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Should I avoid Parabens?

February 16, 2009

Parabens have been used in personal care products for years and years (probably since the 1920’s)  and are from a naturally occuring chemical family – 4-hydroxybenzoic acid. This chemical can be found in foods such as strawberries, onions, grape juice and many more. To make Parabens the 4-hydroxybenzoic acid is esterified (or reacted / chemically changed) by adding  different types of alcohol. This gives us the parabens that we find in our cosmetic products. Common ones are:

Methyl Paraben, Ethyl Paraben,  Butyl Paraben.

It has been claimed that Methyl Paraben is present in Blueberries although I can’t confirm this without digging around more!

We will have a look through the issues surrounding Parabens and work out what is what!

Why are Parabens in skin care products anyway?

Parabens are added as preservatives. We (the consumer) and they (the manufacture) desire long shelf lives. This helps to cut down on waste, enables products to be shipped and sold around the world and enables us to take our time in using the product. Preservatives are also added to make sure that the product doesn’t become  a breeding ground for bugs – either fungi, bacteria or mould. Nobody would like to open up a hairy and festering pot of face cream!

So, Are Parabens Natural?

Yes and No. The parabens that you will find in your cosmetics have been made in a chemical factory from man made chemicals. The chemistry originated from nature so in the world of cosmetic chemistry we could call something like Methyl Paraben made in a chemical factory (and also found in blueberries)  “Nature Identical”.   Do not get confused.  Nobody that I know if taking blueberries or any other fruit and extracting the paraben out of it – too expensive to be viable.

OK, so they are Nature Identical. Is that good?

Well, nature has given us many things including Botulism, Anthrax, Poison Ivy and more so just because something is either natural or nature identical doesn’t mean that it is going to be great for you. We have to look at the chemistry to find that out!

So what is it about Parabens that is making the news?

The Journal of Applied Toxicology ran an article in the Jan-Feb edition, 2004 reviewing the significance of the detection of esters of 4-hydroxybenzoic acid (parabens) in breast tissue i.e: Parabens and paraben related chemicals had been found in breast tumours.

This caused concern both within the medical world and the cosmetic world but as the initial findings were small no conclusions could be made as to if the parabens and paraben related chemicals caused the tumours or just happened to be in the tumour tissue.  It is easy to jump to conclusions at this point, but the toxicologists wanted more proof. Further studies then started and are still going on today.

Studies were then set up both in vitro (in glass / in a test tube using cell cultures (grown cells)) and in vivo (using human test subjects) to try to get to the bottom of this. Scientists were (and still are) looking to see how the parabens get into tissue, what they do when they get there and what the body does to flush them out. The findings have been interesting….

In the same journal – Applied Journal of Toxicology,  in 2005 an article was published that showed 4-hydroxybenzoic acid AND  parabens were found in breast tumours. The study also found that both 4-hydroxybenzoic acid and parabens displayed oestrogenic activity in the body  – that is, they acted like the female hormone oestrogen. Oestrogen activity is often a factor in breast cancer so this finding has been quite worrying and has caused the cosmetic industry to re-think their preservation strategies.

So to sum up, what are the scientists worried about with regard to Parabens?

Scientists have proved that Parabens and the paraben making chemical (and naturally occuring) 4-hydroxybenzoic acid can get through the skin and into human body  tissues. Once in the body both can display oestrogenic activity. However, the extent of skin penetration of these chemicals and the extent of the effect of these chemicals is still debatable.

While studies are continuing there is no evidence  to say that using products containing parabens will give you cancer. Some parabens are still deemed as safe by the cosmetic industry but the situation is being continually reviewed (the latest review occured on 24th June 2008, carried out by COLIPA see it here: Paraben report by COLIPA). Colipa concludes that Methyl and Ethyl Paraben are of no concern but the assessment of  butyl and Propyl paraben is still under review.

The likely outcome?

As parabens are used in foods as well as cosmetics any change to the law with regard to paraben useage guidelines has to be carefully considered and rigorously backed up. This scientific work is being carried out in laboratories accross the world – some labs are funded by paraben companies, some are independent universities and associations and others come under Government control. It is likely to take some time before Parabens and 4-hydroxybenzoic acid are either given the all clear or put under tighter restriction.

As a note, although the cosmetic industry board COLIPA are stating that Methyl and Ethyl paraben are safe, many cosmetic brands and cosmetic ingredient manufacturers are now making paraben free product ranges in response to these studies and to consumer response.

So how much paraben am I getting each day?

That is hard to tell as everyone is different. With regard to your cosmetics and personal care products Parabens should be listed on the ingredients label so you will be able to see if your product has them included. If they are there, the cosmetic industry guidelines are for a maximum addition of 0.4% per paraben and up to 0.8% as a blend.

What types of products have parabens in them?

Parabens can be found in a wide range of products. Check the label! If you want to avoid parabens a number of brands do state that they are Paraben free as a selling point. I would advise asking the brand what they use to preserve their products instead though as preservatives are one of the most common ingredient known for causing skin reactions – perfumes are the other.

So what now?

At Realize Beauty we take a balanced view of the risks surrounding Parabens. While we are carefully following the scientific studies on paraben safety, we are not about to boycott companies still using them. The evidence shows that the cosmetics industry is working hand in hand with global government organisations  and the independent scientific community to get to the bottom of this issue. We will keep you posted. However,  if you are concerned about Parabens or just want to live a life less chemical then  why not give the following a try:

1) Make your own cosmetics – just make and use fresh to avoid the need for preservation (if you are going to sell products you will need to prove that they are not going to spoil)

2) Look out for brands that are not including parabens – check out the label.

3) Try to limit your exposure by using products more sparingly – the more you put on, the more paraben you may be exposed to.

4) Don’t use two when one will do – You may be able to limit the variety of products that you use each day to cut down on your chemical load.

5) Don’t waste! Remember chemicals don’t really belong down the drain so please don’t go to the cabinate and flush all of your (now) unwanted products down the pan. That will do nobody any favours.

6) Don’t Worry – Here at RB we firmly believe that stress and worry kill more people than any cosmetic product!


11 Comments leave one →
  1. anita from texas permalink
    March 17, 2012 2:40 am

    The wikipedia article on parabens references two articles about parabens in blueberries, that can be found through the American Chemical Society website (subscription required to view articles). I am curious about 1) the amount of parabens present, and 2) the difference between ingesting them and putting them on your skin, i.e. are they neutralized when eaten

    • RealizeBeautyEd permalink
      March 21, 2012 11:31 am

      Hi there Anita,
      I would be very interested to find that out too as I don’t like jumping to conclusions about anything. I’ve found a couple of scientific papers from the food industry that are useful but haven’t had time to do the research (as there are so many ingredients to talk about this was down-prioritised). I have seen data showing that the methyl paraben is readily metabolised through the skin and/or digestive system and is excreted in urine very quickly although I would like to present some data. Leave it with me and thank you for your interest.

    • February 26, 2013 4:14 am

      Generally, things that are consumed are filtered through the liver. Anything absorbed through the skin bypasses the liver and thus, goes straight to the bloodstream.


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