Parabens: A Problematic Preservative?


Cosmetics and personal care products. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Cosmetics and personal care products. Source: Wikimedia Commons

A mere mention of the word “Parabens” causes everybody, especially women, to flip lately. The term “parabens” is a chemical industry jargon for parahydroxybenzoates or esters of parahydroxybenzoic acid that are used as preservatives in personal care products.

Parabens prevent the growth of bacteria, fungi and other microbes in cosmetics and personal care items that are normally kept in the moist environs of a bathroom. With names that could well be tongue twisters — methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben, isobutylparaben, isopropylparaben — parabens are an active ingredient in shampoos, moisturizers, deodorants and anti-perspirants, cosmetics, lubricants and gels, toothpaste and certain pharmaceutical products, besides being used as food additives.

Synthetically produced for commercial purposes, parabens are a low-cost and effective preservative as compared to a natural alternative such as the grapefruit seed extract. However, parabens have gained notoriety ever since a research conducted in 2004 by Dr. Philippa Darbre, scientist at the University of Reading, UK, put forward a seminal study showing high concentration of these chemicals in human breast tumors.

Product safety regulators, cosmetics manufacturers, scientists and consumers have been increasingly debating the use of parabens for almost a decade now. Parabens imitate or interfere with estrogen in humans and exposure to estrogen is one of the main influences on the development of breast cancer.  The very same estrogen-mimicking trait may also be responsible for the increase in the onset of early puberty in girls in recent times. Studies have also reported traces of parabens in human tissue and urine.

Two more studies by Dr. Darbre elucidate the fact that parabens are capable of entering our bodies, bypassing the liver, which means they get absorbed through the skin. A recent Danish study detected parabens in the blood and urine of healthy young males after lotion containing parabens was applied to their skin. The researchers came to the conclusion that the chemicals “could potentially contribute to adverse health effects,” as they were absorbed, metabolized and excreted by the body.

But the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Health Canada and the Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR), a U.S.-based panel of experts that analyzes safety of cosmetic ingredients, all consider parabens safe at current exposure levels. In 2005, the European Commission’s Scientific Committee on Consumer Products confirmed that methyl- and ethyl-paraben were being used within the regulated parameters. Data on other parabens is still being assessed.

Dr. Darbre maintains that “parabens are only only a tiny slice of the problem,” as they are one of the many chemicals being absorbed by the human body on a daily basis. She feels that women and everyone in general do have the option of refraining from using a chemical cocktail of preservative-laden cosmetic products, since long-term, low-dose exposure to these will leave the body vulnerable to harmful carcinogens at some point.

Researchers feel there still may be cause for concern, and discerning consumers, though not paranoid, prefer to err on the side of caution by not applying tubfuls of chemical containing lotions till questions regarding the harmful effects of parabens are conclusively answered.

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