Toxic Thursday: Parabens

Thursday, February 6

Each Thursday I’m going to discuss an ingredient that I think we should be avoiding in our beauty and skincare products. This is based on my own research and feelings, and many of you may have different opinions to me, which of course, is absolutely fine. It is so easy to get brainwashed - or greenwashed - into thinking some ingredients are 'greener' than others, and I think in order to avoid this we really need to understand what goes into our products and make rational, informed decisions. 

First up, I’m going to tackle the biggest and most controversial nasty in town, parabens. 

What are parabens? 

Parabens are a preservative used in the vast majority of conventional beauty and skin care products. They prevent bacterial and microbial growth and give everything in your beauty cabinet a long shelf life. The three most common used are methylparaben, ethylparaben and butylparaben. Parabens also weakly mimic the effects of the hormone estrogen and are also known as phytoestrogens. 

Why are they supposedly bad for us? 

Many people believe that parabens are a carcinogen, due to a journal article that was published back in 2004. Researchers from the University of Reading in England had analysed samples of breast cancer tissue, and found parabens present in 18 out of 20. This didn’t prove that the parabens caused the breast cancer however, just that they were present in the tissue - as were many other harmless molecules. The issue with parabens however was a little more complicated. Elevated levels of estrogen are known to significantly increase your chances of breast cancer, and as parabens are a phytoestrogen, there was a concern that they had some role to play in the development of tumours - especially as many breast cancer tumours are found around the armpit area, where women daily spray anti perspirant and deodorants after showering and when their pores are open. A year after the article was published, the European Commission Scientific Committee on Consumer Products confirmed that two parabens - methylparaben and ethylparaben - were safe to use and they continued to be used in cosmetics and other products. There is ongoing research to confirm their safety.

If they are used in small amounts and are ruled as safe, why is there still an issue? 

True, the amount used in a single product is very small and therefore safe. However, there is no research as yet into the effects of cumulative usage of products containing parabens. We don’t just use one product every now and then, we use several everyday. Just outlining a typical morning of product use - shower gel, toothpaste, deodorant, face cleanser, toner, moisturiser, foundation, concealer, blusher, mascara, eye shadow, lipstick - shows a snapshot of how many products we use in just a few hours. Repeat this daily over a year, and assume the majority of these products contain parabens, and it’s easy to see how many parabens our bodies are absorbing over time. This is a concern when the effects of cumulative parabens are unknown. 

But won’t our body just flush them out? 

Our bodies can only flush out a certain amount of toxins every day. Repeated use of paraben-containing products means our body doesn’t get chance to flush them out, and they build up in our tissue with unknown and unresearched effects. It’s in our tissue that tumours develop, and I don’t like the idea of an ingredient that we know mimics estrogen, which we know causes breast cancer, cumulating in my tissues through my daily and repeated application. 

But there are phytoestrogens in the natural world and everyday life that we are constantly exposed to…

True, there are natural food products and other elements which contain phytoestrogens. But these are not in the concentrated form of a synthesised paraben, and they are not applied and massaged regularly into our skin. If we eat a food regularly which contains phytoestrogens, the enzymes and digestive acids found in our stomachs destroy a lot of the harmful substances. However, when we use products which contain parabens, we apply them directly to our tissue through our skin, and as the body doesn’t flush toxins out of the tissue as efficiently or as quickly as through our digestive tract, parabens quickly enter our bloodstream and travel around our body. So yes, we are exposed to other phytoestrogens in daily life, but not in such quantities as in parabens. 

Are there other safe alternatives to parabens? 

Of course, but they are more expensive to manufacture and use, so many companies avoid them. There are extracts of fruits and herbs which are both anti microbial and anti bacterial, and usage of these prolongs the shelf life of cosmetic products. Many natural products contain natural preservatives, again reducing the need for the use of parabens. There are also processes companies can use, such as not mixing oil and water, which can reduce the spoilage and keep products safer for longer. In my opinion, the ugly truth comes down to profit. Big cosmetics brands use parabens because they’re cheap and keep their profit margins healthy, especially when they are producing such large quantities of product. 

To me, the research around parabens is not sufficient for me to find it an acceptable ingredient. It has too close ties to estrogen for me to want to use it regularly, and unfortunately it’s going to be many years before the results of current research efforts can be analysed.

I don’t think using a paraben containing product now and again is going to kill you, but I worry that a cumulative build up of parabens in our soft tissue is potentially dangerous, and with breast cancer rates rising every year, it’s a risk I’m not willing to take. 

What are your thoughts on paraben use? 

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  1. Lot's of great points made, I think that in the case of parabens it isn't just the cost but also the effectiveness that drove cosmetic companies to use them, things last years with Parabens, not so much with other preservatives. As for the hormonal disruption element, the hormonal system is so complex I hope doctors will research more the effects that things such as parabens can have, until we have more conclusive proof either way I avoid them almost exclusively with the odd exception. Xx

  2. The toxic Thursdays seem like a good idea. Easier for people to remember over a space of time instead of reading everything at one then forgetting. Good informative post. Thanks :)

  3. I avoid parabens too. Like you, I don't know what their effects are and, until we have more research results on them and their use, I will continue to avoid them. It's easy for me to do, though, as I've switched all my products to natural ones and they tend to avoid them. I find that with all ingredients it's not the sporadic use but the continuous use (and, therefore, the risk of it accumulating in our body) that worries me. Also, lots of people are aware of parabens in deodorants (I clearly remember when this was on the news) but I'm not sure how many of them are aware of their presence in all the other products.