(NaturalNews) Parabens are a family of alkyl esters of para-hydroxybenzoic acid that differ by various chemical substitutions. The six widely marketed para-hydroxybenzoic acid esters are methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben, isobutylparaben, butylparaben, and benzylparaben. They differ in their solubility and range of antimicrobial activity. It is these antibacterial and antifungal properties that give parabens their preservative qualities so valued by manufacturers for maintaining freshness in cosmetics and foods. The issue then becomes: Do we take in a potentially harmful substance to protect ourselves against bacteria and fungus, and is the tradeoff really necessary at all?
This article focuses on the use of parabens in cosmetics only. This family of chemicals has been raising red flags to many health researchers because of some evidence of problems on several levels. Because parabens have been proven to penetrate the skin and can be traced in the blood minutes after application, it is theorized that they may have adverse effects on the body. One study found parabens present in the breast tissue of 18 out of the 20 breast cancer patients studied.[i] Because presence does not prove causality, the researcher called for more studies to be done in this regard. It is thought that the parabens entered through the skin by the application of paraben-containing anti-perspirants. Because the cosmetic use involves penetration into body tissues without going through the digestive process, the chemicals remain intact in the tissue. It is not known how this affects the surrounding tissue, so it is an area for further study.
This chemical family has also been studied in regard to allergic reactions. While some people have had such reactions, it has not been found that this is a large enough group to raise concerns.[ii]
Parabens have displayed estrogenic activity in several tests. In other words, these chemicals mimic the body's own hormones and can thus disrupt endocrine functions in virtually every system in the body.[iii]
Additionally, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has raised concerns about the continuous introduction of such chemicals into sewage treatment systems and directly to recreational waters from the skin of swimmers. There may be a risk to aquatic organisms. Studies in Europe found other endocrine-disrupting body care chemicals in the tissues of fish and in human breast milk, so it is thought that the same thing could be true of parabens.[iv]
The second major issue raised by parabens and other dangerous chemicals is that the FDA has no ability to regulate the ingredients in cosmetics. They can publish lists of additives they consider harmful and rely on the manufacturers to make changes themselves. The only group that looks into problematic ingredients is the Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) which is comprised of manufacturers. The FDA participates but has no vote in this group. So we have a self-policing situation with no accountability to anyone other than the informed consumer.
It was just such a group of consumers who campaigned for the removal of toxic chemicals from cosmetics. From this drive by Women's Voices for the Earth, an environmental justice group based in Montana(www.womenandenvironment.org), emerged a coalition of environmental and public health groups. The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics (www.safecosmetics.org) pressures the health and beauty industry to phase out the use of chemicals that are known or suspected carcinogens, mutagens, or reproductive toxins. The European Union (EU) has led the way, banning the use of these chemicals in 2003. Recently, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics invited U.S. cosmetics companies to sign the "Compact for the Global Production of Safer Health and Beauty Care Products" and commit themselves to comply with the EU regulations. To date, 600 companies have signed, but many industry leaders have not. Consumers can also visit the webpage of the Environmental Working Group (www.ewg.org) and research "Skin Deep", a safety assessment of the ingredients in personal care products.
One more piece of the puzzle is the question of the necessity of using these parabens at all. According to some organic cosmetic manufacturers, parabens are indeed unnecessary, as tinctures made from high quality organic herbs and organic grain alcohol are shelf-stable for approximately two to three years. For example, a 100% organic moisturizing body oil made from organic oils derived from sunflowers, cocoa butter, coconuts, peppermint and spearmint can have a shelf-life of up to 18 months.[v] Studies still need to be done to see if this claim can be proved.
In the end, it is the consumer who must decide. Failure to do the research and make up one's mind may be a choice to remain a guinea pig at the mercy of the cosmetic industry.
[i] Darbre PD, Aljarrah A, Miller WR, Coldham NG, Sauer MJ, Pope GS (2004). Concentrations of parabens in human breast tumors. Journal of Applied Toxicology 24:5-13.
[iii] The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA); Christian G. Daughton and Thomas A. Ternes, "Pharmaceuticals and Personal Care Products in the Environment: Agents of Subtle Change?" Environmental Health Perspectives • Vol 107, Supplement 6 • December 1999.