Life & Style Magazine

What are parabens ?

Quick Answer: TYPE OF PRESERVATIVE

Long Answer:

Parabens can be found in many personal care products such as shampoos, commercial moisturizers, shaving gels, cleansing gels, personal lubricants, topical pharmaceuticals and toothpaste. They are also used as food additives in some products. Basically, a huge percentage of the products you buy for everyday use contain some form of paraben, so it can be difficult to find products that do not use them.

You may have noticed lately that “paraben free” labels have been popping up on some beauty products at the drugstore and elsewhere. Parabens are the most widely used preservatives in personal care products; they stop fungus, bacteria and other microbes from growing in your favourite creams and makeup, especially in the moist, warm environment of a bathroom. Their names are a mouthful—methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben and isobutylparaben. You’ll find them listed on thousands of personal care products such as shampoos, mascara, foundations and body lotions. But over the past few years, a debate has been building among scientists, product safety regulators and cosmetic manufacturers about whether these ubiquitous chemicals, used for almost 70 years, may actually be harmful to our health.

Some of the questions being asked: Is the rising incidence of breast cancer linked in part to the fact that parabens, which have a weak ability to mimic estrogen, have been found in breast cancer tumors and can be isolated from other body tissues. Are declining sperm counts and increasing rates of male breast cancer and testicular cancer related to the fact that these chemicals can be absorbed into our skin, potentially disrupting our endocrine systems?

We don’t know yet. But some researchers feel there may be reason for concern. One of the most vocal is Philippa Darbre, a senior lecturer in oncology and researcher in biomolecular sciences at the University of Reading, in England. She specializes in the impact of estrogen on breast cancer. In 2004, Darbre’s team published a pivotal study that detected parabens in 18 of 20 samples of tissue from breast tumour biopsies. Her study didn’t prove parabens cause cancer, only that they were easily detected among cancerous cells. The study was criticized for not comparing paraben levels in normal tissue, but nevertheless, the results called out for more investigation.

“We’ve known for more than 25 years that estrogen exposure is linked to breast cancer development and progression; it is the reason tamoxifen [commonly prescribed to women with breast cancer] is used to disrupt estrogen receptors,” says Darbre. “So it is not such a leap to be concerned that repeated, cumulative, long-term exposure to chemicals that weakly mimic estrogen might be having an impact.”

Darbre is particularly concerned about lotions and deodorants being applied under the arms or near the breast. She notes that research has found that roughly 55 percent of all breast cancer tumours occur in the upper outsideportion of the breast, the section closest to the underarm. The U.S. National Cancer Institute has partly dismissed the claim, maintaining that at present, there is no decisive evidence to conclude that the parabens in theseproducts are linked to breast cancer, but that more research is needed.

By Anne Mullens: Best Health Magazine – Summer 2008