I am so sorry that I haven't written an Ingredient Spotlight post in a while! It's been quite the busy month and these sorts of blog posts do require some time to go through scientific journals and read and understand some of the studies. This post tackles the issue of parabens in skincare or our personal care goods. Its another controversial where the media have given it a bad name, but is it deserving of this? Or is this another case of the media interpreting a scientific article in a completely wrong way?
Parabens are another one of those ingredients that are used in the skincare and cosmetic industry that can cause much debate over its safety to humans as they have been thought to cause cancer. The scientific community do generally agree that parabens as safe to use in formulations at certain amounts. However, there are also other scientists that question its use in cosmetics, personal goods, food and other uses (such as on paper) and whether or not it can cause harm to humans in the long term. Overall, based on the current research - parabens as a whole are still considered to be safe. There are currently no scientific studies that can prove that parabens cause cancer. However, with the rise of many companies marketing products as paraben free or the media reporting that parabens are linked to breast cancer, it is difficult to understand or to know if parabens are really safe or not. I have tried my best to analyse some scientific articles (there are so many out there however and I have barely scraped the surface of this topic) and help you formulate your own personal opinion as to whether or not you should abandon parabens in your skincare or not.
What are Parabens?
In beauty products, parabens are used as preservatives which will protect an item from micro-organisms growing in the product and keeping it safe from contamination. It is also used to allow the product to have a stable and long shelf life. Our cosmetics, especially those that contain water are prone to be contaminated with bacteria, fungi and mould which can in turn cause adverse reactions on the skin. An example of a product that caused reactions to the skin is the Benton Snail Essence Issue which happened a few years ago due to some batches going bad. Preservatives, like parabens do prevent this from occurring.
There are many different types of parabens that you may see in an ingredients listing, these include (but are not limited to): methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben and benzylparaben. Many companies choose to use parabens as a type of preservative in skincare and cosmetics due to the fact that they have no scent, they are effective, a little goes a long way and also they are cost effective and cheap to produce. According to a journal article published in 2007, it was found that approximately 90% of skincare and cosmetics products at the time contained parabens in its formulation. Whilst I am sure the numbers are quite different now, that is a large majority of the market. It is also important to note that parabens are not only found in our cosmetics and skincare either. Parabens are also used by companies in processed foods and are even said to naturally occurring in foods such as blueberries.
So What is the Deal with Parabens?
In 2004, a study was published in the Journal of Applied Toxicology which found parabens in human breast tissue and it is important to note that the aim of the study was to see whether or not parabens could be detected in human breast tissue. The study concluded that the metabolites (a substance that is produced) of parabens were found in the breast tissue and not the actual parabens themselves and that the source of entry into the tissue could not be confirmed. This journal article caused quite the media frenzy in which the news interpreted the information from that study to: parabens were related to breast cancer. The media caused quite the stir in the general public that the original researchers wrote a piece in the same journal at a later date stating that "No claim was made that the presence of parabens had caused the breast cancers" and made it clear that "this study could not identify either the route of entry or the source of the parabens, as stated in the discussion" and that "Carcinogenicity was not considered in this study and the presence of parabens was not claimed to cause the breast tumours".
The reason why this is so ground breaking in terms of cancer is that oestrogen, the main female sex hormone is the main reason why females go through puberty and is also the reasons as to why breast cancer can happen. Breast cancer has been found to be quite hormone receptive and an imbalance of oestrogen in the body can cause the growth of hormone sensitive breast cancer. Parabens are what scientists call a xenoestrogen - it has the ability to act like an oestrogen but have been found to have little biological activity in the body. In layman's terms, parabens are like an extremely weak form or oestrogen and are in no way as potent as natural human oestrogen.
At The End of The Day, Do Parabens Cause Cancer?
The short answer to this is that studies have so far been inconclusive and there are no proven links to parabens and cancer. Whilst there have been many studies that show a correlation to high levels of oestrogen activity, most of these studies have been conducted on fish or on lab created human tissue, there is not enough evidence to deem that parabens can cause cancer in humans. Studies have however shown that human breast tissue, including those with tumours do contain parabens, which does mean that parabens can be found in the body. It cannot be confirmed however, what route the parabens got there, whether it be inhalation, consumed orally or via topical application.
In a study published in 1999, scientists looked at how parabens effect oestrogen levels in fish. Scientists in Denmark fed juvenile rainbow trout between 50-300mg/kg of different types of parabens for 12 days. It was found that some parabens had almost no effect on the oestrogen activity in the fish at all (ethyparaben) and only started show activity at 300mg/kg whilst butylparaben showed some activity at 50mg/kg and propylparaben showed an increase at 100mg/kg. It is important to note that the type of rainbow trout used were not gender specific in the study (mixed male and female) and the results varied in greatly in individual fish and the fish were starved throughout the 12 days of the experiment. The study concluded that parabens were oestrongenic at 100-300mg/kg. To apply these numbers to the average 74kg woman, it would mean that they would need to use 15000mg/kg of parabens to have the same sort of result as the study. The average human body has about 14 800cm2 of skin and the normal application of skincare product is about 1mg to every 1cm2 of skin. Under normal circumstances, skincare products will contain about 1-20% of parabens (depending on the type of paraben) which results in the average person using 60mg/kg of parabens on the skin. To replicate this study to humans - we would have use 10 jars of 50ml skincare cream every 36 hours over 12 hours to have the same results or 250 times the normal application. It is also important to note that these fish ingested the parabens and did not apply the parabens topically either. So yes, whilst there was oestrogenic activity in the fish, the amounts used were not similar to that of normal human consumption (it was highly concentrated) and the method of application was also quite different.
