Dear EarthTalk: A friend of mine recently stopped using skin and beauty products with parabens in them. What are parabens and should we all be avoiding them? –– Betsy Johnson, Port Chester, NY
First commercialized in the 1950s, parabens are a group of synthetic compounds commonly used as preservatives in a wide range of health, beauty and personal care products. If the product you are using contains methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben and isobutylparaben, it has parabens.
These ingredients are added to deodorants, toothpastes, shampoos, conditioners, body lotions and makeups, among other products, to stop the growth of fungus, bacteria and other potentially damaging microbes. Researchers have also found that some 90 percent of typical grocery items contain measurable amounts of parabens, which is why even those who steer clear of potentially harmful personal care products also carry parabens around in their bloodstreams.
What worries public health advocates is that while individual products may contain limited amounts of parabens within safe limits set by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA), cumulative exposure to the chemicals from several different products could be overloading our bodies and contributing to a wide range of health problems. “Of greatest concern is that parabens are known to disrupt hormone function, an effect that is linked to increased risk of breast cancer and reproductive toxicity,” reports the non-profit Campaign for Safe Cosmetics (CSC). “Parabens mimic estrogen by binding to estrogen receptors on cells.” Research has shown that the perceived influx of estrogen beyond normal levels can in some cases trigger reactions such as increasing breast cell division and the growth of tumors.
CSC cites a 2004 British study that detected traces of five parabens in the breast tumors of 19 out of 20 women studied. “This small study does not prove a causal relationship between parabens and breast cancer, but it is important because it detected the presence of intact parabens—unaltered by the body’s metabolism—which is an indication of the chemical’s ability to penetrate skin and remain in breast tissue.” According to the group, a more recent study found higher levels of one paraben, n-propylparaben, in the axilla quadrant of the breast where the highest proportion of breast tumors is found. CSC reports that parabens have also been linked to reproductive, immunological, neurological and skin irritation problems.
Health advocates are pressuring the FDA to ban parabens in products sold in the U.S.—like the European Union did in 2012—but concerned consumers must take matters into their own hands for now by reading product labels and avoiding products with parabens.
“Many natural and organic cosmetics manufacturers have found effective alternatives to parabens to prevent microbial growth in personal care products,” reports CSC. “Some companies have created preservative-free products that have shorter shelf lives than conventional products (six months to a year), but if used daily are likely to be used up before they expire.” Readers can check out Breast Cancer Action’s list of over 100 cosmetics and personal care product makers committed to avoiding parabens in their products. Also, see if your favorite products contain parabens or other risky ingredients via Environmental Working Group’s free online “Skin Deep” database.