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Parabens in Cosmetics

Posted Jan 05 2009 2:47pm

Chances are you’ve heard or read something lately about parabens. More than likely it’s passionately negative and accompanied by the words “cancer” and “estrogen-like”. These are scary words. Yet cosmetic companies world wide still use parabens in thousands of products. Why is this? Let’s take a good, logical look at the information available.

What are Parabens?

They are the most commonly usedpreservativesin cosmetics products that protect against mold, fungi and bacteria that can cause irritations and infections. Most cosmetics have high water content and it’s important to protect and stabilize them. Often, more than one paraben is used in a product to protect against a wide-range of contaminants.   Parabens are also used as food additives.

All commercially used parabens are synthetically produced, although some are identical to those found in nature. Blueberries contain methylparaben…who knew?

What started all the controversy?

The whole idea has been completely sensationalized, and when most people talk about it, they’re claiming that “Parabens have been shown to cause breast cancer”. What they are referencing (incorrectly) is that in 2004, Dr. Phillippa Darbre conducted astudyto assess whether any of the six parabens commonly used in consumer products in Europe could be detected in human breast tumors. Further studies have also discussed the estrogen-like properties that parabens can have on the body and whether or not they can accumulate in the skin.

What were the actual results?

What the study found was that in 18 of the 20 tumors tested at least one paraben was present, the most common being methylparaben. This does not mean that they cause cancer, just that the parabens were easily detectable in the tumors. The study also did not look at parabens levels in normal tissue.

Estrogen’s role in cancer has long been suspected, and variousstudieshave and are still being conducted. Parabens have been proven to have weak estrogen-like properties, but they have much less estrogenic activity than the body’s naturally occurring estrogen.

In the various breast cancer cell studies, the cells are subjected to thousands of times beyond the amount a patient would ever be subjected to.

In 2007 a French study wasconducted  to see whether parabens accumulate in the skin. The findings were that with a realistic application of parabens to the skin every 12 ours for 36 hours, there was an increased amount of parabens moving across the skin barrier for the first 24 hours. However there was no cumulative effect after 36 hours. This suggests that there would be no risk for people who use products over their whole lives.

How are cosmetics ingredients regulated? TheFood and Drug Administrationregulates only color additives in cosmetics

products. This means cosmetics companies can use any ingredient as long as they are not prohibited by regulation. Studies conducted in both 1984 and 2005 concluded that parabens are safe as long as they do not exceed 25 % of a product's formula. Parabens make up a miniscule fraction -- 0.01 to 0.1% -- of most product formulations, according to the FDA.


The FDA has stated that at the present time there is no reason to be concerned about the use of parabens in cosmetic products. BUT they understand that further studies are needed and they will continue to re-evaluate as new data emerges.

 What does it all mean?! 

Ultimately it comes down to the fact that there is no data proving that parabens cause any actual harm to humans in the way that we are currently using them. But there is still enough concern for there to be continuing studies. Parabens are considered safe by those in the industry (chemical, beauty,food) due to their low toxicity profile and long history of safe use.


This view is currently being challenged, and challenge can be good. If an ingredient is suspect, then absolutely they should begin looking for safe alternatives. For right now, most of the natural alternatives have the same amount of contradictory information and potential safety issues. Some haven’t been proven to be stable or effective against bacteria, mold and fungi as they haven’t been clinically tried yet.

 There is a growing range of paraben-free products out there, with professional lines (spa lines) looking to make the switch to keep consumers happy. Be patient with them. It takes a lot of research for companies to change formulas in this way and keep them effective. They want to provide you with safe products that actually give results.
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