Parabens are alkyl derivatives(R part image below) of Para-hydroxybenzoic acid (PHBA). They are naturally occuring preservatives found in many plants and animals and are also found in many cosmetics ranging from body creams to lipsticks. They work to kill a wide range of fungi and bacteria, cheap to obtain and are thought to not accumulate in the body.
In fact, they are probably ideal preservatives if not for this niggling question, are they carcinogenic?
A lot of the controversy comes from a Philippa Dabre’s paper (1) on breast cancer tissue. Dabre theorized that since most breast cancer lumps are found close to where antiperspirants are applied to armpits, it is safe to say that parabens in antiperspirants may play a part in causing them. There are many holes in this sort of reasoning; for instance, what are the level of parabens in healthy breast cells? If they happen to be same in both healthy and cancer breast cells, maybe the presence of parabens doesn’t say much?
In another paper (2) , she explored whether parabens mimicked oestrogen. It is accepted that over-exposure to oestrogen may cause breast cancer. If parabens, found in 75-90% of personal care products are able to behave like oestrogen, this could mean they play a part in increasing cancer rates.
She found out that although parabens did have oestrogenic properties, they did not bind to estrogen receptors nearly as effectively as 17-beta-oestradiol. For instance, butyl-paraben had an oestrogenic activity 100,000 times weaker than oestradial’s. Although breast cancer lumps could be caused by parabens, several other things could also cause them. In fact, it could even be another ingredient commonly found in antiperspirants. Who knows?
Another study (3) used a topically applied cream containing 2% butyl-paraben, which I must add is a concentration 100 times more than the average concentration found in products. It was a short-term study so I believe this high concentration was meant to adjust for its length. The study showed that even at this concentration for a 25hr period, the body was able to metabolize and excrete butyl-paraben as PHBA.
Fun fact: PHBA is naturally found in your bloodstream as a breakdown product of tyrosine, an amino acid.
I hope I’ve been able to show you that answers in nature are never completely straightforward and I do believe it will be a while before we have a definite answer on this question. To complicate things even more, politics, vested interests, and sometimes just bad science tangle answers even more.
However, I understand not wanting to use products that contain them until the science has been sorted out. You just have to be diligent though; a lot of products are replacing parabens with possibly even more dangerous preservatives like silver (which definitely DOES accumulate).
Will I still use paraben-containing products? Yes. I am yet to see results out rightly showing me that parabens are cancer-causing. Honestly, I suspect they are not. Parabens are found in fruits at a level of 60 parts per million (0.006%) and most formulations cannot exceed the 0.02% mark. This is considering that cosmetics have to last longer than fruits(obviously) and aren’t stored in the fridge.
But what do you think? Are you swearing off parabens or will you continue to use them? Sound off below!
- P. Dabre “Underarm Cosmetics and Breast Cancer” Journal of Applied Toxicology, 23(2). Pp. 89-95(2003)
- P. Dabre et al “Comparison of the global gene expression profiles produced by methylparaben, n-butylparaben and 17-beta-oestradiol in MCF7 human breast cancer cells” Journal of Applied Toxicology, 23(2) Pp. 89-95(2006)
- R. Jangua et al. “Systemic Uptake of butyl-paraben following whole-body topical application and reproductive and thyroid hormone levels in humans” Environ. Sci. and Technol. 41, 5564-5570 (2007)