methylWHAT? Parabens ( Cool tongue-twisting chemical names: parahydroxybenzoates – whoaaaaa or, esters of parahydrobenzoic acid) are a family of related artificially made chemicals. They are a white to off-white crystalline powder. The parabens used most commonly in cosmetics and food are methylparaben, propylparaben and ethylparaben. Butylparaben is also commonly used but just in cosmetics. As you can see from their names, they are quite easy to identify on labels. Until you come across E numbers, that is. More on those later….ethyl-e1528211243964

WHY? Parabens are commonly used as preservatives in pharmaceutical products and cosmetics as they reduce spoilage from air, fungi, bacteria, or yeast. They are also used as food additives as due to their above properties, they increase shelf life.

WHERE? In pharmaceuticals, foodstuffs and cosmetics. Cosmetics that may contain parabens include makeup, moisturizer, hair care products and shaving products, among others. A few brands of deodorants might also contain parabens.

WHEN? The public hue and cry on parabens started whenpropyl P. D. Darbre et al (2004) published a study on parabens which suggested that these chemicals which mimic the female sex hormones (oestrogen) and/or damage genes at a celular level, when applied in bodycare cosmetics around the breast area could be a contributory factor in the rising cases of breast cancer. This was the first time that parabens had been shown to be present as intact *esters within the human body and in the human breast. But this study led to more questions than answers. alas, plus the subsequent villification of parabens by the media, despite the authors expressing the need for “larger studies.” So, what has happened since then? Many, many studies have since been done ( I will put the links to just a few) and they show the following:

  1. The concentration of parabens in human urine which confirms systemic human absorption. Here is a study and here another.
  2. The fact that methylparaben is the paraben that was detected at the highest level but possibly because of its wide usage in cosmetics and also because it penetrates the most into the skin. I could only access the abstract of the study by El Hussein et al., 2007, alas. Wish all studies could have open access!
  3. Accumulation of methylparaben can occur in the outermost layer of the skin through repeated usage of a product during the day and/or multiple applications of different products each containing parabens.
  4. The presence of parabens in raw sewage, whether through human excretion or as wash off products.
  5. Parabens in aquatic systems: secondary and additional treatment of wastewater shows that parabens and their derivatives which have become chlorinated once in contact with the chlorine in tap water, are NOT likely to produce biological effects. Thank god for small mercies!


But, as per UC Berkley’s adjunct associate professor of nutritional sciences and toxicology, Dale Leitman, existing chemical safety tests, which measure the effects of chemicals on human cells, look only at parabens in isolation. They fail to take into account that parabens could interact with other types of signaling molecules in the cells to increase breast cancer risk. Heard of Bioaccumulation? This is the gradual accumulation of substances, such as pesticides, or other chemicals in an organism. Yup, merits another post!

So, what is my take on Parabens in general? Though the Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) Expert Panel “supports the safety of cosmetic products in which parabens preservatives are used”, I would avoid ALL products with these due to their bio-accumulation in our bodies. 

DISCLAIMER: I have not been paid/advised by anybody to write/research the above. I have no links whatsoever to big pharma or any personal hygiene product company. The views in this post are my own.

*Ester: an organic compound made by replacing the hydrogen of an acid by an alkyl or other organic group. Many naturally occurring fats and essential oils are esters of fatty acids.

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