Welcome to the newest feature on Personal Care Truth! Ask the Experts is a place to pose your questions for our experts to answer. As stated on Saturday, this is still a work in progress. For now, you can read the basic guidelines. So get to working on your questions because we want to provide you with the answers!
I have one question, right now anyway. Are parabens bad for you? Especially in lipstick! I have been following EWG site, so all this info is quite different.
Very informative. Thanks so much,
Wow, Tracy – that is a great question to start this whole thing off. You have chosen probably the most controversial cosmetic ingredients for the past few decades!
The simple answer to your question is “no”, but I am sure that you are looking for some supporting information in addition to that! Before I start to respond in more detail, I should state that I have been involved with preservatives for almost 30 years, and the company I currently work for sells parabens (amongst many alternative preservatives), so I could be (and have been) accused of bias.
I appreciate that there is a lot of information on the internet covering parabens, and it is very confusing for the non-scientist (and many scientists) to work out what is accurate and what is not, and apparently plausible organisations such as the EWG certainly do not help the situation. See my Personal Care Truth piece on Skin Deep, for example.
I could easily fill more than 20 sheets of paper with an extremely detailed response to this question, but I will try to keep it as brief as possible, whilst still giving a full answer.
In 1998, a study was published that claimed SOME parabens were oestrogenic (Routledge, E.J, Parker, J, Odum, J, Ashby, J and Sumpter, J.P. Tox. & Appl. Pharm. 153, 12 – 19). This study was widely misinterpreted, but the bottom line is that butylparaben was determined to show oestrogenic activity in an in vivo test. This activity was measured as being 100,000 times weaker than natural oestrogen. That in itself would not seem to be cause for concern, as it is an extremely weak effect. Moreover, this effect required a dose of butylparaben around 4,000 times higher than normal daily exposure to the compound from the use of cosmetics. We regularly eat foods containing phytoestrogens that are only 2,000 times weaker than natural oestrogen, so it makes you wonder what the fuss is about, especially when the same study measured NO oestrogenic activity for methylparaben or ethylparaben! (I have calculated that it would take 109 years of normal daily cosmetic usage to reach the same dose of butylparaben as used on that study, and that’s assuming the butylparaben accumulates in the body – which it doesn’t!).
This information was taken up by a researcher at Reading University in the UK. She developed a theory that products applied to the underarm could migrate to the breast and cause cancer, and she believed that parabens were used in the majority of underarm products, and also that there may be a link between parabens and cancer (due to the discovery of oestrogenic activity, as oestrogen is known to be linked to cancer).
There are flaws in this theory:
1) Very few underarm products require ANY preservatives, as they are not susceptible to microbial growth – aerosols in particular, so hardly any of these products even contain parabens in the first place.
2) Both the blood and lymphatic circulatory systems flow away from the breast, so parabens (and any other cosmetic ingredients) would have to “swim” upstream in order to migrate from the underarm to the breast. This does not happen.
These are serious flaws in the rationale behind that theory, but what is much worse are the flaws in the resulting study by this researcher (Darbre, P.D, Aljarrah, A, Miller, W. R, Coldham, N. G, Sauer, M. J. and Pope, G. S, J. Appl. Toxicol. 24, 5 – 13 (2004)). I will not go into a detailed demolition of that study here, but you can see my thoughts on it by following this link:
This discussion also gives some other people’s view on the safety (or otherwise) of parabens. It doesn’t all make for pleasant reading, but I am giving the opportunity for you to see some of the other side of the debate. If you scroll down far enough, you will see my complete comments about Dr. Darbre’s 2004 study. You will also see that some people get a little upset when you disagree with them! Whilst I may appear to be a lone voice on that blog, many respected and independent scientists agree that there is no evidence that parabens are harmful to human health through their use in cosmetics. Many of the published studies quoted on this blog are either deeply flawed (as in the case of Darbre’s 2004 study) or taken out of context (as with Routledge, as described earlier), and I doubt very much that the bloggers quoting these studies have ever read any one them. At least I can say that I have read most of them, plus many other besides! Too many people see studies that report a hazardous property for the substance in question and scream “toxic chemical”, but fail to appreciate that the results may reflect extreme conditions used in the study. I refer you to my article on ‘Risk!‘ elsewhere on the Personal Care Truth site.
It is never possible to state that ANY chemical (natural or synthetic) is 100% safe, but I can state that there is no evidence that the use of parabens in cosmetics will cause adverse effects on human health beyond the relatively rare incidents of mild irritation, which are well-documented. So, in short, the answer to your question is no, parabens are not bad for you!
Tracy, I have tried to keep this brief, but I hope that it answers your question although I appreciate that it may raise even more questions. I am happy to try to respond to these further questions!
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