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The Problem with Parabens

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The Problem with Parabens

Jessica Assaf

After I wrote an article recently about how Lush isn't as natural as people think, many people asked me why I hate parabens so much. People told me that truly natural products actually need strong preservatives like parabens to protect the "freshness" of their ingredients. Plus, I'm not a chemist, so why should I shame a company without the science to back up my claims?

This is why I publicly stand against the use of parabens: 

Parabens are a class of widely used preservatives in cosmetics and pharmaceutical products. These compounds are a series of esters of parahydroxybenzoic acid that are used primarily for their antimicrobial properties. They essentially prevent bacterial and fungal growth and they enhance the shelf life of a product. From Wikipedia

"Their efficacy as preservatives, in combination of their low cost, the long history of their use, and the inefficiency of some natural alternatives like grapefruit seed extract probably explains why parabens are so commonplace. No effective direct links between parabens and cancer have been established. However, there is concern that the estrogen-mimicking aspect of parabens may be a factor in the increasing prevalence of early puberty in girls." 

We know that parabens are cheap, and they have been used for a long time. We know that no essential oil is as potent as strong, stable, synthetic preservatives like parabens. But at what point do we counteract the potential benefits of raw, natural ingredients with the harsh synthetic compounds they seemingly require? This is my tipping point: 

Though there is no "direct link" between parabens and cancer, it has been scientifically proven that parabens are xenoestrogens, meaning they mimic the hormone, estrogen. Because xenoestrogens are synthetic, they also cause problems such as hormone disruption. Here is a study that proves parabens cause "suppressive effective on hormonal responsiveness" in rats, including a significant delay in the date of vaginal opening, a decrease in length of the estrous cycle, significant weight changes in ovaries, adrenal glands, thyroid glands, liver, and kidneys, and abnormalities in the reproductive organs. Xenoestrogens bind to hormone receptors and start behaving like estrogen, which potentially raises our body's estrogen levels. The connection between estrogen exposure and increased risk of breast cancer has been recognized for more than 100 years

To frame this logically: parabens are hormone disruptors that mimic estrogen, and high estrogen levels put us at risk of breast cancer. The longer a woman is exposed to estrogen, the greater her chance of developing breast cancer, which is why early puberty is problematic. A 2011 study by doctors at the California Pacific Medical Center found that when noncancerous breast cells from high-risk patients were exposed to parabens, they started behaving like cancer cells. They were also found to block drugs used to treat estrogen-sensitive cancers. Breast cancers are already the most common form of cancer in the United States, and breast cancers are predicted to rise by 50% by 2030, according to the National Cancer Institute. 

While it is practically impossible to prove causation, there is a clear correlation between large doses of parabens and negative health outcomes. Parabens disrupt our hormonal systems and accumulate in our fat tissue. And this issue is deeply personal for me, because I have above-average levels of parabens in my body.

The clearest piece of evidence that parabens are not safe (or, not safe enough,) is the simple fact that after years of assessment, the European Union BANNED isopropylparaben, isobutylparaben, phenylparaben, benzylparaben, and pentylparaben last year. The United State's Cosmetic Industry Review examined parabens in 1984 and again in 2005, and both times concluded that parabens at low levels are not a concern. (Fun fact: while the Cosmetic Industry Review is lead by a woman named Wilma Bergfeld, the other eight panel voting members are all men.) 

It is easy to say that most synthetic compounds are harmful at a high enough level, and the amount of parabens in products is too small to actually affect us. But if you think about the impact of daily exposure through multiple channels in foods, medicines, and skin products over the course of a lifetime, it is impossible to evaluate the safety of accumulated exposures. If something is bad for us at a certain level, how is it good for us at all? 

There are countless paraben-free beauty products, and even more alternative preservatives that can be used to replace parabens in products. Essential oils and herbs such as rosemary, clove, thyme, cinnamon, tea tree, and lavender can be used to create a synergistic effect, acting as natural, effective preservatives. I worked for a company that makes products with five food-grade ingredients or less, and using only natural ingredients like apple cider vinegar and coconut oil, still maintains a two-year shelf life for their entire line of skincare products. Natural preservatives really work, and many can be used in conjunction to produce an even more stable formulation. Thyme oil is so effective as a natural preservative that it can even be used to stop the spread of MRSA, a deadly staph infection. 

"Natural" does not necessarily mean "safe," nor does "synthetic" mean "unsafe." Our bodies are made up of chemicals, and parabens are everywhere. The other day I wanted to buy Ibuprofen at the pharmacy, and I could not find a bottle of Motrin or Advil without parabens listed in their lists of "other ingredients." But just because parabens are widely used does not mean that they are safe. The skin is the body's biggest organ, and when applied topically, parabens penetrate the epidermis and enter the bloodstream. The biggest problem is that no one really knows the long-term impact of recurrent paraben exposures, and what might be a harmless level for one individual may be the tipping point for another, especially for those with compromised immune systems or certain medical conditions. The debate regarding parabens is inherently flawed, because there is not enough scientific evidence to support their universal ban, yet there is not enough scientific evidence to support their universal existence.

I'm not a professional scientist, but as an active, educated, concerned citizen, I have read every study available and I am not convinced that parabens belong in the products I use everyday, for my entire life. And in my opinion, we deserve to be convinced about the absolute safety of everything we use, on ourselves and on our children. When it comes to parabens, you get what you pay for, and no one really knows what that could ultimately be. 

So, that is my reasoning. Do we really need parabens in our products? You decide.