Parabens in cosmetics: harmless or hazardous?

It’s a cold, winter day. Your skin is dry, and your lips are cracked and peeling. You do what comes naturally. You pull out your lotion and lip balm for instant relief. But did you know that the products you are about to use most likely contain controversial chemical preservatives called parabens? Although experts have reaffirmed the safety of parabens in cosmetics, there has been a growing concern about the potential adverse health effects that may result from exposure.

The Darbre Study, led by oncology expert Dr. Philippa Darbre in 2004, found chemical forms of parabens in 18 of 20 breast tumors tested. It indicated that the parabens originated from something applied to the skin, such as lotions, body sprays or deodorants.

According to “Advanced Natural Medicine,” a natural health newsletter, British researchers at Brunel University discovered in 1998 that parabens mimic the hormone estrogen. High estrogen levels in females have been linked to breast disease, and in men, can lead to more body fat, lower muscle mass, and even the development of breasts.

The newsletter also claims that parabens can make skin appear older by accelerating the formation of wrinkles and age spots.

Continuous exposure to parabens in men may lead to reproductive damage, such as low sperm count and decreased testosterone levels, according to a 2002 study by the Department of Toxicology at the Tokyo Metropolitan Research Laboratory of Public Health.

“It is inconclusive whether parabens pose any real threat,” says SMC cosmetology professor, Julie Lim. “Personally, I don’t know of any client that has suffered from side effects from parabens in cosmetics.”

Yet, concerns about the safety of parabens in cosmetic products have prompted reviews by the Food and Drug Administration and the Cosmetic Ingredient Review.

The FDA claims that that although parabens can act similarly to estrogen, they have been shown to have much less estrogenic activity than the body’s naturally occurring cycle. The FDA also states that cosmetic manufacturers may use any ingredient they choose, except for those that are prohibited by regulation.

The CIR, a panel of experts specializing in the study of chemicals used in cosmetic products, has been reviewing newly released data on the safety of parabens since 1984. On March 6, they released a report reaffirming that parabens are safe cosmetic ingredients.

“Preservatives have a place in cosmetics, but allergies should always be considered when choosing a product,” says Susan Ijames, an SMC cosmetology professor, who has been a licensed cosmetologist for over 40 years. “Parabens are used because most people are not allergic to the chemical source.”

Ijames explains that alternative preservatives, such as acid derived from vitamin E, can be used in cosmetics, but that each individual may react differently. For example, vitamin E can come from olives, a natural source, but if a client is allergic to olives, then the synthetic version would be better for that person.

“Each client needs to be analyzed and product recommended on an individual basis,” Ijames says.

Several forms of parabens can often be found in skin and hair care products, including methyl, ethyl, propyl, isobutyl, butyl, and benzyl.

“Most cosmetics are FDA-approved,” says Ijames. “But one still needs to analyze the ingredients to ensure optimum benefit for the purposes for which they were intended.”

Almost every cosmetic line uses the preservative, but shoppers with the patience to look through ingredient lists can discover certain products that do not. Also, a growing number of products are now being labeled and marketed as “paraben-free.”

The commonly used lip balm Chapstick contains methylparaben and propylparaben, but Green by Nature lip butters, and organic varieties such as EOS and Softlips, do not contain the preservative.

“Organic products could be better, but not necessarily always safer,” says Lim.

Burt’s Bees is a paraben-free brand that consists of lotions, cleansers, lip balms, shampoos, conditioners, and even toothpaste. These products are created with natural ingredients, and are free of harsh chemicals.

Some paraben-free lotions include Euracin Original Healing, Nivea Essentially Enriched, and Aveeno Daily Moisturizing Lotion. Fragranced lotions from Victoria’s Secret and Bath & Body Works, as well as products by Jergens and Olay, commonly contain parabens.

Certain facial cleansers by Clearasil Ultra, Noxzema and Neutrogena are paraben-free, whereas Clean & Clear Morning Burst, Clearasil Daily Clear, and Oxy Maximum Face Wash all include one or more forms of the preservative.

Most hair products by Garnier Fructis, Pantene Pro-V, Suave Professionals, and Head & Shoulders are paraben-free, while many shampoos by Kerastase and Bed Head have parabens.

“I recommend products that have a minimal list of ingredients, use natural resources if possible, and have a specific purpose,” says Ijames.