A Closer Look At: Parabens

Parabens have a bad reputation. But why? And is it really wise to avoid them?

Let me first start to explain what parabens are.
There are different kinds of parabens. The list is endless: methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben, pentylparaben, hexylpraben, heptylparaben, octylparaben, nonylparaben, decylparaben, and so forward. The difference is the amount of carbon atoms added. The number of atoms stands for the name; “methyl” stands for one extra carbon atom, “butyl” for four extra atoms, “octyl” for eight (octyl – octopus – eight – a favourite mnemonic). The extra carbon atoms are added to 4 – hydroxzybenzoic acid. The adding of the carbon atoms is the “estering” of the hydrozybenzoic acid.
Hydrozybenzoic acid is an anti-oxidant which can be found in coconuts, although most of the 4 – hydroxybenzoic acid are made syntheticly.

To illustrate this point I have made a very boring infographic:

Parabens already have been used for ages, as food and cosmetic preservatives. Preservatives are necessary in cosmetic formulas, because of the product integrity (how the products looks, smells and performs, whether it is now, or six months from now, and for the control of the growth of microbes (fungus, bacteria, virusses (the herpes virus in lipsticks – the horror!)). Parabens are popular because they cause little risk of allergies, are low in cost, and there aren’t many alternative (and/or “natural”) preservatives available that work as well.

Anti-oxidants can capture so called “free radicals” which are free electrons that roam the body in search of a bond they can make. Sometimes, in order to create such a bond, they break up excisting bonds, thus creating damage in the body. Instead of letting the free electrons break up stuff, anti-oxidants prevent the electrons creating damage by offering a bonding place. That also explains the anti-oxidant hype.

Truth is, although it is proven that anti-oxidants work ‘in vitro’ (in a petridish), there is insufficient proof that it also works that way in the body (‘in vivo’). Perhaps I’ll explain more in a follow-up article. A funny fact is that metylparabens can be found in blueberries!

So, parabens have been around for ages, and yet, they are surrounded by controversy. Why is that? I blame the media.
A while (ok, a good while) ago, multiple scientists researched parabens. Some drew hasty conclusions (a no – no in the scientific world), some found that parabens looked a lot like estrogens (and estrogens are linked to cancer), which led to incorrect statements that parabens could cause cancer. The media picked it up, and started terrorizing the consumer. I will list the concerns or alleged “hazards” of parabens per topic:

Allergies and irritation: Parabens are known to cause very few allergies and irritations. The mayority of users (my estimate is 95%) do not develop allergies or irritations. Only people with very, very, very sensitive skin or rosecea can develop allergies or irritations. This is no rule: what works for one, may not work for another. Remember: every substance can cause allergies. What you should look at, is the allergy – rate. The allergy – rate is very low with parabens – you don’t have to worry about it.

Breastcancer: It all begun with a research in 2004 lead by Philippa Darbre. They researched 20 breast tumors and found parabens present in the sample. However, the conclusion was (okay, I have to admit, part of the conclusion was): ‘From this research it is not possible to say whether parabens actually caused these tumors’. There you have it. Since then, there is more research done. Some said parabens caused cancer, some said they don’t. It ended (well, at least for me) with a review (a type of scientific paper) in 2008 which looked at 59 research papers and found that there is ‘no scientific evidence to support the hypothesis (parabens are bad) was identified and no validated hypothesis appears likely to open the way to interesting avenues of research. Finally, it seems possible to affirm that this question does not constitute a problem of public health and that it appears therefore useless to pursue the research on the subject.’

Estrogen & Cancer: Estrogens can cause cancer. Parabens look (a bit) like estrogens (the longer the tail, ‘the carbon atoms’, the more they look and act like estrogen). However, research has shown that butylparaben is 100,000 weaker than estradiol (the, ehm, ‘sister’ of estrogen – they look a lot alike) and the effect was only observed at a dose level approximately 25,000 times higher than the level typically used to preserve products. Therefore, the estrogenic activity of parabens can be neglected.

UV Damage: It has been shown that parabens can react with UVB radiaton and therefore can lead to skin aging and DNA damage. However, if you sunbathe wisely and use sunscreen, you don’t have to worry.

I think I have covered all of the controversy surrounding parabens – most of them are incorrect. If you find any more alarming sounds about parabens, post a comment below and/or contact me (go to the “ask” page – and send a e-mail) and I will happily do more research.

To sum it all up: don’t worry about parabens. They are very safe and very effective. Do use a sunscreen though. As the FDA (the U.S. Food and Drugs Administration – the American institute on consumer safety) states: “FDA believes that at the present time there is no reason for consumers to be concerned about the use of cosmetics containing parabens.”

Until next time,

Sources and further reading: Drug Metabolism and Pharmacokinetics, October 2010, pages 568-577;International Journal of Toxicology, Supplement 4, 2008, pages 1-82; Water Research, November 2008, pages 4578–4588; Cosmetics & Toiletries, January 2005, page 22; Toxicology, January 2005, pages 471–488; Menopause, March–April 2002, pages 145–150; Critical Reviews in Toxicology, Golden et al, 2005; Menopause, May–June 2004, pages 281–289; Journal of the American Medical Women’s Association, Spring 2002, pages 85–90; Journal of Steroid Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, January 2002, pages 49–60; American Journal of Epidemiology October 1996, pages 642–644


5 thoughts on “A Closer Look At: Parabens


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