Have you ever looked at the ingredient list of household products and toiletries and seen ingredients, such as methylparaben, propylparaben, ethylparaben? Perhaps you’ve even seen products that say they are “paraben-free”? While there are numerous chemicals, some with long and perplexing names, these class of chemicals, called parabens, have gained a reputation for their supposed health effects, particularly their link with breast cancer.
What are parabens? They are a class of chemicals, which are technically alkyl esters of p-hydroxybenzoic acid and are widely used as antimicrobials and preservatives because they are inexpensive and have had a long record of safety. They are usually used in combinations, so you will usually see more than one type of paraben in a product (that contains them). Specific products that usually have these preservatives are shampoos, lotions, cosmetics, and shaving products.
In 2004, a study published in the Journal of Applied Toxicology reported the presence of parabens in breast tumors. This raised the question of whether the estrogen-like activity of these compounds would contribute to the risk of breast cancer. However, this study did not assess the mechanism of parabens in causing breast cancer, paraben levels in non-cancerous tissue, or if they are harmful. Additionally, other studies disprove the potency and effect of the estrogen-like activity of these chemicals (Hossaini, Larsen & Larsen, 2000; Shaw & deCatanzaro, 2009). The biggest caution to take with parabens is if there is a high concentration of them in a product.
It is important to note that, although it would be assumed that the Food and Drug Administration regulates these type of ingredients, the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act states that the FDA cannot authorize or approve cosmetic ingredients, and cosmetic companies can actually use any ingredient in their products (except a few ingredients that are prohibited).
You should also know that the FDA’s Fair Packaging and Labeling Act requires that ingredient listing is arranged from highest amount to lowest amount. This is useful for not only assessing whether you’re getting your money’s worth for a particular ingredient (for example, you should reconsider a product marketed for an expensive ingredient when it’s listed last on the label), but also for tracking the paraben levels. Typically, they are listed last on the list, but you should possibly reconsider the product if they are listed closer to the beginning of the list.
Eleni Gage of Realsimple.com also lists brands that do not use parabens, which include:
Josie Maran Cosmetics
Golden, R., Gandy, J., & Vollmer, G. (2005). A review of the endocrine activity of parabens and implications for potential risks to human health. CRC Critical Reviews in Toxicology, 35(5), 435-458.
Hossaini, A., Larsen, J. J., & Larsen, J. C. (2000). Lack of oestrogenic effects of food preservatives (parabens) in uterotrophic assays. Food and Chemical Toxicology, 38(4), 319-323.
Shaw, J., & deCatanzaro, D. (2009). Estrogenicity of parabens revisited: Impact of parabens on early pregnancy and an uterotrophic assay in mice.Reproductive toxicology, 28(1), 26-31.
The CDC’s Paraben Fact Sheet: http://www.cdc.gov/biomonitoring/Parabens_FactSheet.html
The FDA’S Statement about parabens: http://www.fda.gov/cosmetics/productandingredientsafety/selectedcosmeticingredients/ucm128042.htm
The Fair Packaging and Labeling Act: http://www.fda.gov/RegulatoryInformation/Legislation/ucm148722.htm
Eleni Gage’s article about parabens on Realsimple.com: http://www.realsimple.com/beauty-fashion/skincare/worry-about-parabens-00000000028428/index.html