Have you noticed an increasing number of labels on personal care products with the words “paraben-free”? Parabens are synthetic chemicals used as an antimicrobial preservative and are found in a staggering array of products, from hand soap to toothpaste. They are known hormone disruptors (more about this below) and have been found in the tissue of breast cancer tumors, but the FDA and mainstream cosmetics industry maintain that they are safe. What?! We set out to get a handle on the paraben puzzle—here’s what we found.
What are parabens?
Parabens, short for “para-hydroxybenzoate,” are a class of preservatives widely used in cosmetics and personal care products (as well as pharmaceuticals and food)—they are used to prevent bacteria, yeast and mold. There are six types of parabens most commonly used in personal care products: methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben, isobutylparaben, butylparaben and benzylparaben. Unlike some dizzyingly complicated chemical names, parabens are easy to spot on product labels because they end in “paraben.”
What are hormone disruptors?
In the 1990s the scientific community became increasingly aware that some synthetic chemicals are able to interfere with the function of our hormones—these chemicals are called hormone disruptors (also called endocrine disruptors). With this discovery, many ingredients previously considered safe, such as parabens, were now being considered for their hormone disrupting potential. Hormone disruptors act by mimicking our natural hormones. Our bodies are “fooled” by these imitation hormones, which results in the corruption of our natural hormonal processes. Within the category of hormone disruptors are xenoestrogens, synthetic chemicals that mimic estrogen. A number of studies have shown that parabens fall into the xenoestrogens’ group; xenoestrogens may be linked to high rates of breast cancer, and reproductive problems in women and decreased sperm counts, prostate and testicular cancer in men. The FDA acknowledges that estrogenic activity in the body is associated with certain forms of breast cancer.
Parabens and breast cancer
Which brings us to a study published in 2004 in the Journal of Applied Toxicology that detected five types of intact parabens in 18 of 20 samples of breast tumors. The study discusses this finding in the context of the estrogen-like properties of parabens and the influence of estrogen on breast cancer. According to the lead researcher, Philippa Darbre, the chemical form of the parabens had been absorbed through the skin (via deodorants, lotion, and other personal care products). The presence of intact parabens in tumor tissue shows not only that these chemicals are absorbed through the skin, but that they also persist and accumulate in breast cancer tissue without degradation. This is the study that most likely started the “deodorants cause breast cancer” scare—and while we take that risk very seriously, the study didn’t draw a firm connection between breast cancer and personal care products.
Safe or scary?
Both the FDA and the European Union have revisited the safety issue of parabens and have deemed them safe for consumers, but many people agree that more research needs to be conducted. Many people believe that there is enough evidence to warrant caution in the use of products containing parabens. Here’s our take. The level of parabens in one lotion may (or may not) be okay—but consider this: Parabens are found in shampoos, moisturizers, shaving gels, cleansing gels, sunscreens, topical pharmaceuticals, toothpaste, and many more personal care items. In fact, parabens are found in tens of thousands of personal care products. Parabens are just one type of xenoestrogen to which women are exposed, so we can only imagine both the cumulative effect and the interaction of parabens with other xenoestrogens, and with the body’s own estrogens – all of which affect endocrine function. Yipes.
Because of this, many companies have adopted a “precautionary principal” and have removed parabens from their products. With so many questions about parabens left unanswered, why not compare labels next time you’re shopping for personal care products? The paraben names are easy to spot, and a good ingredient to avoid. True parabens do extend the shelf life of a product. But, personally, my hormones are quite content as they are—they don’t need a flood of estrogen-costumed synthetic chemicals coming in to crash the party. Paraben-free is sounding better and better.