Parabens are a group of widely used synthetic preservatives found in cosmetics, deodorants and antiperspirants. They are easily absorbed into the skin and believed to be endocrine disruptors. Methylparaben, propylparaben and butylparaben are the most commonly used parabens in cosmetics.
Endocrine disruptors are chemicals that can interfere with the body’s endocrine (hormone) system to produce adverse developmental, reproductive, neurological, and immune effects. Research shows that endocrine disruptors may pose the greatest health risk during prenatal and early postnatal development (NIH – National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences).
Parabens mimic estrogen and concerns exist as to how this may affect certain cancers in women and hormone levels in young girls. Parabens were first detected in human breast tissue in 2004 (Darbre et al.). A more recent study has found their presence in all areas of breast tissue (Barr et al 2012). This tissue presence is a cause for concern regarding breast cancer.
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) is an American environmental organization that specializes in research and advocacy in areas including toxic chemicals. They are a non-profit, non-partisan organization dedicated to protecting human health and the environment (www.ewg.org). They have created the Skin Deep Cosmetic Database which rates products and ingredients according to their safety. Every product and ingredient is given a hazard score and a data availability score.
The hazard score, from 1-10 reflects known and suspected hazards of ingredients:
1-2 = low hazard, 3-6 = moderate hazard and 7-10 high hazard. The data availability rating takes into account the number of published studies in the scientific literature.
Ingredient safety is calculated using both the hazard and data availability scores. Therefore, the safest ingredients will have low hazard ratings and fair, good or robust data availability.
Unfortunately, parabens commonly used in most products are rated as moderately to highly hazardous with limited safety data on the EWG rating scale.
PROPYLPARABEN, BUTYLPARABEN, ISOBUTYLPARABEN and ISOPROPYLPARABEN have all been given a high hazard score of 7 with a limited to fair amount of data. METHYLPARABEN and ETHYLPARABEN got a moderate hazard score of 4 with limited data.
Considering the potential health risks of parabens as well as the fact that there are much safer preservative alternatives available, why on earth would you risk your health?
Barr L, Metaxas B, et al. Measurement of paraben concentrations in human breast tissue at serial locations across the breast from axilla to sternum. Journal of Applied Toxicology 2012;32(3)219-232.
Boberg J, Taxvig C, et al. Possible endocrine disrupting effects of parabens and their metabolites. Reproductive Toxicology 2010;30(2):301-312.
Crinnion WJ. Toxic effects of the easily avoidable phthalates and parabens. Altern Med Rev. 2010: Sep;15(3):190-6.
Darbre PD, Harvey PW. Paraben esters: review of recent studies of endocrine toxicity, absorption, esterase and human exposure, and discussion of potential human health risks. Journal of Applied Toxicology 2008;28(5):561-578.
Darbre PD, Aliarrah A, et al. Concentrations of parabens in human breast tumours. Journal of Applied Toxicology 2004:Jan-Feb;24(1):5-13.
EWG’s Skin Deep Cosmetics Database
NIH – National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences