What are parabens and how safe are they?

For the past two decades parabens have been treated with suspicion, but is there really anything to fear?We take a look at how safe parabens really are, and explore how we’ve come to see them as a problematic preservative.

What are parabens and what are they used for?

Parabens are a family of preservatives derived from benzoic acid – a naturally occurring compound that can be found in apples, cinnamon and most berries. You’ll find them on cosmetic labels listed as methyl-, ethyl-, propyl- and butylparaben, or in their salt form, listed as methylparaben.

Parabens – and indeed all preservatives – are added to any formulation containing water (listed as aqua on a label) to kill or inhibit the growth of pathogens. This is crucial to our safety because bacteria not only spoils cosmetics, but can have devastating consequences for health. An eye cream that isn’t properly preserved could contain Pseudomonas aeruginosa, for instance, a particularly nasty bug that can cause blindness. Correctly preserving our cosmetics remains vital for safety (Liz herself does not use any water-based products that are unpreserved).

Are parabens safe?

In the UK, any ingredients used in the production of cosmetics – including parabens – are tightly regulated by the European Union. The Scientific Committee for Consumer Safety, an independent advisory body that evaluates the relevant medical literature and carries out risk assessments, advises their regulations. Once an ingredient is deemed safe for use, a margin of safety of at least 100 times the permitted concentration is applied. This means that the concentration of parabens included in our products have been considered entirely safe for use, even in the unlikely instance that the concentration was vastly multiplied.

Parabens and cancer

Parabens have been vilified over the last two decades, due to a fear they might be responsible for increased breast cancer risk. This was prompted by a 1998 study that showed parabens have weak oestrogen-like properties. Oestrogen can encourage the growth and division of breast cells, both cancerous and non-cancerous. Parabens are, in fact, less oestrogenic than carrots and apples, and far less than soya. Parabens’ oestrogenic qualities are many thousands of times weaker than the natural oestrogen produced in our bodies.

Despite this, Philippa Darbre, a PhD researcher, published a study in 2004 measuring the concentration of parabens in human breast tumours – a study that would go on to receive widespread media coverage. Darbre had noticed that a high percentage of breast cancers occur in the upper-outer quadrant of the breast (closest to the armpit). She theorised that deodorants, antiperspirants and underarm products containing oestrogenic parabens might be to blame. The study examined 20 tissue samples taken from human breast tumours to see if parabens were present an it was reported that parabens were found in all 20 samples. This study has since been widely discredited, with critics noting that a statistically insignificant number of breast tumours were studied and that no healthy breast tissue was studied as a comparison. Perhaps most damning was the finding of identical parabens in the six blank control slides. It’s safe to assume that the breast tissue samples were similarly contaminated.

Paraben alternatives

Despite overwhelming evidence to suggest that parabens are entirely safe and highly effective, the misinterpretation of this sole 2004 study, media furore and subsequent consumer confusion has seen a reduction in beauty brands using them. To meet the demands of an increasingly paraben-sceptic general public, cosmetic manufacturers have been seeking out alternatives.

This is concerning, because many of these preservatives don’t have the same wealth of safety literature behind them. A 2014 report published by Ohio State University has charted a marked increase in the instances of a red, inflamed and often blistering rash at its contact dermatitits centre. The substance responsible for this is Methylisothiazolinone (MIT) and, as Dr Matthew Zirwas, director of the centre explains: ‘Concentrations of [this] preservative have increased dramatically in some products over the last few years, as manufacturers stopped using other preservatives like paraben.’

In fact, historically, parabens have been widely used because they are so well tolerated by sensitive skin and are responsible for very few allergic reactions. In fact, a 2005 study of over 4000 patients treated for allergic contact dermatitis has shown that parabens are responsible for just 1.4% of these allergic responses. To put that into perspective, fragrances were responsible for 12.1% and MIT for 5%. While it remains important that we take an interest in what’s really in the products that we use day-to-day, it’s crucial that cosmetic safety remains evidence-led and isn’t compromised by media-fuelled misinformation or misguided marketing claims.

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