A group of commonly used cosmetic/personal care product ingredients generally referred to as “Parabens” are methyl, ethyl, propyl, butyl, isopropyl and isobutylparaben. They are ingredients known as preservatives that are highly effective in preventing the growth of fungi and bacteria and are used to preserve products and greatly extend their shelf life. Thus, they contribute directly to the quality of the product and, more importantly, its safe use for the consumer. Parabens have been used for decades as preservatives in the food, drug and personal care and cosmetic industries. There have been a number of articles and Internet rumors over the last couple of years that have reported an association between Parabens and breast cancer. It is implied in these reports that Parabens can cause breast cancer by acting like estrogen, the female sex endocrine hormone, through a process called endocrine disruption. Some of these studies suggest a very weak estrogenic or endocrine disrupting effect of Parabens. However, these studies, which have been conducted in animals, are observed only when they are dosed with extremely high amounts of Parabens – far greater than anyone would be exposed to under actual conditions of use or with repeated use. The simple fact is that the Parabens are 100,000 times weaker than natural estrogen in the body - far too weak to have any effect in humans.
Preservatives are added to personal care and cosmetic products to prevent the growth of fungi and bacteria that may be introduced by the consumer during use. Any product that contains water is susceptible to being spoiled by the growth of fungi or bacteria, causing problems such as unsightly mold growth, discoloration, malodor or breakdown of the product. Under certain conditions, an inadequately preserved product can become contaminated, allowing dangerous levels of microorganisms to grow. Cosmetic products may be exposed to bacteria and fungi during product use due to contact with the skin or applicators that contact the skin. Parabens are widely used in all types of cosmetics to prevent these changes and protect the consumer. The U.S. FDA has classified methyl and propylparaben as GRAS, which means they are Generally Regarded As Safe by medical and toxicological experts for use in preserving food. The FDA has also stated that Parabens are safe for use in cosmetics.
Link to FDA statement on Parabens in Cosmetics:
Under European Cosmetic regulations, Paraben(s) have been reviewed for safety by the European Commission and are allowed for use as cosmetic preservatives. Parabens provide clear benefit by effectively protecting the product against the growth of potentially harmful microorganisms. Based on the weight of current scientific evidence, there is no reason for consumers to be concerned about the use of cosmetic and personal care products containing Parabens.
Some scientific studies have suggested that butyl and possibly propylparaben can mimic the effect of the endocrine hormone estrogen when tested at very high concentrations in cell cultures and female mice. This effect is sometimes referred to as endocrine disruption. Some recent studies have claimed that there is a link between exposure to parabens, particularly in underarm cosmetics, and breast cancer caused by endocrine disruption. These studies have been largely discredited by the scientific community, particularly by those who study the toxic effects of chemicals on the body. In fact, scientists who study the effects of products on the population (epidemiologists) have found no direct link between underarm products and breast cancer (1). Many materials found in plants used as food also have an estrogenic effect. These naturally occurring materials are called phytoestrogens and are present in soy and other fruits and vegetables. Some of these phytoestrogens, when tested in the same way as Parabens, give similar estrogen-like results. However, Parabens have been shown to be 10,000 times weaker than the most potent phytoestrogens and 100,000 times less potent than estradiol, the estrogen produced naturally by the body. Most scientists agree that there is no endocrine- disrupting effect from the use of Parabens in cosmetic and personal care products because their action, if any, is so weak.
(1) Mirick, D.K., Davis, S., and Thomas, D.B. (2002) Antiperspirant use and the risk of breast cancer. J. Natl Cancer Inst. 94(20):1578-80.