In 2004, when I was working as a product development/education manager for a direct sales company, I received several emails on a daily basis asking about the use of parabens in products. This was when parabens started to get a bad rap among consumers and companies were scrambling to find alternative preservative systems.
There are parabens in many products; you’ll see them listed as methylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben, ethylparaben, isopropylparaben and isobutylparaben. Parabens are preservatives that are added to skin, hair and body care products to protect the product and the consumer from the many types of bacteria and fungus that can grow in a product. These unwelcomed “critters” can compromise the integrity of a product (make it separate, make it smell bad) and can in some cases can hurt you (from skin rashes all the way to blindness). Parabens are the most-used preservatives in cosmetics and drugs, yet they are the least likely among traditional preservatives to cause irritation or allergies. They’ve been used in cosmetics since the 1930s and are among the safest ingredients used in cosmetics and drugs. Manufacturers use a blend of parabens in their products to protect against a wide range of contaminants (this is because some preservatives only protect against certain forms of bacteria, mold or fungus, etc). These blends of preservatives provide us with what we call "broad spectrum protection".
So what are the issues? Over the past 3 years, an email has been circulating that suggested antiperspirants and deodorants cause breast cancer. It then it suggested parabens may be the culprit because of their ability to mimic estrogen. This is pretty scary stuff considering that many of the personal care products that we use on ourselves and on our children contain parabens.
I’d like to address this issue because there is so much misinformation on the web about parabens. For the purposes of education, I am relying heavily on information from an article written for Skin Inc. magazine in January 2006 by Rebecca James Gadberry. (Editor’s note: This article originally appeared in the January 2006 issue of Skin Inc. Visit www.skininc.com). Ms. Gadberry is the instructor of Cosmetic Sciences in the Department of Humanities, Sciences, Social Sciences and Health Sciences at UCLA Extension in Los Angeles and is the leading ingredient authority in the professional skin care industry. Here’s what she has to say:
“Throughout the past decade, parabens have been recognized as several of the more than 8000 endocrine disrupters in the environment. These chemicals, which behave like animal estrogens, can affect hormone balances adversely or disrupt the normal function of organs that are controlled by hormones . . ..Because parabens are known to penetrate the skin, concern has been voiced by some watchdog organizations that those that are included in cosmetics might act as endocrine disrupters when applied to the skin. Cosmetic chemists who are familiar with the skin-penetration activity of parabens maintain that this is not possible because once they enter the skin, they form metabolites that are incapable of mimicking estrogen.” (emphasis added)
“At the beginning of 2004, a study was published by an English toxicologist that seems to put this accepted scientific knowledge into doubt.1 Philllipa Darbre, PhD, a senior cancer researcher at the University of Reading in the United Kingdom, reportedly stopped using antiperspirants in the mid-1990s, due to a gut feeling that they were connected to breast cancer. Seven years later, she looked for the presence of parabens—ingredients she believed were used in deodorants and antiperspirants—in 20 breast tumors and found them in 18. Although stopping short of stating that the parabens came from underarm products, she did claim that the chemical form of those she discovered indicated that they had been applied to the skin, rather than consumed. She advised that further research be completed in order to determine their source.
“Unfortunately, Darbre’s findings have been misreported widely by news agencies, cosmetic companies and others as proving that parabens cause breast cancer, with the likely contributors being antiperspirants and deodorants. Some reports even state that the Darbre study shows a clear connection between these products and breast cancer.
“In January 2005, the European Union’s Scientific Committee on Consumer Products (SCCP) published an opinion paper that evaluated paraben safety in relation to breast cancer.2 Shortcomings in the Darbre study are among its findings. These include the following:
“A lack of control tissue against which to measure paraben levels in other areas of the body or in breast that did not contain tumors.
“No report of the subjects’ therapeutic history, which may have uncovered other sources of paraben exposure.
“No mention of the paraben-containing anti-cancer drugs that the tumor subjects were using.
“No report of the subjects’ exposure to consumer products containing parabens.
“No description of how the tissue was handled. Contamination could have occurred then.
“And although Darbre suggests that the paraben source may be underarm cosmetics, the SCCP states that 98% of underarm products, including deodorants and antiperspirants, do not contain them. Therefore, it is highly doubtful that the substance could have come from these products.
“The SCCP concluded that ‘There is no evidence of demonstrable risk for the development of breast cancer caused by paraben-containing underarm cosmetics,’ especially in view of the weak estrogenic potential of these ingredients. ‘With regard to their general toxicological profile, acute, subacute and chronic toxicity studies in rats, dogs and mice have proven parabens to be practically nontoxic, not carcinogenic, not genotoxic or co-carcinogenic, and not teratogenic (i.e. fetal toxicants).’”
Additionally, both the National Cancer Institute (www.cancer.gov) and the American Cancer Society (www.cancer.org) have web pages dedicated to addressing the Internet rumor that antiperspirants and deodorants cause breast cancer. The National Cancer Institute states, “There is no conclusive research linking the use of underarm antiperspirants or deodorants and the subsequent development of breast cancer.” Regarding the Darbre study ACS states, “…this study did not prove that parabens cause breast tumors. The authors of this study did not analyze healthy breast tissue or tissues from other areas of the body, and did not demonstrate the parabens are found only in cancerous breast tissue. Furthermore, this research did not identify the source of the parabens and cannot establish that the accumulation of parabens is due to the use of deodorants or antiperspirants. More research is needed to specifically assess whether the use of deodorants or antiperspirants can cause the accumulation of parabens in breast tissue, and whether these chemicals can promote the development of breast cancer.” (www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/factsheet/Rish/AP-Deo)
Regarding parabens estrogen-like properties, the American Cancer Society states “While parabens have weak estrogen-like properties, the estrogens that occur naturally in the body are hundreds to thousands times more potent. Therefore, these natural estrogens (or those taken as hormone replacement) are much more likely to play a role in breast cancer development.” (www.cancer.org)
The bottom line is that the safety of parabens applied to the skin is practically conclusive. Parabens are among the safest ingredients used in cosmetics and drugs. They keep the product safe to use and keep the consumer safe from harm. However, most cosmetic companies are going “paraben-free”. Why? Personally, I think it’s easier to go paraben-free than it is to explain the errors in the Darbre study to your customers. Only a couple years ago, eliminating parabens was a costly endeavor for many companies raising their fill price by 30% in some cases, so many smaller manufacturers dug in their heels because they were unable to afford a change in formulation. But science has come a long way and cost effective paraben-free preservative systems are now available to manufacturers. This allows smaller manufacturers to switch over without a huge financial burden while providing the customer a product they feel safe using.
So, have I thrown out all the personal care products that I own that contain parabens? No. And you shouldn’t either. If you’re concerned about endocrine disrupters, look at your diet and your herbal supplements first and your personal care products last.
1Darbre et al, Concentrations of Parabens in Human Breast Tumors. Journal of Applied Toxicology (24), 5 (2004).
2SCCP Opinion on Parabens, Underarm Cosmetics and Breast Cancer (January 28, 2005).