Parabens: Should & Can You Avoid Them?

Parabens are Everywhere

Free of Parabens
I am a breast cancer survivor. I recently read that parabens (which are used as preservatives in a gazillion cosmetic products) cause cancer.

I looked through my makeup and medicine chest and — sure enough — almost every product I own contains them!

Could they have caused my cancer?! It’s not in my family.

The doctors can’t say “Why me.” If I continue to use them, do I risk a recurrence?

Please help.

P.S. Even brands that say they use all natural ingredients contain parabens. Are there any alternatives?

Parabens Must be Noted on Labels

A Doctor Can Best Advise If You Should Avoid Parabens

Please talk with your doctor about your concern. S/he knows the specifics of your breast cancer and whether it was estrogen-receptive.

Here are some issues and facts you should familiarize yourself with. When concerns are first raised by study results, the popular press and consumers typically raise red flags without a thorough understanding of the study itself.

Scientists, on the other hand, begin to examine the study design, sample composition and size, procedural integrity and conclusions. Typically, if after such peer review, scientists believe the study raises a legitimate concern, they will design further/better studies to confirm or disprove the earlier studies’ conclusions.

Unfortunately, all this takes time and in the meantime, consumers may have been unduly alarmed.

The popular conclusion that parabens cause breast cancer involves many blind leaps from a few small studies.

These studies do deserve follow-up and a “connecting of the dots” before we will know whether, in fact, parabens are a causative factor for any cancers.

At this point, the evidence is very tenuous. As of October 2014, The American Cancer Society advised

Although at this time there are no clear health risks from parabens in food, drugs, cosmetics, and skin care products, people concerned about exposure to parabens can avoid products containing them. Consumer products containing parabens are required to list them as ingredients. Most parabens have names containing the word ‘paraben,’ making them easy to find.

Although parabens have weak estrogen-like properties, the estrogens that are made in the body are hundreds to many thousands of times stronger. So, natural estrogens (or those taken as hormone replacement) are much more likely to play a role in breast cancer development.”

Can You Avoid Parabens?

As you’ve discovered, parabens are ubiquitous. They are found in so many personal care products, it boggles the mind.

They are also commonly used as food preservatives. So you are both ingesting them and using them topically. It would be a real challenge to remove parabens from your home.

Some cosmetic manufacturers are using alternatives to parabens; so one can look for those.

For example, high concentrations of astringent alcohols are used as preservatives even though this is very drying for the skin.

Other manufacturers have turned to “natural preservatives”. Most of these are irritants to a substantial number of people.

The allergenic properties of most natural preservatives actually explain why parabens were ever developed in the first place.

Other manufacturers have taken the approach of eliminating preservatives entirely. In my personal opinion, this is both risky and costly to consumers.

Parabens and other preservatives are antimicrobial, meaning they prevent the growth and reproduction of bacteria, molds, and fungi. They keep products safe for repeated consumption. Without preservatives in your products, you run the risk of contracting bacterial illnesses or suffering allergic reactions to the molds and fungi.

To reduce the risks of preservative-free products, consumers would need to use them more quickly, throw out quite a bit of what they buy, refrigerate just about everything and/or buy in smaller quantities. Shopping and monitoring the age of your consumable goods would be a real challenge.

Safety Profile of Parabens

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Cosmetic Toiletries and Fragrance Association (CTFA) have researched and continue to monitor the use of parabens in cosmetics and foods. The FDA regulates product safety, and the CTFA monitors specific ingredient safety through the Cosmetic Ingredient Review Board (CIR).

The CIR is an independent panel of top-notch physicians and scientists that reviews ingredients used in cosmetics. Both organizations continue to review research on parabens and have proclaimed them safe and effective for use as preservatives in cosmetics.

The FDA continues to evaluate all new information on the safety of parabens. As of December 2014, the agency

believes that at the present time there is no reason for consumers to be concerned about the use of cosmetics containing parabens.”

The Parabens-Estrogen Link

Over a dozen recent studies have indicated that parabens can bind to estrogen receptors and cause estrogen-like responses in lab animals and tissue cultures. Interestingly, estrogenic effects were not found when animals were fed exaggerated amounts of parabens but only when huge amounts of parabens were injected under the skin.

It would be a blind leap to conclude that the minuscule amounts of parabens used as preservatives in cosmetics applied topically would have estrogenic effects. As well, there is no evidence yet that parabens used as food preservatives have any adverse effects at all. These are both areas for further study.

In 2003, the CTFA released a statement on the issue which concluded, “Suggestions that parabens have an estrogenic potential or affect the male reproductive system are not relevant to the cosmetic use of these ingredients. The level of parabens used in cosmetics is extremely low.”

Finally, to put things in perspective, there are many other common substances that have more substantial estrogenic properties than parabens.

Some are even recommended as health foods and supplements for various purposes.

Resveratrol, for example, a form of estrogen found in red wine, is recommended to reduce risk for cardiovascular disease.

Soy, is used by menopausal women specifically for its estrogenic effects. In one study of breast cancer survivors, soy food consumption was associated with a reduced risk of breast cancer recurrence. On the other hand, a February 2104 report from the Harvard Chan School of Public Health reported

a handful of unsettling reports suggests that concentrated supplements of soy proteins may actually stimulate the growth of breast cancer cells.”

That leads us back to the issue of breast cancer and parabens.

The Breast Cancer & Parabens Study People are Talking About

In 2004, The Journal of Applied Toxicology published a paper by Dr. Phillipa Darbre et al. titled Concentrations of Parabens in Human Breast Tumours. Dr. Darbre is a professor of Biomolecular Sciences at the University of Reading in England.

For the study in question, tissue samples were taken from patients undergoing surgery for breast cancer. The samples were analyzed for the presence of parabens. At least one type of paraben was detected in 19 out of 20 tumors.

The initial study design was to include non-cancerous comparison tissue to determine whether paraben levels were significantly different from those found in the cancerous breast tissue. The authors expected to find no parabens in the non-cancerous tissue.

When they did find parabens in the non-cancerous tissue, they concluded that their equipment had been contaminated by paraben-containing soaps used in the lab. It is curious to me that they didn’t also question the possibility that the cancerous tissue samples had been contaminated in the same way.

This is a very preliminary study. The sample size was small. There was no information provided on the patients: the stage of their cancers; their ages; lifestyles; their frequency and type of paraben use. There were no (usable) control samples that the cancerous tissue samples could be compared to.

In Dr. Darbre’s own words, “These studies demonstrate that parabens can be found intact in the human breast and this should open the way technically for more detailed information to be obtained on body burdens of parabens and in particular whether body burdens are different in cancer from those in normal tissues.”

The authors were careful to point out that the results of this study do not show that parabens caused breast cancer in these women. This study is not evidence of cause and effect. This is an important initial finding, but more research is needed to see if exposure to parabens does or does not affect breast cancer risk.

The bottom line is that you should discuss your concerns with your doctors and follow their advice.

If you are still concerned, you should try to avoid parabens as best you can, if for no other reason than to obtain peace of mind.

This article is for information only. It does not purport to offer medical advice.

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Comments welcome. Thanks for your time.