Over the past few years, we have seen news articles reporting an association between parabens and breast cancer. These reports suggest that parabens can cause breast cancer by acting like estrogen, a female sex hormone, through a process called endocrine distruption. Advocacy groups such as the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and the Environmental Working Group have cautioned against the use of paraben-containing products, giving parabens a hazard score of 8 on a scale of 1-10. (Phthalates get a scary 10 – more on that in a future jot.)
But what are parabens and are they worth avoiding?
Parabens and Cosmetics
Parabens are a class of preservatives that are used in a variety of foods, drugs, and cosmetics to prevent the growth of harmful microorganisms. Chemically, parabens are esters of p-hydroxybenzoic acid. The most common parabens used in cosmetic products are methyl paraben, propyl paraben, and butyl paraben. Parabens are typically used at levels ranging from 0.01 to 0.3% (per paraben).
Parabens have been used for decades as preservatives in the cosmetic industry and is recognized as safe by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Additionally, a report by the Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) Expert Panel issued on June 19, 2006, concluded that methyl paraben, ethyl paraben, propyl paraben, isopropyl paraben, butyl paraben, isobutyl paraben, and benzyl paraben are safe as used in cosmetics. (Note: the CIR is an industry-sponsored organization that reviews cosmetic ingredient safety and publishes its results in open, peer-reviewed literature.)
How Do Parabens End Up in the Body?
Up to 60 percent of topically applied chemicals in cosmetics, lotions, and other personal care products may be absorbed through the skin. In addition to this dermal route, parabens can enter the body through the ingestion of food that contains parabens. However, orally ingested parabens are believed to be metabolized rapidly. A third potential route is via inhalation of parabens in the air. A recent study reported the detection of parabens in indoor air and house dust, probably due to the prevalence of parabens in household and personal care products (Rudel et al., 2009).
The Paraben Fuss
Concerns about parabens stem from studies showing measurable levels of parabens in human tissue, including breast tumors (Darbre et al., 2004; Soni et al., 2001). While parabens are believed to not bioaccumulate, once in the body, they could act as weak estrogen mimics (Kang et al., 2002; Routledge et al., 1998). The danger of estrogen mimics lies in their potential to disrupt normal hormonal balance and physiological functions. Oishi has found that the administration of parabens to male rats resulted in lowered testosterone and sperm production (Oishi, 2001).
The link to breast cancer is more tenuous. While estrogenic activity is associated with certain forms of breast cancer, and estrogenic suppression is important in the treatment of these cancers, it has been argued that the estrogenic activity of parabens is 10,000-to 100,000-fold less than naturally occurring estradiol (a form of estrogen) and also less than that of phytoestrogens naturally found in foods, e.g. flavonoids in soy.
FDA has also pointed out that current studies have not established causality between parabens and breast cancer. Considering the low levels used in cosmetics, “FDA 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.” (see FDA statement issued on March 24, 2006)
Although there is no direct evidence linking parabens to breast cancer, there is similarly no evidence that permits us to conclude with certainty that parabens are safe. Their long-term health impact is unknown at this point. We understand that such research is difficult and lengthy in undertaking, and while we sit tight and wait for new data, we believe it is prudent to not unnecessarily expose ourselves and our customers to potentially hazardous chemicals. And yes, while we understand that it is frequently the dose that makes the poison, and one might argue that parabens are used at such low levels to pose no harm, we need to remember that they are often used in combination – a product may contain more than 1 type of paraben bringing the total concentration closer to 1% – and are ubiquitous in household and personal care products such that one’s exposure could add up quite quickly. Research has also shown that repeated applications of paraben-containing product may increase the quantities of parabens crossing the skin barrier (El Hussein, 2007).
We have no issue with other companies using parabens in their products. They are FDA approved preservatives that are highly effective and economical. However, we cannot in good conscience use parabens knowing that alternatives are available. In line with our philosophy, we want to avoid “iffy” chemicals, so until we know what’s the real deal with parabens, we will continue to keep them out of our products.
1. Darbre, P.D. et al. Concentrations of parabens in human breast tumours. Journal of Applied Toxicology. 24 5–13 (2004)
2. El Hussein, S. et al. Assessment of principal parabens used in cosmetics after their passage through human-epidermis layers (ex-vivo study). Experimental Dermatology.16 (10) 830-836 (2007)
3. Kang, K.S. et al. Decreased sperm number and motile activity on the F1 offspring maternally exposed to butyl p-hydroxybenzoic acid (butylparaben). The Journal of Veterinary Medical Science. 64 (3) 227–235 (2002)
4. Oishi S. Effects of butyl paraben on the male reproductive system in rats. Toxicology and Industrial Health. 17 (1)31-39 (2001)
5. Routledge, E.J. et al. Some alkyl hydroxy benzoate preservatives (parabens) are estrogenic. Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology. 153 (1) 12–19 (1998)
6. Soni, M.G. et al. Safety assessment of propyl paraben: a review of the published literature. Food and Chemical Toxicology. 39 (6) 513–532 (2001)
7. Rudel et al. Endocrine disrupting chemicals in indoor and outdoor air. Atmospheric Environment. 43 170–181 (2009)
8. FDA statement on March 24, 2006: http://www.fda.gov/Cosmetics/ProductandIngredientSafety/SelectedCosmeticIngredients/ucm128042.htm
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