The More You Know: Parabens

There's a cloud of controversy around parabens.  Some people think they cause cancer, others just want "all natural" things in their skincare, and more are...hmm, possibly just fear-mongering.  So let's take a closer look at parabens today (featuring some of my crappy doodles)!

A quick note...

Yes, I use parabens in Holy Snails products.  Shark Sauce has it.  Snowbang has it.  This isn't an "oh, I need to convince people this is safe so I don't lose profits" post.  If I had to switch preservatives, I would be out...about $20.  Plus shipping.  I experiment a lot.  I have a lot of preservatives on my shelf:

This only counts some of the natural, antimicrobial extracts even.  My extracts list is kind of, um, ...embarrassingly large.
I'm also kind of a crunchy hippie type person.  As in my daughter plays almost exclusively with handmade, watercolor and beeswax coated wooden toys, only ate organic off the Dirty Dozen list (typically from our pesticide-free backyard square-foot garden), wore (handmade, organic, OEKO-TEX) cloth diapers, and we pretty much avoid medicine unless it's something vaccinations.  She eats mostly preservative-free fresh food, but when I make something for her, out of the dozens of preservatives on my shelf, I grab the parabens.  (*cue Choosy Moms Choose Jif ad*)

What does the FDA say?

Here is the FDA's official statement on parabens.  To summarize though:
  • Parabens are used in a wide variety of cosmetics, as well as foods and drugs
  • A 2004 study detected parabens in breast tumors. However, the study did not show that parabens cause cancer, or that they are harmful in any way, and the study did not look at possible paraben levels in normal tissue.
  • The Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) reviewed the safety of methylparabenpropylparaben, and butylparaben in 1984 and concluded they were safe for use in cosmetic products at levels up to 25%. Typically usage levels were 0.01 to 0.3%.
  • In December 2005, after considering the margins of safety for exposure to women and infants, the Panel determined that there was no need to change its original conclusion that parabens are safe as used in cosmetics.
  • Although parabens can act similarly to estrogen, they have been shown to have much less estrogenic activity than the body’s naturally occurring estrogen. For example, this study found that the most potent paraben tested, butylparaben, showed 10,000- to 100,000x less activity than naturally occurring estradiol (a form of estrogen). Further, parabens are used at very low levels in cosmetics. In a review of the estrogenic activity of parabens, the author concluded that based on maximum daily exposure estimates, it was implausible that parabens could increase the risk associated with exposure to estrogenic chemicals.
  • The FDA believes that at the present time there is no reason for consumers to be concerned about the use of cosmetics containing parabens.

** Note:  The links to CIR's published reports above also link to their 2008 updated reports on parabens.

So what exactly is a Paraben?

To me, parabens sound like a robot insect.  If saying the word conjures up imaginary background Transformer noises, I can see why there's fear surrounding them.  (They should've called them like...boomboomagen or cassioextracts or something.  Hindsight.)  A paraben isn't a thing, actually.  It's a family, like...the Kardashians or Kennedys.  Or...other families.

I could've drawn it in reverse, but I wanted to write "HO" over and over because I'm a 13 year old boy.
Ok, see the OR at the bottom right?  That's an Oxygen (O) with an R-group dangling off of it.  R is basically asterisk.  It's a placeholder on paper.  Like a drop down menu.  That was probably a mess of an explanation, so let's just look at some actual parabens:

Butylparaben forgot to use the right BB cream for the family photo, so he's getting some flashback.
 Anyway, so basically everything is the same except for what comes after the O-.  That'd be their first name.  And then their last name is the thing that looks like a funky outlet with hands.  These are considered monohydroxybenzoic acids, which...don't panic.  Know what else is a monohydroxybenzoic acid?

Salicylic acid!  As in the 2% BHA that a lot of us know and love and can't live without.  Fun fact:  butylparaben is actually also found in acetaminophen and ibuprofen like salicylic acid.  Comparing it side by side to a paraben, you can see that the R group is a hydrogen (H) and the position of the hydroxyl (-OH) group is different.  This is "ortho" position for the salicylic acid versus "para" (get it?) for the paraben.  (If it were in between the two, it would be "meta" position, just FYI.)

I've been itching to break out my rainbow pens, can you tell?
Parabens are found in nature.  They're naturally occurring in fruits and vegetables, such as barley, flax seeds, grapes, and insects.  Some insects even use them as pheromones!  (So my robot insect theory wasn't too out there, it seems.)  However, scientists aren't interrupting insect sexy time to harvest preservatives.  They're synthesized in labs, like urea.  (No pee farms either!)

Sometime this century, I'll get done with my preservatives megapost, but in the meantime, just know that when you're trying to preserve a product, you want to defend it against fungi (yeasts and molds) as well as gram positive and gram negative bacteria.  

Parabens in general are considered broad spectrum, but better against fungi than bacteria, and more effective against gram-positive versus gram-negative bacteria.  And the longer they are, the more effective.  So you should never have a product that's preserved with just methylparaben, for example.  In fact, you shouldn't have a product preserved with just parabens either, and should have additional antimicrobials that cover the parabens' weak spots (like diazolidinyl urea, but that's another topic for another day if I hope to finish this post before Christmas).

So are they safe?

If I said yes, does that really mean anything?  But I will go with what the actual experts say. 

The American Cancer Society says "so far, studies have not shown any direct link between parabens and any health problems, including breast cancer. There are also many other compounds in the environment that mimic naturally produced estrogen."  

The FDA also says "that at the present time there is no reason for consumers to be concerned about the use of cosmetics containing parabens."  

The CIR's report in 2008 concluded that parabens "are safe as cosmetic ingredients in the practices of use and use concentrations described in [this] safety assessment."  

A 2008 review (not full text, sorry) on potential health risks of parabens states that "worst-case daily exposure to parabens would present substantially less risk relative to exposure to naturally occurring endocrine active chemicals in the diet."

To emphasize, the CIR looked at parabens 32 years ago and deemed them safe.  They looked at them again 24 years later and still deemed them safe.  There has also been no conclusive study that stands up against that report either.  That's over three decades.

So there you go.  You'll have to make up your own mind on how you feel about parabens, obviously, but that's what I've found.  Just remember that parabens have been around for decades in cosmetics, and all of the controversy against them still has not produced studies showing that they are harmful at the concentrations used.  

A product marketed as "paraben free" can also market itself as "waterless" or "super advanced hydration technology" or "is purple."  It's marketing, so it's whatever will attract consumers.  I understand the fear of something potentially harming you (and your family).  Just understand that the worst case scenario of going preservative-free or using only natural, antimicrobial extracts isn't that your expensive face cream grows blue sprinkles and you have to toss it out and be out some money.  It's not that you can only order certain products in the winter, because the natural preservatives can't handle summer heat.  It's that the things that preservatives are fighting can actually do harm to you.  They can cause serious infections that take months or even years to recover from, and that's something I don't want to subject myself or my family to.