What is a paraben?
Parabens are a group of chemicals, which are widely used as preservatives in the cosmetic and pharmaceutical industries. They help to extend the shelf life of a product. On a label they may appear as; Methylparaben, Propylparaben, IIsoparaben or Butylparaben. Parabens are most commonly synthetically produced. However, there are naturally occurring Parabens.
Where would I find parabens?
Parabens can be found in many everyday items such as shampoos, moisturizers, shaving gels, cleansing gels and toothpaste. They are so very widely used that it can be difficult to find products that don’t use them.
Why are parabens potentially harmful?
There have been numerous studies on the subject of parabens. And depending on who you ask you will get a different story. In a 1998 study by researchers at Brunel University they found that parabens could mimic the hormone oestrogen , which is known to play a role in the development of breast cancers. A 2003 study by Dr. Darbre and colleagues at the University of Reading carried out tests on 20 different human breast tumours. Writing in the Journal of Applied Toxicology, they say they found traces of parabens in every sample. In the July 2002 issue of the Archives of Toxicology, Dr. S. Oishi of the Department of Toxicology, Tokyo Metropolitan Research Laboratory of Public Health reported that exposure of newborn male mammals to butylparaben “adversely affects the secretion of testosterone and the function of the male reproductive system.” While the FDA (Food and Drug Administration in the US) believes that “at the present time there is no reason for consumers to be concerned about the use of cosmetics containing parabens. However, the agency will continue to evaluate new data in this area.”
A summary of what we do and don’t know about parabens
While the studies so far cannot prove a cause and effect relationship between parabens and cancer. It sheds just enough suspicion to indicate that more research is needed.
So right now you are probably wondering what to do with all this information. Should you change your personal care product habits? Unfortunately there are no easy, clear-cut answers. But to help you make sense of it all, here’s a list of what we know and what we don’t know at this time.
We can say parabens…
• are contained in some breast cancer tissue
• are absorbed by the body
• appear to enter tissue via the skin, rather than ingestion
• promote estrogen-like activity in lab animals
We can not say…
• parabens cause cancer
• deodorants or antiperspirants cause cancer
• parabens inhabit the body only in breast tissue
The Precautionary Principle states: if there is the potential for harm, it’s best to err on the side of caution. So if you are concerned about parabens it would be best to try to limit your intake of them. To avoid them completely is practically impossible. Read the labels on your skincare, if it says ethylparaben, butylparaben, methylparaben, propylparaben, isopropyl and isobutylparaben, or parahydroxybenzoate then it contains parabens.
An alternative would be to use all natural skin care products.
1) In late 1998 John Sumpter’s group at Brunel University, UK, published a paper identifying parabens as oestrogen mimics (Routledge et al., 1998).
2) Darbre, P. D., Byford, J. R., Shaw, L. E., Hall, S., Coldham, N. G., Pope, G. S. and Sauer, M. J.(2003) Oestrogenic activity of benzylparaben. Journal of Applied Toxicology, 23 (1). pp. 43-51.
3) Oishi S. (2002) Effects of propyl paraben on the male reproductive system. Food Chem Toxicol. Dec;40(12):1807-13