal tissue, but nevertheless, the results called out for more investigation.

“We’ve known for more than 25 years that estrogen exposure is linked to breast cancer development and progression; it is the reason tamoxifen [commonly prescribed to women with breast cancer] is used to disrupt estrogen receptors,” says Darbre. “So it is not such a leap to be concerned that repeated, cumulative, long-term exposure to chemicals that weakly mimic estrogen might be having an impact.”

Darbre is particularly concerned about lotions and deodorants being applied under the arms or near the breast, and hasn’t used underarm deodorant herself for 10 years, opting instead to use just soap and water. She notes that research has found that roughly 55 percent of all breast cancer tumours occur in the upper outside portion of the breast, the section closest to the underarm. The U.S. National Cancer Institute has partly dismissed the claim, maintaining that at present, there is no decisive evidence to conclude that the parabens in these products are linked to breast cancer, but that more research is needed.

Parabens: Evaluating the risks

One recent Danish study, however, raised concerns. It showed that parabens could be detected in the blood and urine of healthy young male volunteers a few hours after paraben-containing lotions were applied to their skin. The authors concluded that since the chemicals could be absorbed, metabolized and excreted, they “could potentially contribute to adverse health effects.”

But Health Canada, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and the Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR), a U.S.-based industry-sponsored panel of experts that evaluates the safety of cosmetic ingredients, have all deemed that parabens are safe at current exposure levels. The CIR examined parabens in 1984 and again in 2005, and both times concluded that parabens at the low levels found in personal care products are not a concern. In 2005, the European Commission’s Scientific Committee on Consumer Products confirmed that the use of methyl- and ethyl-paraben is safe as regulated. It is gathering data on other parabens.

But researchers and organizations such as the U.S. Environmental Working Group say research must not just look at individual product exposure but must find a way to evaluate the cumulative impact of many products used over many years. EWG’s surveys show the average adult consumer uses nine personal care products a day.

For consumers like Jude Isabella, a Victoria mom and the editor of a national children’s science magazine, the debate, while inconclusive, is enough for her to limit her exposure. Since cancer runs in her family, she shops for cosmetic products labelled “paraben free,” including expensive organic deodorant from a health food store for her two teenage boys. “Why slather yourself with chemicals when we don’t yet have the answer? I’m not paranoid, but I’d rather err on the side of caution,” she says.

Darren Praznik, president of the Canadian Cosmetic, Toiletry and Fragrance Association (the leading trade association for personal care products in Canada), says the organization is very sensitive to consumer concerns, but that the ingredients used in products are strictly regulated and monitored by Health Canada. “We are satisfied that the regulation process is robust, science-based and protects the consumer.”

Some manufacturers have gone on the record about their long-term plans to find paraben replacements. Jamieson Laboratories, a Canadian firm that makes vitamins, supplements and skin creams, notes that while there is no firm evidence that parabens pose a health risk, it now has five paraben-free products and is working to remove parabens from more of its products, predominantly to satisfy growing consumer demand. “We have not set a specific deadline, but are working aggressively to eliminate parabens in our products,” says Gary Leong, vice-president of scientific and technical affairs for Jamieson. He notes that until effective alternatives are found, more consumers might actually be harmed by microorganisms growing in their products than by the theoretical paraben threat.

Is there an alternative to parabens?

There is truth to that point; even paraben-free product producers like Alain Ménard, of the Hawkesbury, Ont.-based Green Beaver Company, say it’s a challenge to formulate products without parabens’ preservative talents. Ménard, a microbiologist, and his wife, biochemist Karen Clark, worked in the chemical and pharmaceutical industries for years before starting Green Beaver, largely over concerns about health risks of common chemicals. Clark formulates products and Ménard tests them for microbiological safety before they’re released.

“Creams and lotions are the toughest. We often have to go back to the drawing board because on testing we have got something growing in it,” says Ménard. As preservatives, Green Beaver uses oregano, thyme, rosemary, goldenseal root, grapefruit seed extract or lavender oil in various combinations, but they’re always looking for other formulations and combinations with natural preservative properties.

“The reason parabens are used so widely is that they are cheap and effective,” says Ménard, noting that parabens largely replaced formaldehyde many decades ago as a preservative. “We don’t want to take a step back to that chemical. Everyone is looking for better alternatives.”

So until consumers decide they’re happy storing cosmetic products in the fridge, most companies will continue to use parabens while searching for preservatives without estrogenic qualities. Meanwhile, scientists like Darbre aim to add to the body of evidence to clarify the debate.

Notes Ménard: “I’m sure that in the next 10 years, parabens will be phased out. That may not be so much because of conclusive evidence as consumer demand.”

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Best Health Magazine, Summer 2008

Average: 3.6 (120 votes)