Science at CHS – Parabens



This article, the first in a three part series regarding general consumer product awareness, explores the potential health risks associated with parabens in the cosmetics and personal care industry.

These days, “paraben-free” is a popular consumer-marketing trend, and specifically, it’s created a lot of noise in the beauty product industry.  As consumers, we know we’re supposed to avoid parabens, but no one seems to explain why parabens are bad, or even why “paraben-free” is the future.

Delving briefly into the science of the matter, parabens are chemical preservatives used widely in the cosmetic and personal care industry, where they are added to consumer goods such as makeup, shampoo and conditioner, deodorant, shaving cream, sunscreen, lotion, and toothpaste. Parabens, as preservatives, prevent microbial growth, thereby extending the shelf life of beauty products.

First discovered by scientists in the 1920s and used originally in pharmaceutical products, parabens were gradually introduced to cosmetics as early as the 1950s, being formally approved for cosmetic use in 1984, where they replaced formaldehyde as the most common cosmetic preservative. Their proliferation in the cosmetic industry stems from being inexpensive and easy to mass-produce.

The “paraben-free” trend first arose as a result of a 2004 Journal of Applied Toxicology study, spearheaded by Philippa Darbre, a biomolecular research scientist from England, who found parabens in breast cancer tissue biopsies. Although the results did not specifically prove a causal effect for breast cancer, parabens are known to disrupt hormone function by mimicking estrogens produced naturally in the body. Darbre’s research laid the groundwork suggesting a possible link between parabens and breast cancer that required further research.

Despite countless studies since 2004 by the two primary advocates for United States consumer safety, the American Cancer Society and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), both have stated that studies to date do not bolster scientific claims of the danger of parabens. Specifically, the FDA reports it does “not have information showing that parabens as they are used in cosmetics have an effect on human health.”  Further, the American Cancer Society states that it has not found any direct link between paraben use and consumer health. Ultimately, both oversight bodies maintain that, based on current studies, parabens are safe in small amounts when used in personal-care products.

Despite reassurances by oversight bodies, consumers who wish to avoid paraben exposure need only take a cursory glance at a product’s ingredient list to identify parabens. The six most common parabens found in cosmetic and personal good products are methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben, isopropylparaben, butylparaben, and isobutylparaben.

While today there are mixed messages surrounding parabens and health risks, no empirical research has been conclusive enough to show a direct cause-effect relationship between parabens and cancer. However, studies over the past 14 years raise questions about paraben exposure and the effects parabens may have on human health, especially using multiple products simultaneously. It is up to us, the consumers, to remain skeptical and make informed decisions. As for me, while the results are still out, I’ll take the “safe, not sorry” route and avoid parabens whenever possible.

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