To Paraben or not to Paraben? A controversial topic examined from both sides.

Over the last 6 years the safety of parabens for use as a preservative in cosmetics has come into question; and thus consumer demand for paraben-free products is ever increasing.

There are some conflicting opinions about this topic. As we carry products with and without parabens, I thought it would be interesting to hear both perspectives in order to help shed some light on the issue. After getting Dermalogica’s perspective on parabens from Dr. Diana Howard, I turned to Pro-Derm, developed by a team dermatologists and chemists here in Montreal for their stance on paraben use.

Once I got the information and read through it, there are some pretty convincing arguments from both sides. I find myself undecided on whether or not I’m pro or con paraben…  Read on and let me know what you think.

Do Parabens Cause Cancer?
As Explained by Dr. Diana HowardCopyright 2010 © American Cancer Society, Inc.


To date the Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) Expert Panel, the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) and the National Cancer Institute (NCI) have all stated that when used appropriately it cannot be concluded that parabens cause cancer. All agencies and experts seem to agree though we need to learn more – not only for our own safety but our peace of mind.

In 2004 Dr. Phillipa Darbre and colleagues examined breast tissue samples of 20 individuals with breast tumors. He noted parabens in the tissue and published this information.

Cosmetic companies read this report out of context and came to the conclusion that parabens were the cause of the breast tumors. Internet rumors made the public think their risk of cancer was increased by saying parabens used in under arm deodorant were the cause of breast cancer and had estrogen qualities associated with it. The public now wanted them out of all cosmetic and skin care products!

Dr. Darbre published a statement that “no where did his report infer that parabens caused the tumors.” That there was “never a causal link of parabens to the breast tumors.” Dr. Darbre’s peer review of doctors and scientists found that he did not do a control group and that it was too small a sample size to prove parabens were the cause of the tumors.

Now cosmetic companies manipulatively use this information to sell products by instilling fear. Their implication is that their “Preservative-Free” or “Paraben-Free” products are safer to use than products containing preservatives.

The Facts on Parabens

· Parabens are a preservative used to prevent bacteria and fungus from growing in your cosmetic products.

· Parabens are in higher doses in your food, pharmaceuticals, toothpaste and various items you are exposed to everyday than in your cosmetics products.

· Safety reports state that Parabens are the least toxic and still the best preservative.

· The amount of Parabens used in cosmetic formulations is very small.

The Facts on Paraben-Free or All Natural Products

· Every product must go through exhaustive, micro-challenge testing in labs to make certain no trace of bacteria or fungi live in the product.

· Poorly preserved products in the realm of “Paraben-Free” or “All Natural” physically grow mold and fungus in the formula.

· Never use a non-preserved product. Bacteria, molds, yeasts and fungi can cause blindness and other infections.

This issue is an emotional “hot button.” When people are emotionally invested in a belief they do not want to hear the scientific proof of it. And because of the emotional baggage of the public most cosmetic companies continue to manipulate the public into buying more Paraben-free products while other companies are forced to formulate without parabens.

In addition to the American Cancer Society, other sources of information and support include:Dr. Diana Howard is Vice-President of Research and Development of DermalogicaNational Cancer InstituteToll-free number: 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237) TYY: 1-800-332-8615 Web For up-to-date cancer and coping information, clinical trials, and other resources National Women’s Health Information Center (NWHIC)Toll-free number: 1-800-994-9662 TYY: 1-888-220-5446 Web Offers information on many women’s health issues, including cancer References Darbre PD. Aluminum, antiperspirants and breast cancer. J Inorg Biochem. 2005;99(9):1912–1919. Darbre PD. Metalloestrogens: an emerging class of inorganic xenoestrogens with potential to add to the oestrogenic burden of the human breast. Journal of Applied Toxicology. 2006;26(3):191–197. Darbre PD, Aljarrah A, Miller WR, Coldham NG, Sauer MJ, Pope GS. Concentrations of parabens in human breast tumors. Journal of Applied Toxicology. 2004;24(1):5–13. Darbre PD, Harvey PW. Paraben esters: review of recent studies of endocrine toxicity, absorption, esterase and human exposure, and discussion of potential human health risks. J Appl Toxicol. 2008;28(5):561–578. Exley C, Charles LM, Barr L, Martin C, Polwart A, Darbre PD. Aluminum in human breast tissue. J Inorg Biochem. 2007;101(9):1344–1346. Final amended report on the safety assessment of Methylparaben, Ethylparaben, Propylparaben, Isopropylparaben, Butylparaben, Isobutylparaben, and Benzylparaben as used in cosmetic products. Int J Toxicol. 2008;27 Suppl 4:1–82. McGrath KG. An earlier age of breast cancer diagnosis related to more frequent use of antiperspirants/deodorants and underarm shaving. European Journal of Cancer Prevention. 2003;12:479–485. McGrath KG. Apocrine sweat gland obstruction by antiperspirants allowing transdermal absorption of cutaneous generated hormones and pheromones as a link to the observed incidence rates of breast and prostate cancer in the 20th century. Med hypotheses. 2009;72(6):665–674. Mirick DK, Davis S, Thomas, DB: Antiperspirant Use and the Risk of Breast Cancer. Journal of the National Cancer Institute. 2002;94:1578–1580. Namer M, Luporsi E, Gligorov J, Lokiec F, Spielmann M. The use of deodorants/antiperspirants does not constitute a risk factor for breast cancer [article in French]. Bull Cancer. 2008;95(9):871–880. National Cancer Institute. Antiperspirants/Deodorants and Breast Cancer: Questions and Answers. 2008. Accessed at: on August 18, 2009. Rados C. Antiperspirant Awareness: It’s Mostly No Sweat. FDA Consumer Magazine. July-August 2005. Accessed at: on August 19, 2009. Robb-Nicholson C. By the way, doctor. I recently received an e-mail warning about a risk for breast cancer associated with using antiperspirants. Are you familiar with this theory? Is it valid? Harvard Women’s Health Watch. 2001;8(7):7. Surendran A. Studies linking breast cancer to deodorants smell rotten, experts say. Nature Medicine. 2004;10:216. Last Medical Review: 08/20/2009Last Revised: 08/20/2009