Studies which show that parabens can be found in human breast tissue have mainly been lab created situations, whereby scientists have samples of human breast tissue and have been put in a solution containing parabens. In 2012, a study that was published in the Journal of Applied Toxicology looked at the concentrations of parabens found in the human body from the armpit to the ribs. The study used 160 different samples of human breast tissue that had been extracted after a mastectomy. Using the healthy breast tissue, scientists suspended this tissue in a concentrate containing five different parabens. The study showed the parabens could be extracted from 99% of the breast tissue that had been suspended in the concentrate. Whilst it is important to note that lab created situations are quite different to 'real life' human situations, the study does show that there is a possibility that parabens can been absorbed into human breast tissue at high concentrations. The study did not link breast cancer to parabens as a direct cause and stated that "the presence of a chemical in the breast cannot be taken to imply causality per se , but it is nevertheless a prerequisite for consideration of any functional involvement in disease processes". Another study conducted in 2004 and published in the Journal of Steroid Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, looks at the paraben activity in human breast cancer cells. The study used MCF7 human breast cancer cells which can proliferate or 'grow' when there is oestrogen present. As parabens are able to mimic oestrogen, it was shown that the parabens would bind to these human breast cancer cells, leading them to grow and increase the rate of growth in these cells. The study concluded that parabens demonstrate oestrogenic activity in the oestrogen sensitive MCF7 human breast cancer cells that have been cultured and that the "presence of oestrogenic chemicals in the breast area could potentially influence both the incidence and treatment of breast cancer". However, again it is important to note that this was an experiment created in a lab environment and is again very different to an application in real life. The amount of parabens the breast cancer tissue was exposed to is also a concentration that is much, much higher to the amount a normal person will apply to their skin, literally thousands and thousands times more.
In a report that was commissioned by the European Commission in 2006, many studies involving parabens were considered in creating a final opinion of the use of parabens in consumer products. The commission concluded that parabens were safe to use in cosmetic consumer goods at concentrations of up to 25%. Most cosmetic and personal goods companies will actually use parabens at concentrations of 0.01% to 0.3% in their formulations. The studies that were investigated were deemed inconclusive as some of the studies the commission found the dosage levels were abnormally too high, sample sizes were too small, some studies did not follow proper scientific protocol or the body weight of the animals were too varied. The European Commission therefore concluded that studies that showed links to cancer and parabens had too many shortcomings and therefore not scientifically valid.
Parabens are one of those skincare ingredients where I cannot help but sit on the fence on. From what I have read and understood, the dangers of parabens in our skincare or personal goods is inconclusive in terms of causing breast cancer. No studies have proven the link of parabens to cause cancer. There are so many scientific studies available on the topic of parabens and cancer and I have barely scraped the surface on what is available out there. Whilst doing my research, I cannot help but be that little bit more cautious about the use of parabens in my skincare. The fact is, parabens have the potential to mimic oestrogen and that can perhaps increase the chances of developing cancers such as breast cancer in extremely high doses. On the flip side however, from what I have read and understood is that the use of parabens in our personal care products is in fact normally quite minimal - most of the time in concentrations such as 0.01-0.3% and parabens are in fact a proven anti-microbial and perhaps one of the most efficient out there. In saying that though, there are now many different paraben alternatives that companies are able to use now. Going forward, I don't think I will rule out a product completely if it does contain parabens in its formulation but I will think twice about where it is on the ingredients listing - it will be preferable if it is one of the final ingredients in the formulation. Realistically it is supposed to be used as a preservative and therefore it should be used at small concentrations (less than 1%) for it to be effective.
The original researchers who had found traces of parabens in human breast tissue put parabens and other questionable ingredients in to perspective quite well in their most recent journal article published in 2014, "Review of the implications of the presence of parabens in human breast must, however, also be considered in the context of the many hundred other environmental chemicals that have been measured as entering human breast tissue, including also other chemicals from personal care products" and that "(there) already is an increasing complexity but this may be further magnified by considering the potential for also many other chemicals to combine through actions on different hallmarks and through additive effects enabling even lower doses of individual chemicals to act. This bigger picture explains why no single chemical has been linked consistently with breast cancer causation and probably never will be". What this basically means that the issue with potential toxins in our skincare, not just parabens is complex issue in terms of linking it to things such as cancer. It might not be just the one chemical increasing the likelihood of cancer but perhaps a cocktail of a few different ingredients - synthetic or not. It might not even have anything to do with our skincare but perhaps something we have ingested or inhaled. Further research needs to go into finding out how different ingredients react with one another and see how this might influence the cells in our body.
What are your thoughts on parabens? Do you avoid parabens in your skincare? I would love to know your own thoughts, so please share in the comments section below!