It all goes back to 2004 when some research at Reading University was reported on the BBC. The work was done by a researcher called Dr Philippa Darbre and was reported in the Journal of Applied Toxicology. Tests on samples of 20 different human breast tumours showed traces of parabens in every sample.
“This is the first study to show their accumulation in human tissues,” said Dr Darbre. She also pointed out that parabens are used in under-arm antiperspirants. The way it was reported was to suggest that the parabens in the antiperspirants might be causing the breast cancer.
I first heard about the issue the same way that many people would have done. It was on the radio while I drove to work. My reaction was much like yours might be on hearing that a neighbour who you always had your doubts about was finally up in court. But the offence was something much worse than you had thought him capable of.
I had always worried that the very extensive use of parabens would lead to sensitisation or resistance, and that as an industry we would be much better off if a wider range of preservatives was used. The impact on the environment bothered me too. But causing breast cancer? That was a lot more serious and rather worrying. I had visions of huge bonfires of personal care products being destroyed. Would there be empty shelves while formulation chemists like myself worked round the clock to reformulate about three quarters of the entire industry’s products?
But things calmed down pretty quickly. It turned out that there were some pretty serious flaws in the work, and how it was being reported. There wasn’t any direct evidence that the parabens in the tissue had got there from cosmetics, nor that the presence of the parabens had anything to do with the fact that the tissues were cancerous. Chris Flowers, the chairman of the Cosmetic Toiletry & Perfumery Association was quick to rebut any suggestion of a problem. “Parabens have a very, very good safety profile” was his comment.
Parabens had indeed been found in breast cancer tissue, but that was all. The link to breast cancer was simply speculation. The lab work was bit questionable too. There was a relatively high reading of parabens in the blank samples and the data was quite variable. With analytical data like this the more variable it is the less confidence you can place in it. Modern analytical chemistry is capable of amazing feats of precision, but you still need to be careful when you look at numbers coming from chemical labs. Small errors can easily be multiplied into very big mistakes. (If any of my former colleagues are reading this – yes I am remembering that clindamycin phosphate business.)
And to top it all, the suggestion that the primary source of parabens in the body was from antiperspirants was clearly wrong. Although there are some antiperspirant formulations that contain parabens, they generally don’t. Chris Flowers and other industry spokesmen were quickly able to rubbish the paper to their own satisfaction. This reassured people like me who’s job is to actually select which preservatives to use. The whole issue had been blown up out of all proportion. I was still interested enough to get hold of the actual paper and read it. As I had been led to expect, it was a pretty weak bit of work.
At first, this seemed to be the end of the matter. Scare stories about consumer products are quite common, and most are forgotten pretty quickly. This one seemed to be going the same way. But for some reason, something about it seemed to resonate. Some people started to consciously avoid parabens. And the numbers are still growing. Paraben free products started to appear.
Now as I have said, I was not a fan of parabens to begin with. But the dislike of parabens did seem to be irrational. I wondered what the woman who had triggered the whole thing off thought about it now. I remembered that Albert Kligman had come out to defend lanolin after some of his research had led people to criticise it. Having your research picked up like this isn’t something that happens to many scientists and I thought that she might well be as mystified by the reaction as anyone else. She’d also seen her paper given a good kicking in public – we are all human and nobody enjoys that sort of thing.
I think I was expecting to find some kind of acknowledgement from her that parabens were okay really.
So I had a quick google to see what she had published since. I quickly found that she has continued to work on the subject and to continue publishing related papers. Quite a lot of them, in fact. It didn’t look much like she had backed down at all. I started looking at her work and found that not long after the original story broke, she had written a review paper explaining her thinking so I decided to take a look at it.
It was a lot more interesting than I had expected. I don’t know what people will make of this paper in the future when the background to it has been forgotten, but for me it made fascinating reading. Many of the criticisms of her original work are responded to, and her critique of the cosmetic industry is widened. Scientific papers are supposed to be written in dispassionate measured language, simply reporting the facts or proposing ideas. And so this paper is too. But when you know the background, it isn’t hard to imagine it being written through gritted teeth.
But mostly, I was surprised to find just how strong and well constructed her argument was. So much so, that I would like to take you through the whole paper. It’s a long and tough paper and not at all easy to absorb (unlike the parabens themselves), but I don’t think that there is anything in it that can’t be explained in plain english for a non-specialist.
I think the argument boils down to ten points:-
– First point. Breast cancer rates are rising, and there is no generally accepted explanation for this
– Second point. Endocrine disruption can cause some health effects including serious ones like breast cancer.
– Third point. Cosmetics contain chemicals that resemble sex hormones so closely that they might disrupt the body’s endocrine system. The parabens might have that effect.
– Fourth point. There is no data on long term exposure to low levels of weak endocrine disruptors, so this risk cannot be quantified.
– Fifth point. The armpits are good points of entry for chemicals into the body.
– Sixth point. Parabens are widely used according to cosmetic labels, and the labels understate the true extent of paraben use.
– Seventh point. Parabens have been used so long that when they were approved the requirements to prove their safety were much lower, and the gaps have never been filled in.
– Eighth point. Studies hint at a link between deodorant use and onset age of breast cancer.
– Ninth point. The left breast is more likely to become cancerous than the right breast.
– Tenth and concluding point. More work needs to be done to prove that parabens are indeed safe.
So a bit of a tenuous argument. But does it hang together? Lets look at each point in turn over the next few posts.
This is the second part of the text of the article about parabens from Colin’s Beauty Pages Podcast 6