Here are some points highlighted by Pro-Derm behind why they do not use parabens in their formulations:

Parabens banned in Denmark

December 2010

Denmark has become the first EU country to ban parabens in its skin care products for under 3s.

Parabens are found in many of the baby products found in high street shops and there has been growing concern over the possibility that they may be a risk to health.

They are a class of preservatives that have been shown to have mild hormone-like effects as they can be absorbed through the skin.

Denmark has banned the use of two particular parabens, propylparaben and butylparaben, according to the country’s environment minister.

The ban covers lotions and other skin care products for children under 3.

There have long been calls for similar action in other countries but there has been no sign that parabens will also be banned in the UK in the near future.

Paraben Preservatives and Cosmetics: Controversy and Alternatives

August 31st, 2010

Paraben Preservatives and Cosmetics: Controversy and Alternatives

Increasing concern for the safety of ingredients in cosmetics has brought some widely used cosmetic preservatives by the family name ‘paraben’ to center stage. Paraben preservatives are listed under multiple names and are used to preserve the majority of cosmetics on the market today, not only to prevent the growth of bacteria and fungi but also to promote the abnormally long shelf-life of products.
As with chemically preserved foods, paraben preserved cosmetics ensure that the cosmetic manufacturer can produce the product en masse and take comfort in a multi-year shelf life. Paraben preservatives have recently come into question with new studies that link the daily exposure of paraben preservatives to breast cancer and endocrine-disruption issues.
What Exactly are Paraben Preservatives?
Parabens are synthetic preservatives that have been in use since the 1920s as “broad-band” preservatives (anti-bacterial and anti-fungal) which means that they work within a formula to prevent the growth of multiple possible contaminants such as bacteria, yeast, mold and fungi. They can be found in approximately 75-90 percent of cosmetics such as make-up, lotion, deodorants and shampoos.
According to ‘A Consumers Dictionary of Cosmetic Ingredients’, water is the only cosmetic ingredient used more frequently than paraben preservatives. (Winter, 2005) Paraben is the family name for the following permutations of the ingredient found on a common product ingredient label:
– Butylparaben

– Ethylparaben

– Methylparaben

– Propylparaben

– Benzyl-parahydroxybenzoic acid (p-hydroxybenzoic acid)

– Methyl-parahydroxybenzoic acid (p-hydroxybenzoic acid)

– Ethyl-parahydroxybenzoic acid (p-hydroxybenzoic acid)

– Propyl-parahydroxybenzoic acid (p-hydroxybenzoic acid)

– Butyl-parahydroxybenzoic acid (p-hydroxybenzoic acid)

– Parahydroxybenzoic acid (p-hydroxybenzoic acid)

– Parahydroxybenzoate (p-hydroxybenzoate)
The Paraben Controversy
Linked to Breast Cancer: Though paraben preservatives only account for a very small percentage of a product’s actual formula they are quite potent. A study published in the Journal of Applied Toxicology in 2004 expressed concern regarding the use of paraben preservatives.

