There’s nothing like a bit of controversy to generate some media buzz. For over a decade there have been recurring reports in both the media and on hundreds of internet sites relating to potentially toxic substances present in beauty products (lead, mercury, parabens) and the dangers they pose to the public. Should consumers be worried? Are these claims backed up by reputable, published scientific research or have the findings been misinterpreted and exaggerated? Let’s take a look …
Parabens are a class of chemicals commonly used as preservatives in food, therapeutic and cosmetic products. They are derived from para-hydroxybenzoic acid (PHBA), which occurs naturally in many fruits and vegetables. Parabens come in several forms: methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben and isobutylparaben. They are the most widely used preservative in personal care products. This is because they are incredibly good at doing their job—keeping your products mould and bacteria free—and are also cost effective.
The use of parabens in cosmetics hit the media in 2004 after a research study conducted by Dr. Philippa Darbre of the University of Reading in England reported findings that 18 out of 20 breast cancer tissue samples contained parabens. As parabens can weakly mimic the actions of oestrogen, and as oestrogen can enhance tumour growth, this was thought to be a problem. The presence of parabens in breast tumours was picked up by the media and presented as evidence that parabens contribute to breast cancer. This was incorrect.
While the presence of parabens is notable, the study found no direct evidence that they had caused the cancer or contributed to its growth. Breast tumours have a large blood supply, so it is likely that any chemical found in the blood stream will be present in the tumour.
In a later statement to the media, Dr. Darbre, referring to her 2004 study, said ‘No claim was made that the presence of parabens has caused the breast cancers.’
There have since been dozens of studies undertaken around the globe on the safety of parabens, which time and again have exhaustively demonstrated that parabens are broken down, metabolised and excreted harmlessly from the body.
Currently, both in Australia and internationally, the science community consider the use of parabens in cosmetics to be safe.
In response to consumer demand, some companies have begun to manufacture paraben free products, which consumers can purchase if they are concerned.
Concerns regarding cancer are also linked to the use of aluminium in deodorants and anti-perspirants. In the early 2000s various news outlets reported apparent links between the use of antiperspirants containing aluminium and breast cancer. Similar reports connected the use of such products to the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. These supposed links have never been scientifically proven despite multiple studies.