Parabens: Are They Really a Problem?
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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."
Mostly the paraben issue is overwrought and overhyped with lots of misleading information, but if you choose to avoid these ingredients a quick look at the ingredient label on any cosmetic will give you that option. Parabens may come in the form of butylparaben, ethylparaben, isobutylparaben, methylparaben, or propylparaben, and they have been linked distantly (meaning in limited studies and with only a handful of subjects or animal studies) to breast cancer due to their weak estrogenic activity and their presence in a tiny number of breast cancer tissue samples. That cancer connection, however distant, and the media firestorm surrounding parabens, has some people worried. Regardless of what you decide about parabens, you should know that there is no research proving parabens should be avoided when you shop for personal-care products for yourself or your family. Read on to learn more about parabens and the controversy surrounding their use.
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.
Parabens and Estrogen
Even if parabens have an estrogenic effect on the body what would that mean? Any estrogen, including the estrogen our bodies produce, may bind to receptor sites on cells either strongly or weakly. So, if parabens were to blame, the thinking is that they can either stimulate the receptor to imitate the effect of our own estrogen in a positive way, or they can generate an abnormal estrogen response. Ironically, plant estrogens, or phytoestrogens (such as those found in soy), also produce chemicals that mimic estrogen, and to a much greater degree than what research on parabens has shown. It is possible that a weak plant estrogen can help the body, but it can also be possible that a strong plant estrogen can make matters worse. For example, there is research that shows coffee to be a problem for fibrocystic breast disease. The reason for this is thought to be because coffee exerts estrogenic effects on breast cells. The same concerns have been demonstrated for plant extracts such as dong quai, flax, and lavender, to name a few.
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, 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)