Parabens are a class of chemical compounds used as preservatives primarily in personal care items (like shampoos and deodorant), pharmaceutical products and food additives. Parabens are esters (a chemical compound where an acid molecule has bonded with an alcohol molecule, displacing a water molecule) of para-hydroxybenzoic acid. While some parabens are generated in nature by plants to ward off fungus and bacteria, virtually all parabens in commercial products are manufactured synthetically.
Synthetic parabens extend the shelf life of products and the concentration of parabens in cosmetics is low. On the back of an average shampoo bottle, a consumer can view the several available types of parabens that have been mixed to act as a preservative: propylparaben, butylparaben, methylparaben, ethylparaben, isobutylparaben and isopropylparaben.
So what’s the big deal?
While the concentrations of parabens in these products are low, the average person uses 12 personal care products a day, increasing the overall cumulative effects in the body. Some concerns arise in that parabens mimic the hormone estrogen. Chemicals that behave as estrogen are known as estrogen compounds, and can pose health risks, especially if accumulated within the body. Accumulated estrogen compounds affect the endocrine system (the gland system that regulates the release of hormones) with the potential of escalating a cancer risk. Ongoing studies are being conducted to determine possible carcinogenic effects and endocrine disruption.
In several UK studies, parabens have been found in breast cancer tumours. Researchers advised that the ester-bearing form of the parabens discovered in the tumours indicate an origin from something applied to the skin, such as an underarm deodorant or antiperspirant, and stated that the results helped to explain how close to 60% of all breast tumours are found in just one-fifth of the breast – the upper-outer quadrant, nearest the underarm. With results like these, there are obviously more calls for investigation into the relationship of parabens and breast cancer.
What to do?
The cosmetic industry claims that parabens are safe, but public interest groups advocate for more research into the long term safety of parabens.
While current studies do not conclusively causally link parabens with tumours, neither do they show that parabens are safe; the long-term health effects of exposure to parabens are essentially unknown. In the interest of health, avoid them where possible. So, when purchasing your everyday products like shampoos, deodorants, moisturizers, shaving lotions, toothpaste, food additives and others, look at the ingredient lists carefully, and select options that are free of parabens.