What Are Parabens and Do I Need to Worry About Them?
What Exactly Are Parabens?
Parabens are a family of chemical preservatives, commonly used in cosmetic and pharmaceutical products, which help to curtail bacterial growth and extend the shelf life of the products. These chemicals, primarily butylparaben, methylparaben, and propylparaben have been widely used since the 50’s and today at least 85% of cosmetics rely on parabens for preservation purposes. Dermatologists say that most brands trust the efficacy of these ingredients because they are affordable, safe and effective, unlike their newer counterparts that are still not proven to be as efficient. More than 70 years ago, Parabens had replaced Formaldehyde as standard preservatives and have delivered great results ever since with no other substance providing comparable preservative properties. Parabens have been trusted for decades and may even be used in multiple forms in a single product, however, in the recent years, few concerns have been raised regarding the health hazards that they may pose. Due to some speculation that parabens may be carcinogenic substances, many customers have been leaning towards paraben free products, which has encouraged several companies to launch makeup and skincare ranges that do not contain parabens.
The Problem With Parabens
In the early 90’s Parabens were classified as xenoestrogens, which is the collective name for a group of synthetic and natural compounds that imitate the behavior of estrogen in the body. Any substance that is a xenoestrogen can interfere with the normal functioning of the endocrine or hormone system of the human body, this phenomenon is termed as Estrogen Disruption that is known to be one of the stimulants of breast cancer and reproductive disorders. Upon further research in 2004 Dr. Philippa Darbre, renowned cancer researcher from the University of Reading, unveiled the accumulation of parabens in cancerous breast tumors, 18 out of 20 samples of cancerous tissue had detectable quantities of parabens. In 2012, Darbre repeated her experiments with a larger set of samples and not only did she replicate the findings of her earlier study but also discovered that the concentration of parabens in unhealthy tissue was now 4 times higher. Furthermore, concerns were raised that prolonged usage of products containing parabens may lead to the build-up of high concentrations of this substance in the body that may increase the risk of cancer. This resulted in hue and cry among researchers as well as users of cosmetics all over the world and demands were made to regulate the levels of parabens in all products.
The Other Side of the Story
There are several critics that claim that Dr. Darbe’s findings are not conclusive because healthy breast tissue was not studied to confirm whether parabens were present there as well or not, hence it cannot be stated with surety that parabens were the cause of cancer in the unhealthy tissue. Further research has also demonstrated that parabens are very weak estrogen disruptors; this raises the question that are parabens really hazardous in the small quantities that we consume via beauty products. Some studies even suggest that parabens are easily broken down, metabolized and excreted by the human body, so the fear of accumulation could be redundant. Till date, there is no solid scientific evidence that backs the argument of parabens being fatal for human beings; in fact, the WHO, as well as the US FDA have both allowed small concentrations of parabens in products, deeming them as safe at low levels. Other authoritative bodies such as The American Cancer Society and Health Canada have also declared that no causal link has been established between parabens and cancer by any scientific research undertaken till date.
So, Do I Need To Worry About Parabens?
The short answer to this question is that if consumed in moderate concentrations, you do not need to worry about parabens. Parabens are one among the exhaustive list of substances that are alleged to be carcinogenic without sufficient proof of the same. Many consumers, however, choose to be safe rather than sorry and have switched to paraben free products and have eliminated parabens from their lives completely. There is no harm in using paraben-free brands, one must, however, be aware that the shelf life of these products is much lesser due to poorer performance of substitute preservatives, and it is essential to throw these out past their use by date. You may also notice that these products are usually packaged in darker vials so as to inhibit decomposition due to light. It could probably be more dangerous to use paraben-free products post their expiry date as compared to using paraben-containing cosmetics; there are no potent enough replacements for parabens in the industry as of now which makes paraben free products highly susceptible to degradation. Various brands like Aveda, Burt’s Bees, Origins, and Korrs have a fine range of paraben-free products to select from.
The Middle Path
If paraben-free products seem a tad too expensive or you simply don’t want to stop using some of your favorite brands then it might be a good idea to follow a middle path i.e. switch out some products that you use in higher volumes, like body creams, with a paraben-free option. The bottom line is that parabens, if consumed in controlled proportions, have not been proven to cause any visible damage to the body and it is safe to use personal care products with low levels of these chemicals.
Lessons Learned from the Potential Problems Parabens May Cause
Another key takeaway from this parabens debacle is that it is crucial for consumers to be more aware of the ingredients present in the products that they purchase. Over the years customers have now started perusing the list of ingredients cautiously and have started taking more informed decisions as to what they want to consume. Such awareness is a direct consequence of studies and discussions regarding the potential dangers of parabens and similar substances like sulfates and aluminium. Although we may be far from obtaining any definitive proof that parabens are indeed damaging for the body, we have at least reached a point where cosmetic brands cannot get away with introducing potentially harmful substances in their products without getting noticed. The best approach to follow is to stay away from products that are heavily laden with these substances and add a few natural products to your daily regime so as to strike a balance and subdue any impact that parabens may have on your body.