By Ada Polla
It seems one of my missions in the beauty industry has become to defend parabens and set the record straight. Perhaps it is because I unapologetically use them in my skin care products Alchimie Forever. Perhaps it is because I enjoy reading the scientific data on the topic. Or perhaps it is because I don’t mind taking the politically incorrect and unpopular view on the topic, as paraben free is a popular buzz word and trend in cosmetics today. In any case, I have written a number of scientific papers on parabens, and am writing my first blog post about it exclusively for Beautyfix.
Parabens are the preservatives most commonly used in cosmetics, foods, and drugs. These molecules are used in over 22,000 cosmetics as preservatives in concentrations up to 0.8% (mixtures of parabens) or up to 0.4% (single paraben). The group includes Methylparaben, Ethylparaben, Propylparaben, Isopropylparaben, Butylparaben, Isobutylparaben, and Benzylparaben. Parabens have been the subject of numerous studies that have established not only their broad spectrum of action against numerous micro-organisms, but also their efficacy, stability, and their lack of side effects.
In the late 1990s, several studies suggested that parabens had an oestrogenic activity. Then, in 2004, English researchers detected traces of parabens in breast tumour tissue samples. The media seized the subject and widely diffused the news: parabens used in cosmetics, most notably in deodorants, could cause breast cancer. Hence the paraben controversy began. As a result, numerous cosmetic companies have altered their product formulae, replacing parabens with alternate preservative systems. Parabens were the ingredient that began the trend of fear marketing in beauty products, or “free of” marketing.
Let’s look at the facts and set the record straight:
1. As stated above, the paraben controversy and the idea they cause breast cancer rests on one single medical study that was published in 2004. The methodology of that study, however, was flawed: parabens were indeed detected in cancerous breast tissue samples; however parabens were also detected in the control group (organic matter with no trace of cancer). As there were parabens in both the cancer tissue and the control, it is not accurate to conclude that parabens cause breast cancer. The American Cancer Society claims that the “studies have not shown any direct link between parabens and any health problems, including breast cancer.”
2. There has been no further published study in the 5 years since that initial study confirming parabens’ role in breast cancer.
3. Parabens are approved by all of the cosmetic regulatory bodies including the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). This is not the case, for example, with hydroquinone, which is banned by the European equivalent of FDA.
4. Parabens have an extremely low skin sensitivity factor, meaning that very few people are allergic or have skin irritation to parabens. This is not the case with some of the paraben alternatives, including essential oils, which are very sensitizing and appear on the European list of top allergens.
5. Finally parabens have the broadest spectrum of action on bacteria, yeast, and mold, meaning they are effective on almost all. This again is not the case of paraben alternatives, whether natural or synthetic.
Of course from a commercial perspective, manufacturers may wish to replace parabens because consumers are demanding products without parabens (even if for the wrong reasons). Products without parabens enable manufacturers to avoid consumer questions and avoid having to set the record straight. But commercial decisions should not be made under the false pretense of making products safer when parabens are safe to begin with.
Furthermore, when removing parabens from products it is important to consider what we are replacing parabens with. Indeed, I believe we can all agree that preservatives and anti-bacterial agents play an important role in cosmetics. After all, who wants bacteria in their creams?
Finally, I urge the industry to reconsider the “free of” marketing craze we seem to have embarked on in the last few years. “Paraben-free” claims naturally although inaccurately lead consumers to believe that parabens are “bad.” Same with all of the other “free of” claims we see today.
ABOUT ADA POLLA:
Ada is the co-creator of skin care brand Alchimie Forever, and a member of the Beautyfix Panel. An expert in cosmetics development, Ada contributes to numerous magazines, and is a frequent guest speaker at leading universities and beauty industry conferences.