Parabens, the term for a group of preservatives widely used in cosmetics and toiletries, has become a dirty word in the beauty industry. "Paraben-free" labels are now popping up on everything from moisturizers and makeup to tanning products and toothpaste, as the consumer demand for more natural products grows. And for good reason. Increasingly, they're being linked to health problems like allergies and cancer, and there's even some evidence that these 'beauty' chemicals age your skin. Here's what you need to know about these pervasive preservatives.
Parabens are not natural
Parabens are esters (compounds formed by the reaction between alcohols and acids) of the chemical parahydroxybenzoic acid. Although some manufacturers like to point out that this acid is found naturally in some plants and foods such as blueberries, parabens are synthetically produced. You'll find them in cosmetics and personal-care products as well as in food and drugs under names like methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben and isobutylparaben-put there to stop bacteria and other microbes from growing in your favourite lipstick or lotion.
They're getting inside us
Parabens are in people too-and not just because we consume food, drinks and drugs that contain them. When you slather on that lotion or spray on that deodorant, the chemicals can get absorbed through your skin and into your body.
A study by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) measured parabens in urine samples from just over 2,500 men, women and children, and found methylparaben and propylparaben in nearly all of them. Women and teenage girls had higher paraben levels than men and teenage boys, suggesting that greater use of cosmetics and personal-care products might be responsible. A similar study in China also found higher levels of the chemicals in women than in men.
They can stick around in our tissues
Parabens defenders argue that the chemicals are quickly broken down and cleared from the body so they can't do us any harm. But parabens aren't just being found in people's urine; they're turning up in our tissues too.
In 2004, University of Reading researcher Dr Philippa Darbre, who specializes in the impact of oestrogen on breast cancer, found significant levels of parabens in 18 out of 20 samples of tissue from human breast tumour biopsies. The parabens were intact-they hadn't been broken down by the liver or gut-suggesting they'd been absorbed through the skin.
And this wasn't just a one-off finding. In a larger study conducted last year, Darbre and her colleagues found one or more parabens in 99 per cent of the breast cancer tissue samples they analyzed, and all five of the parabens they were testing for showed up in 60 per cent of the samples. The highest concentrations were found in the underarm area, suggesting that deodorants and antiperspirants might be the main source. However, seven participants said they never used underarm products, so Darbre thinks the problem could be more to do with the total load on the skin across the whole body.
How parabens move around the body needs to be investigated, but the take-home message, says Darbre, is that "parabens are getting into the breast, and they're getting in in significant amounts."
They can trigger allergies
Besides cancer, parabens have also been linked to allergies. A US study of more than 800 children found that those with the highest levels of parabens in their urine were more likely to have detectable levels of IgE antibodies to environmental allergens like pollen and pet dander compared with those with lower paraben levels. IgE antibodies are immune-related chemicals that rise in response to an allergen.6 The antimicrobial properties of parabens could be the driving force behind their apparent effects on the immune system, the researchers said.
They can age the skin
Besides these effects on your health, parabens may even affect your looks. Ironically, the preservatives-used in numerous anti-ageing lotions and potions-might cause premature skin ageing, according to Japanese research. One lab study found that methylparaben, when applied to skin tissues and exposed to sunlight, caused DNA damage, which could lead to skin ageing and even skin cancer.
What to do
The good news is that you don't have to put paraben-packed products on your skin. The beauty business has cottoned on to the general concern over parabens, so more and more brands are deciding to ditch these preservatives from their formulations (see box, page 85).
Some pioneering companies are now using more natural means to preserve their products, such as eliminating water content (bacteria grow rapidly in water), carefully controlling the product's pH (a slightly more acidic value can prevent bacteria growth) and adding naturally preservative ingredients like vitamin E, essential oils and plant alcohols into their products.
One downside of paraben-free products is that you might have to throw them away sooner after opening than you would with paraben-containing products. But that's a small sacrifice for peace of mind-and one that more and more savvy shoppers are now choosing to make.
Natural preservatives: naturally safe?
Be aware that just because an ingredient is natural, it doesn't necessarily mean it's completely safe. Essential oils, for example, commonly used as natural preservatives, can trigger allergic reactions in some people.
One component of some essential oils like cinnamon called 'benzyl benzoate' has even been found to have oestrogenic activity in the lab (although compared with parabens, the effect was considerably weaker). But we don't know whether isolating the chemical from its natural context (as was done in this study) may have produced different effects than using the chemical in its natural form. Plus, another study reported that benzyl benzoate had no oestrogenic effect at all.