This is a huge topic and I hope to give you the complete story in the shortest way possible. This is probably still one of the most vilified ingredients in cosmetics. Parabens were first brought to the mainstream consumer attention in 2004, and still, in 2018 there is so much misinformation about them.
If you want to have a skim over the article, I have highlighted the keywords, and hopefully, that will spark enough questions for you to read the content in full to get a clear picture.
Let’s backtrack a little. What exactly is a paraben? In short, they are a group of preservatives used in cosmetics and medicines. Yes, in medicines. They are still very commonly used in medicines. There has been no outcry about paraben free in the pharma industry, that should make you think. They are safe enough to ingest, then why can’t I use them in my body lotion? What’s going on here?
For more on why you need preservatives in cosmetics read here
The main parabens of interest in cosmetics are the following:
They have been safely used in cosmetics since the 1920s. They have almost 100 years of safe usage history, they are also considered amongst the lowest rate of skin problems in dermatological patients. They can, in rare cases, cause irritation to the skin, but this truly a rare event.
Let’s go back to 2004, Dr. Dabre published a report about the concentration of parabens in human breast tumors. In summary, the report suggested that parabens in underarm deodorants and antiperspirants could be absorbed into the skin and migrate to breast tissue close by. The study consisted of the analyst of 20 tissue samples removed from human breast tumors. There were 6 blank control analyses without any tissue present.
When the study was first published, there was huge criticism from the scientific community. The editor of the publishing journal was bombarded with several letters complaining about the study. The complaints and criticism were not only about the findings but the methodology of the study.
I will list the main issues with the methodology of the study, but one of the main complaints was also the rationale for the conclusion.
- Any substances applied to the underarm do NOT migrate to the breast area. Both the blood and the lymphatic circulatory system flow AWAY from the breast.
Now let’s look at how the study was carried out, the methodology. I will list the most obvious ones first.
- There was no control tested. No comparison to healthy tissue was made. So, maybe there would’ve been traces of parabens in healthy tissue. This would rule out that parabens are linked to breast cancer.
- Parabens were detected in the blank control samples. It is good scientific practice to carry out control samples. In this case they used a negative control which was designed to check that parabens would not be detected in the absence of the actual tissue samples. BUT they did detect parabens. This should’ve raised alarm bells, parabens were detected where they shouldn’t be. This finding was brushed over by making the assumption that the controls had been contaminated from the glassware. If detecting parabens in the control meant the samples were contaminated – why then did they assume that detection of parabens in the tissues was not contaminated? That seems very much like falsifying findings in order to get a predetermined outcome?
- Benzylparaben was used to calculate the analytical recovery factor. This is quite a complex thing to explain in detail, but the fault with using this in the study is that benzylparaben is not even used in cosmetics. Firstly, that makes the actual results meaningless and real valuable conclusions cannot be made from the findings.
- It is very different in chemical structure to the other parabens. Analytical recovery factor helps to calculate the concentration of the chemical being analyzed. Using benzylparaben (due to it’s a chemical structure) also meant that the recovery factor used in the calculation would give a much higher concentration of parabens than was actually the case. So the results would be completely incorrect.
- A statically insignificant number of tissue samples were tested. You cannot make solid findings on small samples. That is like asking 3 people if they like chocolate and the make the statement that 100% of people like chocolate.
- There are also a number of flaws in the analysis of the results and how they were presented. Some of the blanks had higher % of parabens in them than the tissue samples.
If you are interested in the more technical breakdown of the study, please contact me and I will happily share it.
One other thing that the study does not take into account concerning the absorption of parabens into the skin. Even if they are partially absorbed into the skin, the skin and blood have enzymes called esterases. These enzymes break down a group of chemicals known as esters – this includes parabens as they fall within the ester category.
This seriously flawed study almost single-handedly caused all the hysteria over the use of parabens. How such a flawed study ever got into print is also a concern. The worst of it though is that even though this study has been disputed it is still the main information that even 14 years later is all that referenced.
Parabens have been re-evaluated a number of times since that study with the latest safety tests being done as recently as 2013. It is now under review again to keep checking the safety. To date, not a single other scientific study has found the same results or any connection to cancer.
In short, parabens are still the safest preservatives to use in cosmetics.
As a final point. Even the authors, in the summary of the flawed report, stated that the presence of paraben did not prove a causal link to breast cancer. So why is this report still being used to make the outrageous claims that they are?