Should I be worried about…parabens?

Ah, parabens.  These molecules have developed into such a skincare rogue that a countless number of products now boast “paraben-free” as a chief part of their marketing arsenal. Yet another victim of media hype, parabens have yet to shift their scarlet letter. But what are parabens, why are they thought to be dangerous, and most importantly, why shouldn’t you be too worried?

Typical paraben structure, courtesy of Wikipedia

Typical paraben structure, courtesy of Wikipedia

Parabens were first approved in 1984 as an effective, cheap class of preservatives: they have proven to be an essential component of everything from beauty products to foodstuffs, protecting them from any nasty bacteria they may come into contact with. If you have a close look at your skincare products, you’re bound to find parabens (methylparaben or propylparaben, most likely) towards the bottom of an ingredients list on at least a few of them. They’re found all over the place in the beauty industry, from the cheap and cheerful to skincare (and bank balance) heavyweights like Philosophy and Dermalogica.

So what’s the problem? Initial concerns came from the fact that parabens are an oestrogenmimic. As I’m sure you know, oestrogen is a sex hormone (a chemical messenger) produced in high levels at the onset of puberty and initiates development of secondary sex characteristics. But that’s not all: to carry out these tasks, it needs to get into our cells, and it’s structure (and by extension, that of its mimics) allows it to do this with ease. However, oestrogen interferes with the division of our cells too, so naturally, fiddling with the concentration of the hormone brings concerns about cancer, where this division in uncontrolled; in fact, oestrogen is essential in the maintenance of a number of breast cancers. Too much of an oestrogen mimic? Cells could divide too frequently and too quickly, resulting in the formation of a tumour.

Alarm bells truly started ringing in 2004, when a publication from The Journal of Applied Toxicology proposed that use of paraben-containing underarm deodorants was responsible for the development of breast cancer. In the study, Dr. Philippa Darbre found parabens in tumours of twenty women suffering from breast cancer.

This is quite an allegation, but is it substantial to make the link between the two? I don’t think so. In fact, the original paper outlining these concerns were found to be littered with limitations: while parabens were indeed present in the breast tissue, were they simply in the wrong place at the wrong time? Possibly. The study couldn’t show that parabens actually caused breast cancer.  Au contraire, a French study from 2008 actually examined this relationship more carefully, looking at a total of 59 studies relating to the shamed preservative. After thorough investigation, no association between the two was found:

“After analysis of the available literature on the subject, no scientific evidence to support the hypothesis was identified and no validated hypothesis appears likely to open the way to interesting avenues of research”.

Do you think that should that be the end of it? While you may well be concerned with other impacts that parabens could have, the truth of the matter is that parabens aren’t loaded into our products; they’re found at levels which are deemed safe and acceptable, never exceeding about 0.3%. In fact, of all the things alleged to contribute to our chances of developing cancer, the risk associated with parabens is negligible. In spite of all this, parabens maintain their bad reputation, and I don’t think that will shift any time soon.


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