Concern over these widely used synthetic preservatives stems from research showing that parabens can mimic the hormone estrogen and a widely criticized 2004 study that suggested a potential link between parabens and breast cancer. But what if parabens aren’t as dangerous as feared? What if the substitutes used in countless “paraben-free” products could have major side effects? Could it be that the focus on parabens was misplaced?
This is the position of many scientists, including Philippa Darbre, Emeritus Professor at the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Reading in Britain, who led the controversial 2004 study that sparked concern about parabens and breast cancer. And it’s prompting some of us who follow the industry (including myself, once open to the concept of “clean” beauty) to start digging into the fear-sowing science of parabens and other synthetic ingredients.
But first, some background: Parabens were introduced in the 1920s and are found in personal care items, food products, and pharmaceuticals such as antacids, cough suppressants, and antidepressants. They have become the preservatives of choice because they are largely antimicrobial and inexpensive and rarely cause an allergic reaction. Of the 21 parabens, the four most commonly found in cosmetics and skincare products are methylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben, and ethylparaben.
These concentrations are higher than those typically used in cosmetic formulations, according to Lalita Iyer, a New York-based cosmetic chemist who has formulated personal care products for beauty conglomerates and independent brands. “Parabens are one of the most effective broad-spectrum preservatives,” Iyer said. “The beauty of parabens is that you can really use them at a low percentage.”
But doubts about the safety of parabens were raised in the late 1990s, when research by British molecular endocrinologist Edwin Routledge indicated that they might have an estrogenic effect. These findings prompted Darbre’s 2004 paper, a small study that found parabens in breast tumor tissue and raised concerns about an association between parabens and breast cancer. While much of the research on the hormonal effects of parabens that followed was contradictory, none of it confirmed a link between parabens and breast cancer.
According to “Parabens Toxicology,” a 2019 literature review conducted by surgical dermatologist Anthony Fransway, no studies on parabens have concluded that they contribute to hormone disruption, breast cancer, or skin cancer in the man. “Until compelling data is published and verified, claims that parabens have a role in these controversial and important health issues are premature,” the researchers wrote.
But that didn’t settle the issue. As research continued, concern about parabens had taken hold in the public, and “paraben-free” products began to appear on the shelves of pharmacies and beauty counters. Experts warn, however, that these formulations are potentially more harmful than their counterparts because the preservatives used in place of parabens are less studied and more likely to cause an allergic reaction or allow contamination of products.
“The problem is that when people freaked out about parabens, we started using more preservatives, which are much more allergenic,” said Walter Liszewski, assistant professor of dermatology specializing in allergic contact dermatitis at Northwestern. University of Chicago. “For example, my Head & Shoulders shampoo says ‘paraben-free’ but uses methylisothiazolinone (MIT) instead of parabens, which is far more unpleasant.” Methylisothiazolinone is a known contact allergen.
Iyer, the cosmetic chemist, added that natural preservatives generally don’t extend a product’s shelf life by more than six months, compared to two years for parabens, and that natural preservatives kill a much narrower spectrum of microbes. . “It’s extremely problematic,” she said.
According to the FDA’s “Cosmetics Recalls and Alerts” page, several “clean” companies have voluntarily recalled products over the past two years due to the presence of mold, yeast, and bacteria. This included multi-level marketing company Beautycounter, which voluntarily recalled Beauty Counter Brilliant Brow Tinted Brow Gel because testing found a species of Penicillium mould.
Esther Oluwaseun, a research and development formulation chemist based in Santa Ana, Calif., said most cases of recalled products listed on the FDA site could have been avoided if brands had used broad-spectrum preservatives. like parabens. “But because parabens have been demonized, formulators are forced to use less effective preservative systems.”
Darbre’s 2004 study, “Paraben Concentrations in Human Breast Tumors,” has been widely discredited. Critics began to worry immediately after its publication, citing the study’s small sample size (20 tumors), its inability to examine control samples of normal breast tissue, its inability to determine the source of the parabens and possible contamination of samples used in research. .
Later that year, Darbre published a response in the Journal of Applied Toxicology stating, “Nowhere in the manuscript was it alleged that the presence of parabens caused breast cancer.” But in the public mind, the link had been made, though scientists and organizations continued to point out flaws in the research.
The American Cancer Society agrees with the criticism: “The study did not show that parabens caused or contributed to the development of breast cancer in these cases – it only showed that they were there,” says she on a web page about parabens. The National Cancer Institute also noted that there is no evidence that parabens cause breast cancer, and included a footnote to a 2019 report by the review of cancer expert panel. industry-funded cosmetic ingredients, which concluded that 20 of the report’s 21 parabens are safe in cosmetics as long as the total in a product is less than 0.8%.
Despite heavy criticism, Darbre’s study has been cited nearly 1,000 times since its publication. Timothy Caulfield, Canada Research Chair in Health Law and Policy at the University of Alberta, said it’s not unusual for what he calls “zombie documents” persist. “It’s a big problem – bad studies pollute academic literature and, sometimes, meta-analyses.”
Caulfield said there are other forces at work that contribute to public distrust of parabens, citing some beauty companies he says are spreading “chemophobia” (the irrational fear of products chemicals). “I don’t know of a universe where chemicals don’t exist,” he said, “but that’s the narrative that brands like Goop and Honest Company like to sell, and unfortunately, that’s extremely effective.” Goop and Honest Company declined to comment.
Iyer also cited the influence of retailers such as Sephora promoting paraben-free products. “Brands want the ‘Clean at Sephora’ label on their products,” she said, “so they refuse to use parabens.” A Sephora representative said the company’s Clean at Sephora criteria “reflect the latest data and research.”
But Iyer is also concerned about how paraben research is disseminated to the public. “I think a lot of the paraben push comes from organizations like the Environmental Working Group (EWG) spreading misinformation and picking data to fit their agenda.”
The activist organization’s science, tactics and publications, including its annual “Dirty Dozen” list of products most likely to be contaminated with pesticides, have been questioned by experts.
Iyer pointed to the EWG’s parabens overview page, saying the organization chose “outdated studies to answer their narrative” and left out the context. For example, the page cites a study of rats exposed to butylparaben during development, which found damage to the animals’ reproductive system. But, she said, the rats were orally given large amounts of parabens “which is quite different from topical application in humans.” It’s alarmist. »
Asked about these examples, Carla Burns, EWG’s senior director of cosmetic science, said the article on parabens was written in 2019. “We have more recent information,” she said, “and the ever-changing scientific space is listed on our in-depth Skin Database under each of the applicable paraben ingredient pages.
However, developments in science do not appear to have affected public distrust of parabens. This concerns Darbre, author of the 2004 study, who continued his research on estrogenic chemicals. She now says that several hundred of these chemicals “can add together at low concentrations to grow cells to their maximum rate.” Therefore, she said, “tracking down” a set of chemicals, such as parabens, is not helpful.
“It would be wonderful if a single chemical could be identified as a single problem and then replaced with something ‘safe,’ but that’s unlikely to happen,” Darbre said. “What often happens now is that a chemical with ‘bad press’ is replaced by a new chemical with less data.”
She cited the reduction of bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical widely used in plastics until 2008. When products are sold as “BPA-free”, she said, it “encourages everyone to think new products are ‘safer’ when all that’s happened is that other bisphenols have replaced bisphenol A.
And as for parabens, which are being removed from products in part thanks to his research? “They are cheap and effective as preservatives,” she said, “and the only alternative to eliminating the preservatives is to drastically reduce the shelf life.”
Janna Mandell is a San Francisco-based journalist covering the beauty and wellness industries.