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Q. After reading about a British study reporting that parabens in antiperspirants contribute to breast cancer, some of my clients don’t want the substance in their cosmetics. I am looking to you to help clarify this issue for me. Are parabens harmful, or are they safe? Is it true that they have been banned in Europe and Japan?
A . Parabens, which are widely used antimicrobial preservatives for cosmetics, are among the most studied of all cosmetic ingredients and have a long history of safety. Although there is an Internet myth claiming that they have been banned in both Europe and Japan, it is not true. Parabens are allowed for use by every government agency that regulates cosmetics worldwide.
Used since the 1920s in thousands of cosmetics and pharmaceuticals, as well as in a few foods, parabens are a family of chemicals known as alkyl esters of p-hydroxybenzoic acid. They have various prefixes that refer to the length of the alkyl ester group that branches off of the acid. These include methyl, ethyl, benzyl, propyl and butyl.
Methylparaben is the shortest chain—or smallest molecule—of the group, butylparaben is the longest and the others are of various midlengths. Several parabens are found in nature, including methylparaben. This most popular variety is produced by certain mold species in order to protect themselves from hostile bacteria. However, to my knowledge, none that are used in cosmetics or other commercial products come from natural sources. All of those utilized in cosmetics are derived from petroleum.
Throughout the past decade, parabens have been recognized as several of the more than 8,000 endocrine disrupters (EDs) in the environment. These chemicals, which behave like animal estrogens, can affect hormone balances adversely or disrupt the normal function of organs that are controlled by hormones. Among the more popular plant EDs are phytoestrogens, which are found in soy, hops, Angelica sinensis (dong quai), Salvia officianalis (sage), clary sage, red clover, pumpkin, poppy, St. John’s wort, rosehips, yarrow and some seaweeds. They now are believed by many researchers to contribute to the increasing incidences of breast cancer, low sperm count and other estrogen-influenced medical problems in humans, as well as to alter the sexual characteristics of fish, frogs and other species by contaminating fresh water supplies.