I was going to title this post “Why I Love Parabens.” I had been reading up on them lately for a number of reasons, mostly surrounding a largely unfounded controversy surrounding a type of lip balm my daughter had been using. In the case of the lip balm, the “paraben-free” product was being accused of harboring mold with the implication being that this was a manufacturing defect. Examination of the claims revealed, however, that the mold was most likely the result of misuse or poor storage of the product which, due to the lack of effective preservatives, would be expected to mold if it was exposed to moisture and kept in the dark. This does, however, beg the question as to why a lip balm, of all things, would be sold without effective preservatives to protect against mold.
The answer, of course, is the unwarranted vilification of parabens. The natural cosmetics industry, and perhaps more accurately the Environmental Working Group and other activist organizations have been disseminating information about parabens for over a decade now, describing how they are endocrine disruptors and probably cause cancer. And this is where we get to the point of where science is occluded by hype, to the detriment of the consumer, the patient, the regular person on the street…
Although parabens have been in use since early in the 20th Century, and although there have been well over 100 studies showing their safety, and although there is no indication that parabens have ever caused adverse effects in humans, manufacturers in the health and beauty industries have put hundreds of products on the market with “paraben-free” banners plastered all over their labels to capitalize on the anti-paraben hysteria. What consumers are left with now are “comparable” products that appear more natural, but with much shorter shelf-lives. Moreover, if these purportedly safer products are treated the same way that their paraben-containing counterparts are, they may even pose health risks due to the growth of the very mold or bacteria that parabens prevent. Such was the case with the lip balm, but no alerts went out from the Environmental Working Group or any other activist organization to warn against the dangers of paraben-free products.
The manufacturer of the lip balm did issue a statement explaining that their product was perfectly safe, as long as it was not stored in a moist and dark environment — such as a closed container right after being used on wet lips.
One might suggest that this was simply an issue of common sense, but remembering that lip balm is often purchased for children it might be worthwhile to actively promote a “safety first” point of view. This is where the anti-paraben folks chime in that removing parabens is all about safety — after all, parabens were linked to breast cancer! Only, no, they weren’t. In fact, parabens have never been linked to breast cancer or any other cancer.
The reality is that parabens do get absorbed by the skin, in trace amounts well below the levels that could do any physical harm, not unlike thousands of other substances that we encounter on a routine basis. Some of those parabens are therefore likely to show up in tissue samples, such as excised tumors. And that is what happened years ago in a legendarily misquoted study that raised the issue of parabens being present in breast tissue during an analysis of cancerous tumors. While the resulting paper mentioned a concern about whether parabens were able to affect the hormonal balance in the body in such a way that might lead to increased risk, it also went out of its way to state that there was no discernable causal relationship. Still, because parabens were (at the time) being used in deodorant, the authors of the paper made the assumption that deodorant use just might, possibly, increase the risk of breast cancer. And thus the birth of parabens as harbingers of death.
Later analysis of the study suggested that any connection between the parabens in deodorant and the cancers was flawed because there was no way of knowing when or how the parabens were introduced to the bodies of each patient. Parabens are so prevalent, they could be ingested many different ways — and not all deodorant contained parabens. Plus, there was no control in place to measure paraben absorption from deodorant. More importantly, however, no connection was found between paraben absorption and cancer frequency, or any other correlation, either. In short, nothing was found to link parabens to any health issues in any study. Parabens may potentially affect hormone production in high concentrations, but the reality is that we are not exposed to high enough concentrations of parabens for any disruption to register.
That does not mean we should go bathe ourselves in parabens. And it makes sense for people to prefer to avoid them — or any preservative — when these additives are unnecessary. But it also means we should feel comfortable using parabens when appropriate. If a product is going to stay on the shelf for intermittent use, parabens are a much more effective and overall healthier choice than most of their less-demonized counterparts. And while a “cleaner” and more “pure” approach to products is not only admirable but arguably healthier in most circumstances, it is not practical for many types of products on which we continue to rely for better or for worse.
This matters because it is another example of hysteria, however small, trumping critical thinking. A few key emotional buttons get pressed and reason is easily, quickly overridden. This translates to bad decisions, both by consumers and manufacturers. It is far too easy for manufacturers to simply give in to the loud voices rather than refute them. After all, no one wants to alienate their profit base by calling potential customers ignorant or foolish. But if no one stands up for reason, how can we expect our society to be reasonable?
Note: My friend Steve has laid out some good comments below which are worth reading, and I have tried to expand upon my initial posting above as a response to his questions and concerns. Please scroll down and read!