June 16, 2011

Ingredient Spotlight: Parabens

Recently, parabens have been pushed into the public spotlight. Whether or not you have heard the murmurings yet, these are an ingredient that you want to know about. Parabens are often added to personal care products and pharmaceuticals as synthetic preservatives. They are esters of para-hydroxybenzoic acid, from which their name is derived. Parabens are relatively ubiquitous. Check your shampoo, lotion and makeup and you are likely to see one of the following paraben permutations:  methylparaben, butylparaben, ethylparaben, benzylparaben, isobutylparaben, and  propylparaben.

Parabens are ingredients that have received a lot of heat lately. And, as is typical, the FDA claims there is not enough information to take a stance. Should you be concerned about using products with parabens in them? Well, let me lay out the facts, and you can decide for yourself.

The Breast Cancer Fund has found measurable concentrations of six different parabens in biopsy samples from breast tumors. Parabens increase the expression of many genes that are typically regulated by estradiol and cause human breast tumor cells (MCF-7 cells) to grow and proliferate in vitro. However, there is currently no proof that parabens cause cancer. There also is no evidence that demonstrates their safety, and the long term health effects of paraben exposure is essentially unknown. Parabens are also estrogen mimickers and can bind to estrogen receptors (Darbre, 2008),(Routledge, 1998),(Byford, 2002; Pugazhendhi, 2007). This means that they can disrupt the body's hormone system. Some studies have also shown that methylparaben applied topically may react with UVB, increasing DNA damage and skin aging.

One danger of parabens is less controversial; they have been found to cause environmental damage. The Environmental Protection Agency has released the following statement: “the continual introduction of parabens into sewage systems and directly to recreational waters from the skin leads to the concern of risk to aquatic organs.” Parabens in our soaps, shampoos and conditioners will go down our shower drains and reach our oceans. Parabens in our sunscreens can wash off our skin while scuba diving in the reefs of Hawaii or boogie boarding on the California coast.

Currently the European Union limits the percentage of parabens used in cosmetics to below 0.4%. However, no such limit exists in the US.

We have no proof as to whether parabens cause cancer. And estrogenic behavior is labelled as "weak" by the cosmetics industry.  Nevertheless, this information is enough to raise concern about these ingredients. And because parabens can damage marine life, and accelerate DNA damage on our skin, the safety of parabens doesn't look too promising. I think I'd rather be safe than sorry. What do you think?

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