Is there a cosmetic ingredient with worse reputation than parabens? I doubt it. Many manufacturers actually base their whole marketing strategy on the statement that their product is paraben-free. Even prominent chemists would, albeit reluctantly, agree that the word parabens on a cosmetic label can repel prospective partners and customers. But is there anything wrong with parabens and should one avoid them at all cost?
Parabens have been used as preservatives for nearly a hundred years.
In 1920s the first conserving agents with parabens were invented and came to be used for the manufacture of canned goods. Parabens are a class of different chemical compounds: ethylparaben, butylparaben, methylparaben and propylparaben. They are all derivatives of 4-hydroxybenzoic acid (PHBA) and are able to suppress the reproduction of bacteria, fungi and viruses of a very wide spectre. Even a tiniest amount of parabens, less than 1%, is enough to preserve a product and keep it pure.
Parabens were initially used in food industry and pharmacology.
Today they are some of the most well researched and wide spread preservatives and still maintain the freshness of many foods and medicine. Their use in cosmetics began in the 1950s, and by the end of the XX century almost 90% of all cosmetics contained parabens. Everything changed in 2004, when a scientific magazine dedicated to cancer research published an article by Dr. Philippa Darbre, a molecular biologist researching breast cancer. Dr. Darbre reported the findings of parabens in the breast tumours’ tissue samples and suggested that it was the parabens in cosmetics and deodorants that penetrated into the mammary gland through the skin and caused cancer. The author theorised that the reason it could happen is the hormone-like effect of the parabens, because their molecular structure had certain similarities with oestrogen molecules.
The effect of Darbre’s article was staggering. The press picked up on the sensational idea that beauty products cause cancer and launched the campaign for the ban on parabens. A great number of research was conducted in the last 10 years and it all came to an unambiguous conclusion — parabens are safe. It is important to understand that there is no way for the parabens in the cosmetics to penetrate into any tissues of one’s body, because on the skin surface they transform into a completely harmless compound 4-hydroxybenzoic acid, which does not have any hormone-like effect whatsoever. This compound is constantly generated in the human body in the course of amino acid transformation and it takes part in the synthesis of a vital component, co-enzyme Q10, which in its turn is widely used in cosmetology to fight ageing.
And even the intact unaltered parabens have very weak oestrogen-like activity, hundreds of thousands (and according to some research a million) times less potent than that of the primary hormone, estradiol. One birth control pill affects the body hundreds of thousands times stronger than all the parabens in cosmetics. Even the phytoestrogens found in some plants — wild yam, clover, soy beans, strawberry and others — are hundreds of thousands times more powerful than parabens (phytoestrogens are valuable ingredients precisely because they are so effective in slowing down the ageing process, which parabens are not capable of).
The Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) was established in 1976 with involvement and support from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Consumer Federation of America (CFA), and industry. Over the last four decades, the CIR Expert Panel has established a strong record of protecting public health by thoroughly reviewing and assessing the safety of ingredients used in cosmetics. The CIR’s Expert Panel is comprised of world-renowned dermatologists, toxicologists, chemists, consumer protection advocates and public health experts who have been publicly nominated by consumer, scientific and medical groups, government agencies and industry. The FDA, CFA and an industry liaison participate as non-voting members at Expert Panel deliberations. (Cosmetictoiletries.com)
According to the research of The American Society of Clinical Oncology, parabens are found in the urine samples of more than 99% of adult US population.
This means that parabens enter the body in many different ways and their presence in itself does not signify any illness. We receive parabens with canned foods and medicine, yes, but guess what? Our regular and organic foods contain them as well. Large quantities of parabens are found in fresh onion, carrot, potato, cucumber, cherry, strawberry, blueberry, cowberry and many other natural foods. Cranberry contains enough parabens to be a preserving agent itself and it has in fact been traditionally used as such in many northern countries.
Parabens are not and have never actually been banned. They are still being used everywhere in the world, including the EU, the USA, Switzerland, Canada, Australia and Japan.
Along with many other cosmetic manufacturers we were strongly advised to exclude parabens from our formulations and did so years ago. Today it is quite clear that parabens are the most reliable, well known and accessible preservatives, so one day, when science prevails over ignorance, they may make a comeback in the industry. Especially since new preservatives, used in cosmetics instead of parabens, are less stable, less studied and increasingly often linked to the growing numbers of sensitive skin and skin allergy cases.