The Truth about Parabens VII – Conclusion: more work needs to be done to prove that parabens are indeed safe.

There is only one point on which I can wholeheartedly agree.  I think that more work should be done to prove that parabens are safe.

I still think it is likely that the use of parabens in cosmetics at the levels at which they are used poses no direct risk to the people using them.  In particular, the suggestion they cause breast cancer or other reproductive problems is supported only by some tenuous suggestions and very few hard facts.  The trouble is, although we are talking about a small chance – we have to balance that against the fact that it is a small chance of something very bad.   Parabens are used in enormous quantities and most of us effectively live with them from cradle to grave.  And breast cancer is no trivial matter.

Now, there are a lot of attacks on cosmetic products and ingredients.  Many of the attacks are made for the most questionable of motives.  At least one organisation has gone to the trouble of creating a highly misleading online database designed to alarm people into contributing money to their organisation.  Many small companies, particularly internet base ones, consciously use fear as a tool to get people to buy overpriced products that are indistinguishable from mainstream ones.  On top of this there are persistent urban myths, some of which come around every couple of years.  The fairy story about lead in lipstick crops up so regularly it should have its own fixture on the calendar, like the Olympics.

I think this has led to a sort of war weariness.  There are so many completely unjustified criticisms of cosmetic products that when a new one crops up the temptation is to fit it into the pattern of other attacks.  So I can understand why the paraben controversy provokes a ‘here we go again’ feeling.  Indeed that was my initial reaction.

But weak as it is, the charge against parabens does stand up to scientific scrutiny.  And the challenge comes from someone who has studied the matter in detail and marshalled some arguments supported by data in reputable journals.  It doesn’t look very likely that it is true, but on the other hand it is not manifestly obvious that it is false.  Lots of things that have seemed far fetched at first have later turned out to be true.  I think it makes sense to be cautious.

And it isn’t so long ago that a known carcinogen was used in personal care formulations.  I recall very well that when I first started working on cosmetic formulations in the early eighties it was still not too uncommon to use formaldehyde as a preservative.  It might surprise some people to hear that formaldehyde is still approved as a preservative in the EU. There is no particular need to legislate against it, nobody uses it anymore.  The interesting thing is that the industry got rid of formaldehyde itself without any pressure from consumers or regulators.  In the days when everybody smoked and had open coal fires, a bit of formaldehyde in your shampoo was neither here nor there.  You were breathing so much of it every day it made no difference.  But as awareness of carcinogenicity grew and the world became less smokey, formulators started switching to safer alternatives almost by instinct.  Interestingly, it was probably the desire to get away from formaldehyde that gave the parabens their biggest boost as the almost default preservative system for personal care and cosmetic products.

And I think this is an important point that is probably not appreciated.  The people in the labs like me would not carry on using parabens if we thought that they posed a risk to the end user.  Dene Godfrey, who I referred to earlier, has been very active in defending parabens.  It would be very easy for someone from outside the industry to regard him as a vested interest sticking up for his own meal ticket.  But if, like me, you know him personally you would know that he is in fact a very honourable man.  I know very well that if he thought that parabens were in fact a cause of breast cancer he would be just as active in getting us to stop using them.

But I think that there has been a tendency to lump the paraben controversy in with all the other unjustified attacks on cosmetics.  This one isn’t coming from the people who are deliberately promoting fear as a way to peddle their products.  This is a valid concern raised through peer reviewed journals marshalling references and backed up with research.  None of this necessarily makes it correct, but I think it does merit a response.  Having looked at as much of the information as I have time to, I have had to change my mind.  Originally I thought that there was so little evidence linking parabens to breast cancer that it could be ignored.  I now think that there is a small chance that the suggestion might turn out to be true – though I would still be surprised.  My opinion is that it will probably turn out that either obesity or increased alcohol consumption are the real culprits.

More importantly, I think we need to recognise that a large section of the public simply doesn’t trust big businesses in general, of which the cosmetics and personal care industry is simply an example.  Maybe it is because so much money is spent making advertising claims that don’t match the users’ experience.   That has made them ready to believe the worst.

Whatever the reason it is a real problem.  We also have to accept that the internet has changed the way people access information and how they come to a judgement.  I have just typed ‘Are parabens safe?’ into Google, and the first article is one that criticises synthetic chemicals in general and parabens in particular.  If you scroll down you find that the website is an advert for some natural antioxidant rich food supplement.  Its a blatant example of fear based marketing.  The trouble is that it is probably still effective despite this.

Parabens References and Links

2 thoughts on “The Truth about Parabens VII – Conclusion: more work needs to be done to prove that parabens are indeed safe.

  1. Dene

    Colin, many thanks for your very kind words – I am flattered!

    Whilst you are correct in stating that studies have been carried out which have detected adverse effects, it is extremely important that the studies are viewed in some context. For example, a Danish study that found an adverse effect in fish used a dose level that was the equivalent of pouring 250,000kg of a shampoo containing 0.3% parabens into a volume equal to that of an Olympic swimming pool. Clearly an unlikely event! Parabens are proven to be fully biodegradable, as one would expect from most naturally occuring substances, so accumulation does not occur. Without this context, the study is alarming, but in context it becomes, arguably, quite laughable. Parabens have only ever been detected at parts per trillion levels in environmental studies (ie aquatic environment).

  2. Jane

    Hi Colin
    I read your posts with interest and revisited your paraben article VII today which reminded me that, in it, you said you had had to change your mind about parabens and considered that the concerns should be taken seriously. I notice you wrote this in July 2010 and wondered what your position on this is now. I am still finding it difficult to know whether to avoid them as per the precautionary principle or not. Many thanks, Jane

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