Spotlight: Parabens

Photo credit TJ Cosgrove @ Flickr |

There are a few major types of preservatives that are safe for use and that are effective.  Parabens are one of these, and the focus of the spotlight for this blog post.

Because of a misinterpretation of a study done in 2004, parabens got a pretty bad name.  This is why “paraben-free” is a selling point for cosmetics, bath, and beauty products.  However, P. Darbre and the rest of the scientists who authored that 2004 paper have clarified that their study set out to detect parabens and that “no claim was made that the presence of parabens had caused the breast cancers”. (page 1, page 2).  There were no control studies to compare cancerous tissue against non-cancerous tissue.  Likewise, no studies were conducted to see if paraben concentration was spread through the body or only concentrated nearest to the armpit.

Cancer charities such as the American Cancer Society and Cancer Research UK have come out with statements saying parabens don’t cause cancer (and these folks are the preeminent researchers in those fields). If the presence of parabens wasn’t the cause of breast cancer, why was there a study to detect parabens?  It’s because parabens are suspected to be oestrogenic, which means they behave like estrogen in the body.  Estrogen stimulates breast cells, and higher lifetime exposures to estrogen have been linked to higher incidences of breast cancer.

However, estrogen treatment has also been linked to protective results against Alzheimer’s.  Hormone replacement therapy that is estrogen-only is linked to higher rates of cancer only if the therapy goes on for more than 10 years.  Parabens, while oestrogenic, are hundreds to thousands of times weaker than actual hormonal estrogen.

The scientific jury is still out on parabens, even though they have been convicted in the eyes of the people. Anthony Dweck has a very lengthy compilation of related literature in his Paraben Compendium. Bath Geek LLC has a small number of products that are preserved with parabens, because they are one of the few effective preservatives that are oil soluble, and it is a matter of choosing the least evil.  You can avoid products containing parabens simply by choosing the “paraben-free” filter when searching for products.

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