In the UK, researchers found traces of it in 19 out of 20 women with breast tumors. (Winter, 2005) Though the studies did not determine if the ingredient was the cause of the breast tumors, it did establish that pervasive use of this synthetic ingredient is biocumulative.
Possible Endocrine Disruptors: Paraben preservatives have also been identified as endocrine disruptors. The endocrine system is instrumental in regulating the body’s hormones. Paraben preservatives are believed to mimic the female hormone estrogen when introduced into the body.
According to recent research, more than 60 percent of topically applied chemicals via cosmetics, lotions, etc. are absorbed by the skin and dispersed throughout the body by the bloodstream. Once absorbed into the body, paraben preservatives mimic the hormone estrogen and can disrupt the body’s normal hormonal balance.
In the Archives of Toxicology (2002) , Dr. S. Oishi of the Department of Toxicology, Tokyo Metropolitan Research Laboratory of Public Health, Japan, reported “that exposure of newborn male mammals to butylparaben adversely affects the secretion of testosterone and the function of the male reproductive system.”
This artificial provocation and inflation of estrogen in the endocrine system has been linked to breast cancer in some women as well as the abnormal hormonal development of children including the hormonal “feminization of boys” which may influence the suspected link in decreasing testosterone levels and sperm count in the male reproductive system. It has also been hypothesized to contribute to the early maturation of girls at increasingly younger ages.
Do All Cosmetic Companies Use Paraben Preservatives?

Not all cosmetic companies use paraben preservatives and many are phasing out their use now that enough questions have been raised about their overall long term safety. New cosmetic companies, more focused on offering natural and organic products, have made their “no paraben” policy a platform issue. This means there are a wide variety of paraben-free products which are mostly now available for purchase in health food stores and on the internet.

With the increasing popularity of the natural and organic body care market more companies are jumping on the proverbial “natural” band wagon. With this additional commercial interest and the lack of FDA regulation around the word “natural” one must never rely solely on a company’s marketing and advertising claims and always read the ingredient label to confirm that an ingredient is truly not being used in the formula.
Alternative Preservative Systems

There are good reasons why paraben preservatives are the defacto cosmetic preservative. They are cheap and effective. However, safer and more natural alternatives are available. With formulas that contain certain organic (living) ingredients and/or water as an ingredient, a more aggressive non-paraben preservative must be used to ensure the stability of the formula.
In general the next best options are Undecylenoyl Glycine with Capryloyl Glycine or  a synthetic preservative called Phenoxyethanol which has a synthetic chemical composition inspired by a natural anti-bacterial/anti-microbial chemical found in the sage plant. It’s easier to use a natural preservative in formulas that are basically inert (like most powder mineral cosmetics) or have an oil base and no water (like lipstick or liners). In products such as these, a plant extract or essential oil with anti-microbial and anti-oxidant properties such as grapefruit seed extract, grape seed extract or tocopherol (vitamin E) is used as an effective preservative system. In any case, the manufacturer should perform proper stability testing to ensure that the product’s preservative system lasts.
Resources for the Risk Adverse

Much research and observation still needs to be done to ultimately determine the true long term safety and consequences of the wide spread use of paraben preservatives as a daily part of our skin regimen and subsequent absorption diet. The current studies questioning paraben preservatives fundamental safety and the current lack of FDA testing or regulation regarding cosmetics establish a good case for avoiding these questionable ingredients all together.
An excellent resource to determine the overall safety of almost any personal care product is the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) Cosmetic Database. This database culls world-wide collective scientific ingredient and cosmetic studies as well as governmental toxicity databases from around the world (examples US, EU, Japan, Korea) and gives a toxicity ranking based on this collective data. The online interface is easy to work with. One simply types in the name of a product/brand or an ingredient and the database will return all the relevant information about that query and its safety. The EWG’s database is a work in progress and is always being refined for further detail and clarity.

More comprehensive studies are needed to conclusively determine the true scope of the damaging effects of prolonged exposure to paraben preservatives by way of the cosmetic ingredients we use every day. A serious effort to reassess the safety of these products must be undertaken by a non-biased group of researchers. To date, among the studies that have been done world-wide, paraben preservatives have been linked to breast cancer and have been labelled as a possible endocrine disruptor that might have specific damaging consequences for young children and those with ongoing exposure.
We have more options than ever before and can take ourselves out of the equation entirely by educating ourselves and opting for products that use different preservative systems and fewer questionable ingredients in general.
Sources and works cited:
Antczak, Dr. Stephen and Gina, (2001). Cosmetics Unmasked, Harper Collins, London. Fairley, Josephine, (2001). Organic Beauty, DK Publishing, London. Winter, Ruth M.S. (2005). A Consumer’s Dictionary of Cosmetic Ingredients, Three Rivers Press, NY. Cornell University: Parabens: evidence of estrogenicity and endocrine disruption

So after reading this slew of information. Where do you stand?

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