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Parabens have had a lot of bad press over the recent years but they aren’t all bad. I blame the media for getting people in a tizzy over them and putting the pressure on cosmetic companies to remove their parabens from products.

I agree, there are some parabens that are bad and do not contribute at all to our overall health and well being, however there are good parabens too.

What are Parabens?

A paraben is an ingredient that is added to cosmetic products to prevent and inhibit the growth of harmful bacteria and micro-organisms. The term ‘Paraben’ is an abbreviation for para-hydroxybenzoic acid, which doesn’t sound very friendly. However, there are some widely used parabens which are used in cosmetics, the most commonly used parabens are:

• Methylparaben

• Ethylparaben

• Propylparaben

• Butylparaben

• Benzylparaben

Each of these parabens have different solubility and anti-bacterial activity. Of these five parabens listed, three fall into the category of ‘Food grade’, this means that they are naturally occurring in food and do very little harm as we probably, and do, unknowingly eat them. For example blueberries have the highest quantity of Methylparaben .

Why are parabens used?

The main reason why parabens are used in cosmetic preparations is as a preservative to prevent contamination of the product. Products start to oxidise as soon as they are opened and all of them have a shelf life of around eighteen months to two years, which would not be possible without a preservative of some sort. It is very difficult for products to be 100% ‘natural’ as they need some sort of preservative and antibacterial agent in them to prevent them from spoiling too quickly once they have been opened.

Micro-organisms can cause infections or make people ill and water is the worst micro-bacterial breeding ground there is and the majority of cosmetic preparations contain water, which is usually at the top of the ingredient list. Add a drop of water to an opened bottle of product or dip your fingers into it and you have immediately contaminated the product. This then becomes a breeding ground and very quickly the product will go rancid, that is why parabens are used.

Are parabens safe?

There have been many studies over the last few years from organisations such as the American Cancer Society, Cosmetic Toiletry and Fragrance Association as well as our own OSHA to name but a few. Research backs up claims that food grade parabens used in the’ lowest possible level’ and are at least the last two – three ingredients on the list are deemed safe and will cause no harm. The amount of food grade parabens used in cosmetic preparations should just be enough to prevent the product from going rancid once opened but not so much that is upsets the skin’s natural flora nor high enough for absorption to upset the endocrine system.

Think about this for a minute....

Some parabens have been associated with oestrogenic activity in the body and although some parabens can act similarly to oestrogen they have been shown to have much less activity than the body’s own naturally occurring oestrogen. However there have been cases where parabens have shown up in breast cancer tumors, and there is some suggestion that some spray deodorants are responsible for enhancing these cancer cells. But then again, some of the most nutrient rich foods that we eat are mildly oestrogenic too and most parabens that are found in cosmetic preparations come from foods that we eat.

Which parabens are used in Cosmetic preparations?

The most common parabens used in cosmetic preparations are, Methylparaben , Propylparaben and Butylparaben and they are present in over twenty thousand cosmetic preparations such as shampoo, moisturiser, eyeshadows, lipsticks and shaving foam.

Methylparaben is a popular ingredient used in skin care because it is non-irritating to the skin and is naturally occurring. It is easily absorbed through the skin and the gastrointestinal tract (if eaten) and does not accumulate in the body, it is non toxic, non irritating and is generally considered non sensitizing. Some studies indicate that methylparaben can react to UVB when applied onto the skin and this can lead to skin damage, however it is suggested that a large quantity would need to be applied regularly over a long period of time to cause such damage.

Butylparaben is another common ingredient found in cosmetic preparations. It is found and derived from fruits and vegetables (as are most parabens) . It can also be found in some medications such as tylenol and ibuprofen. It is the most common of all the parabens and has been used in cosmetic preparations since the 1940’s and in pharmaceutical products since 1924. It has low toxicity in humans and can be found in most cosmetic preparations such as moisturisers and eye shadows. It is used at low levels 0.01% - 0.03% and is considered safe. It has not been linked to any carcinogenic activity in the body.

However it has been shown to mimic oestrogenic activity in the body when tested on lab rats and mice. This means that it binds to the oestrogen receptors and can regulate oestrogen responsive genes. The female rats and mice that were given 0.01% butylparaben every day for 10 weeks produced less pups in their litters and the male rats and mice produced less sperm.  So far there has been no human testing in regards to the effects of oestrogenic activity of Butylparaben on humans, therefore these the results on rats and mice is not proof that humans would get the same results.   It has not been linked to breast cancer or other cancerous tumors and is still considered safe to use in cosmetic preparations. Butylparaben can also enter the body through the lungs as well as the skin and gastrointestinal tract.

Polyparaben is probably the ingredient that you most need to be concerned about. It has been the subject of lots of debate as to whether or not it might have adverse effects. The evidence on this ingredient is still ‘inconclusive’ and there is a lot of concern in regards to it's oestrogenic activity and it may be a factor in contributing to breast cancer although the evidence is still ‘inconclusive’ on this paraben at present. 

Do I need to worry about parabens?

In the 1990’s parabens were found to be agents that mimicked oestrogen activity in the body. Oestrogen disruption has been linked to breast cancer and when research began, parabens were found to be present in malignant breast tumors. Since then, though, a British study has challenged this research and they pointed out that the noncancerous tissue wasn’t examined to see if parabens were present and that the presence of parabens in the tumors doesn’t prove that they caused the cancer. Other studies have shown that other parabens have a very weak oestrogenic effect and this has led to confusion and concern as to whether or not some parabens could be stored in the body or cause cancer.

However the majority of parabens that are used in cosmetic preparations are food grade, this means that they are naturally occurring in fruits and vegetables and are safe to use. The amount of parabens that can go into a product is regulated by the U.S FDA (Food & Drug Administration) and the World Health Organisation and therefore the quantity is that is added to products is very low, between 0.01% - 0.03%.

There is reason to be mindful but not be consumed too much about some of these naturally occurring chemicals. Today there are a large number of companies and products available that are paraben free and many more are due for release onto the market over the coming years. Cosmetic companies are playing safe and are opting to find alternatives, but there is only so much ‘natural’ a product can be before it has to have something added to it to preserve it.  

There are plenty of paraben free products available if you feel happier using them and there are plenty of brands out there to choose from. However if you're not too concerned then here are some key points to remember:

  • Products, like food, have a shelf life and have dates on them for a reason. They need to be used within that date and if you still have products past their best, or if they smell unusual, throw them out.
  • Check- the paraben is food grade.
  • Check- the paraben is listed in the last 2-3 ingredients.

NB) Long shelf life of a product often indicates higher levels of antimicrobial agents.

And the next time you buy blueberries......

A punnet of blueberries has more Methylparaben than a year’s supply of skin care, and yet you would quite happily eat them, if you liked blueberries!