Parabens

by Kate Dee, MD 

What are They?

Parabens are alkyl esters of p-hydroxybenzoic acid that are found naturally in raspberries and blackberries. They are common ingredients in food, pharmaceuticals and skin, hair and body products. They act as preservatives and are found in 90% of all cosmetics. Preservatives are necessary components in cosmetics and skin care products because without them, all these products would become overrun with bacteria, molds, and fungi shortly after opening. How long have your products been in your cabinet? As you pump that moisturizer into your hand, remember that preservatives are present to ensure you aren’t giving your skin a dose of fungus and bacteria. Parabens can occasionally cause an allergic reaction. People with true allergies to parabens should not use products that contain them.

What is the controversy?

Many people have decided to avoid parabens due to the notion that they may play a role as endocrine disrupters and in promoting breast cancer. In this well-written and thorough article, Dr. Leslie Baumann summarizes the scientific studies of parabens. This article by Paula Bergoun is also an excellent summary of the facts. To boil it down:

  • Parabens have been shown to have very weak estrogenic activity at a level 100,000 times less than estradiol and 10,000 times weaker than that of natural phytoestrogens found in foods we eat every day such as soy, beans, flax, cherries, blueberries, carrots, and cucumbers. This level of activity is so low that it is not remotely considered a health risk.
  • A controversial study sensationalized in the press in 2004 mistakenly linked parabens to breast cancer when their metabolites (not parabens themselves) were detected in a lab analysis of breast cancer tissue samples. The researcher who conducted this study responded to the resulting uproar, stating “No claim was made that the presence of parabens had caused the breast cancers.” In fact, as considerable global research has exhaustively demonstrated, parabens are broken down, metabolized and excreted harmlessly by the body.
  • All the major organizations that put out policies on cancer and product risks including The American Cancer Society, FDA, European and Canadian governing bodies for consumer products have official statements that there is no link to breast cancer than that there is no reason to avoid parabens in personal care products.

Are there natural alternatives?

What about paraben-free alternatives? In fact, Parabens are natural preservatives found in berries. It is a common myth that anti-oxidants like vitamin E, Grapefruit Seed Extract and rosemary extract are preservatives but they are not.  “Natural" brands often have to resort to using more synthetic preservatives to avoid using parabens-- “Paraben-Free” may be on the front of the label, but check the ingredients! In truth, as I stated above, every product must use some sort of preservative to prevent it from becoming rancid. Parabens have been subject to 20 years of extensive research and are among the most effective and gentlest ingredients on your skin available. Even blogs oriented towards producing “natural” skin care products list parabens as useful preservatives.

The Bottom Line:

Parabens are safe and effective and gentle on your skin. The only reason to avoid parabens is a known allergic reaction.

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