Parabens: Are They Really a Problem?

In This Article:

Whether it is a cleanser, lotion, toner, blush, foundation, or mascara, without preservatives these everyday items would become overloaded with bacteria, mold, and fungus, making them harmful to skin, eyes, and mucous membranes. However, as necessary as preservatives are to the safety of cosmetics, they've had their share of woes over the years. Today, parabens are generating buzz for allegedly being bad ingredients. But do parabens deserve their bad, media-fueled reputation? Let's get to the surprising facts!
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Should You Avoid Parabens?

In a word, no. Despite the media frenzy surrounding parabens, the published research and global cosmetic regulatory organizations are making that answer clear: parabens, especially in the small amounts used in personal-care products, do not pose a significant health risk. There is no legitimate reason for consumers to avoid cosmetic products that contain parabens. According to these studies, parabens are "fully metabolized before they enter the blood stream." In a review of the estrogenic activity of parabens, the author concluded that based on maximum daily exposure estimates, "it was impossible that parabens could increase the risk associated with exposure to estrogenic chemicals." We repeat: Impossible.

Parabens may come in the form of butylparaben, ethylparaben, isobutylparaben, methylparaben, or propylparaben, and in a misunderstanding of a 2004 research study, they were mistakenly linked to breast cancer when their metabolites (not parabens themselves) were detected in breast cancer tissue samples.

But not so fast! Soon after the panic over parabens began, the researcher who conducted the 2004 study (P. Darbre) responded in Journal of Applied Toxicology to the media-drawn connection between parabens and cancer with a clear statement, “No claim was made that the presence of parabens had caused the breast cancers.” In fact, as the considerable global research has exhaustively demonstrated, parabens are broken down, metabolized and excreted harmlessly by the body. That statement refutes the crux of the scare tactics being used to convince you parabens are bad ingredients.

Another cause for suspicion? Parabens are phytoestrogens, producing a weak estrogenic effect on the body, but whenever the effect of an ingredient is evaluated perspective is critical. That is, how do tiny levels of parabens in skin care stack up against other phytoestrogens that occur naturally in food or the estrogenic effects of commonly consumed medicines? In-vivo testing demonstrated parabens were 10,000 times weaker than naturally occurring phytoestrogens, such as those found in the foods and medicines we consume every day.

Parabens vs. Other Natural Ingredients

We often think of plants as being benign and cast suspicion only on synthetic ingredients (often misbranded as "chemicals" when in fact every ingredient is composed of chemicals), but human endocrine-disrupting sources have their origin in plants, such as marijuana, or in medicines such as acetaminophen. Despite what many "natural/organic" brands lead consumers to believe, parabens actually have a very "natural" origin. They are formed from an acid (p-hydroxy-benzoic acid) found in raspberries and blackberries. What's ironic is that "natural" brands often have to resort to using more synthetic preservatives to avoid using parabens—a direct contradiction to their own marketing!

The fact is that "natural" doesn't inherently mean safe and "chemical" doesn't mean dangerous. What really matters is the research. A study conducted at the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston investigated the estrogenic effects of licorice root, black cohosh, dong quai, and ginseng. The results showed that "Dong quai and ginseng both significantly induced the growth of MCF-7 [cancer] cells." Another study concluded that "Commercially available products containing soy, red clover, and herbal combinations induced an increase in the MCF-7 [breast cancer] proliferation rates, indicating an estrogen-antagonistic activity...". Despite this evidence, when was the last time you read a media report or received a forwarded e-mail about the breast cancer risk from soy, licorice or ginseng? In contrast, you've likely seen media reports or emails regarding parabens and their link to estrogenic activity.

International Safety Assessments of Parabens

Wondering what the U.S. and global science community has found on this issue? Here are studies weighing in on the established safety record of parabens in skin- care products:

  • The American Cancer Society has concluded, based on its research findings, that the scientific and medical research does not support a claim that the use of parabens in cosmetics can increase an individual’s risk of developing breast cancer.
     
  • The FDA began studying the effects of parabens in response to the outcry of their potential estrogenic effect and link to breast cancer. The FDA found that parabens are safe for use in cosmetics, and it also says that, based on the weight of all the current scientific evidence, there is no reason for consumers to be concerned about the use of products containing parabens.
     
  • The Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety: Final Opinion on Parabens, which is the official statement by the European Union on the unequivocal safety of parabens in skin care, cosmetics and personal care products. This summary of decades of long-term and short-term safety data reinforced the EUs previous decision that parabens are safe in personal care products.
     
  • Health Canada, the Canadian FDA-equivalent, also finds that, "Currently, there is no evidence to suggest a causal link between parabens and breast cancer."
     
  • The Personal Care Products Council, a US organization that reviews and assesses the safety of ingredients used in cosmetics in an open, unbiased and expert manner, consolidated more than 265 studies in The Journal of Toxicology that noted a women’s daily cosmetic regimen using products that contain parabens caused no adverse reproductive effects and confirmed the safety of parabens.

Other research has even refuted the long-held belief that parabens are among the more sensitizing preservatives in cosmetics, stating that "...these ubiquitous compounds have withstood four decades of extensive skin testing conducted by a variety of organizations, both North American and European, and now, it seems parabens have shown to be one of the least sensitizing preservatives in commercial use."

Toxicology Letters reported in December 2013 that in references to parabens causing health issues "Overall, despite of 20 years of research a human health risk from exposure to low concentrations of exogenous chemical substances with weak hormone-like activities remains an unproven and unlikely hypothesis."

Bottom Line

Ironically, parabens are naturally occurring chemicals. It's ironic because many natural skin-care brands claim ingredients like parabens are dangerous, when in fact parabens have exhaustive safety data AND are naturally produced by vegetables and fruits. Foods such as soy, beans, flax, cherries, blueberries, carrots, and cucumbers produce parabens and other chemicals that mimic estrogen—to a much greater degree than the miniscule amounts of parabens used in skin care, hair care, and makeup.

Despite this fact, when was the last time you read a media report or received a forwarded e-mail about the breast cancer risk from cucumbers, beans or berries? In contrast, you've likely seen media reports or emails regarding parabens and their link to estrogenic activity. The truth is that on a global scale, there is an exhaustive degree of scientific and medical studies demonstrating the safety of parabens used in skin care and cosmetics. So the next time you read a story that vaguely indicates parabens are unsafe, think twice before you believe the hype and remember the facts--the tiny levels used in your personal care products are not harmful.

Additional Sources:  Drug Metabolism and Pharmacokinetics, October 2010, pages 568-577; http://ec.europa.eu/health/scientific_committees/consumer_safety/docs/sccs_o_041.pdf; International Journal of Toxicology, Supplement 4, 2008, pages 1-82; Water Research, November 2008, pages 4578–4588; Cosmetics & Toiletries, March 2010, pages 80-83 and January 2005, page 22; Toxicology, January 2005, pages 471–488; Menopause, March–April 2002, pages 145–150; Critical Reviews in Toxicology, Golden et al, 2005; Menopause, May–June 2004, pages 281–289;  Journal of the American Medical Women's Association, Spring 2002, pages 85–90; Journal of Steroid Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, January 2002, pages 49–60; American Journal of Epidemiology October 1996, pages 642–644)

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About the Experts

Paula Begoun is the best-selling author of 20 books on skin care and makeup. She is known worldwide as the Cosmetics Cop and creator of Paula's Choice. Paula's expertise has led to hundreds of appearances on national and international television including:

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The Paula's Choice Research Team is dedicated to helping you find the absolute best products for your skin, using research-based criteria to review beauty products from an honest, balanced perspective. Each member of the team was personally trained by Paula herself.

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