The Skin Coach: The Scoop on Parabens

In the world of cosmetics, there is always a good guy and a bad guy. Beauty fads catch like wildfire and it doesn’t take much for consumers to be gripped by full-blown hysteria about the newest, most dangerous, cancer-causing ingredient. Parabens are certainly no stranger to this ingredient hysteria and their potential link to cancer has become the latest beauty bad guy. Are all of the fears founded on solid, scientific data? Read on to find out.

Parabens, or esters of para-hydroxybenzoic acid, have been the most widely used preservatives in cosmetics, food and pharmaceuticals since the 1930s. Their antifungal and antimicrobial properties are commonly utilized in skincare products as a way to keep them fresh and long lasting. The past century has seen a wide range of controversies surrounding parabens including allegations of a potential to trigger allergic reactions, a link to cancer, and an effect on the male reproductive system.

It was a 2004 study that first suggested a possible connection between the estrogenic properties of parabens and cancer. Published in 2004 by Dr. Philippa Darbre, the study discovered trace levels of parabens used in antiperspirants and other cosmetic products in the tissues of 18 out of 20 women with breast cancer tumors. However, the study was conducted on a small sample size without controls and there was no determination of causality. This means that even though parabens were present in the tissue of breast cancer patients, they were not necessarily the cause of the cancer and non-diseased tissue may contain the same amount from exposure to everyday products and food containing parabens.

Agencies including the FDA, The American Cancer Society, and The European Commission have responded to the few executed studies linking parabens to cancer by concluding that there is insufficient research to deem parabens unsafe.

Something interesting to note: most of us consume foods including soybeans, strawberries, cucumbers, and blueberries that contain more estrogen mimicking parabens than is found in cosmetics. For now, the science behind the controversy is not enough to deem parabens cancer-causing or not but if you are caught up in paraben hysteria, you should be more concerned with the strawberries you are eating than the face cream you put on.