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The Truth About Parabens

By: Carol and Rob Trow
Posted: June 30, 2010, from the July 2010 issue of Skin Inc. magazine.

Did you ever play a game called “Telephone” when you were younger? It would start by one person passing information to someone sitting next to him, and that person, in turn, would pass the message to the next person and so on. When the last person received the message and was asked to share it with the originator of the information, the final result was often a far cry from the original statement. Although no one intentionally meant to mislead, the facts became distorted, exaggerated or even false as word spread from one person to the next. The same can be said about what most industry professionals think they know about parabens and skin care.

It is time to go back to square one and revisit the original research that set off alarm bells, document what is known to be fact-based on the subsequent research, identify what has been proven and what remains uncertain, and highlight the most recent research findings.

Are parabens dangerous?

The issue of parabens and cancer is definitely not as simple as it may seem. Parabens are some of the most common preservatives used in personal care products, prescription drugs and even food. Beginning in 1998, studies in rats began to uncover that parabens had estrogenlike properties. Even though the findings uncovered a weak form of estrogen, it was there.1 This resulted in an avalanche of media attention.

At issue was the following critical point: If parabens can bind to estrogen receptors and cause an estrogenlike effect, will this contribute to the formation of cancerous cells? Most scientists agree that when ingested, parabens are metabolized and lose their ester group, making them mimic estrogen less strongly.2 But what happens when they are contained in topical products?

The Darbre study. A good place to start is to revisit the research study that originally raised the issue of parabens’ possible link to breast cancer.3 Phillipa Darbre’s findings demonstrated, in a study of 20 subjects, that parabens can be found intact in the human breast.3 But the researchers themselves noted the following crucial facts: The study was small, there were no controls, normal breast tissue was not studied to determine comparative data, no other parts of the body were studied, and the source of the parabens was not identified.