Parabens, Fear and Junk Science

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!

6 thoughts on “Parabens, Fear and Junk Science

  1. Jeff, good write up and well expressed. I agree that many stories and commentaries are not based on good “science” and many take the conclusions of the researcher out of context. Do parabens cause cancer?? Probably not, but who knows?? The research I have seen is not conclusive either way. Do they impact cancer or treatment?? Who knows?? It’s possible. Anything is possible. As much as we have learned about the human body in the last century, I believe we have only just begun to scratch the surface. I believe we will learn far more in the next 10 years than we learned in the last 1000. After all, knowledge and innovation experience exponential growth.

    I am by no means an expert on parabens at the moment, though I did research them heavily about 5 years ago. Personally, from my earlier research I avoid them. I don’t avoid them because of the research that has been conducted which is inconclusive. I prefer to stay away from them because I have 4 questions that were never answered. I prefer the “better safe than sorry approach.” If I see a snake I don’t recognize I am not going to pick it up until I know whether it is poisonous or not. I take the same approach to my health. So here are my primary concerns about parabens. (As I stated I haven’t followed any current research. So if you know of any solid studies to address these, let me know. However, don’t put yourself out to find them. As a fellow researcher, I assume you are a lot like me. You have lots of information across a vast spectrum of media and its not easy to find where you filed one particular study. On human biology alone I have over 40 folders in my internet browsers with more than 2000 links to different articles, abstracts and research projects. So I get it. It’s why I never pressure you for your sources. The information is there somewhere and I presume you are articulating it clearly. I would assume if you were to write an official and authoritative article, you would cite the exact studies.) So on to my questions.

    First, there was a study that started around 2011 from I believe the University of Sydney (perhaps University of Johannesburg??). As I say, they started the study, but they had to drop it due to a lack of funding. They started out testing parabens, but based on their research they became distracted by their results and were pulled in many different directions. They lost their focus. They ran out of time. They ran out of money. Due to a lack of focus, they weren’t funded for the project again, though I imagine someone may have run with their research. Based on the research they did complete on topically applied parabens, they determined that parabens impede the absorption of light by the skin cells. This would be natural if they were only looking at UV radiation and sunscreens. They weren’t. They were looking at skin lotions. This is where they went off course and started looking at the effect of light absorption on skin cells. The lack of light absorption by skin cells could have serious impact as we have learned that human skin is unbelievably photo-responsive. Among other things, skin cells have photo receptors and melatonin receptors. Lacking light absorption could affect melatonin levels and a person’s circadian rhythm. Skin cells are also photo-electric though it wasn’t known at the time which spectrum of light activated the cells to generate electricity. My concern is that if parabens inhibit the absorption of light, what is the impact of less light absorption by the skin?? For me, better safe than sorry. For ME, I simply forget the lotions and sunscreen and spend no more than 2 hours in the sun during peak time. After all, if the body wasn’t meant to be exposed to the sun, our DNA would have changed over time and we would have evolved with fur or thicker skin with coarser hair and not tremendously photo-responsive skin.

    My second concern is whether or not parabens are cumulative. As you mentioned, parabens are possibly linked to endocrine and hormonal problems. Also, as you rightly pointed out, we are exposed to such a small quantity that they may have no impact. However, I want to know how parabens are excreted from the human system. How do the cells remove them?? Parabens in small quantities are not a problem, but what if the human body doesn’t excrete them?? Are there any particular types of cells they attach themselves to?? Do they accumulate over time in the human system?? IF they do, then 30 or 40 years of use could present a problem. If they are processed and excreted by the body in a few days, no big deal. (This is one question you may have seen research about).

    The third question has to do with the digestive system. As you know parabens are in everything, including our foods like salad dressings, snacks and other processed foods. What does our digestive system do with these parabens?? It is easy enough to calculate what the stomach acid will do. However, the digestive system isn’t a simple chemical equation. It is an entire ecosystem. What do the enzymes do to the parabens?? How are the parabens altered?? What are the by-products of the enzyme process?? Are any of the by-products toxic to the various bacteria in the digestive tract?? How do the bacteria deal with the parabens?? How are the paraben by-products absorbed into the system?? Simply put, what happens to parabens in the digestive tract?? (The same question I have regarding GMO’s. I am not opposed to genetic modification. It’s all a question of what it is modified to become. Personally, I haven’t seen conclusive information regarding how glyphosate is processed through the human digestive tract, but I prefer the safe to sorry approach. However, I AM opposed to Round-Up and using glyphosate in agriculture due to its catastrophic impact on nutrition and the soil ecosystem. The University of MN School of Agriculture is 3-years into a 7-year study on the subject. That is the problem with agriculture. You just can’t rush the growth season!!)

    Lastly, parabens are poor conductors of electricity. (You can test that one yourself.) Most people think of the body as just a bunch of cells conducting biochemical reactions. However, the body’s cells are electric and contain an electric charge. They transmit electricity and also communicate electrochemically. Parabens don’t conduct electricity very well. I’m not suggesting that they will short out the brain or anything. Paraben molecules are too large to pass the blood/brain barrier. However, they could conceivably interfere with electrical connections throughout the body. If the body quickly processes and excretes parabens this wouldn’t be a serious problem. However, if parabens accumulate in the body and especially if the adhere themselves to particular cells this could be a problem. Once again, I have not seen research one way or another about paraben accumulation, though parabens have been shown to be poor electrical conductors.

    Sorry this is so long. These were just some thoughts I had from research I did 5 or 6 years ago. (Though now that I start thinking about it, I will probably start researching the photo-responsiveness of skin cells again. It fascinated me at the time and I’m sure there has been a lot of headway since then).

    1. Steve, thank you for the thoughtful comments. As you know, I am not a doctor, nor am I a food scientist. However, based on everything I do know about chemicals, nutrition, biology, etc., I will say a couple of things that I believe to be true.

      One, you should always limit your intake of processed foods — you are very aware of this, it seems. Obviously, processed foods are designed to have longer shelf-lives and therefore often include a range of preservatives and flavor enhancers that may be somewhat, shall we say, “less than natural.” This, in and of itself, is not a bad thing, but the more chemicals we put in our system the less we can feel certain that we are eating the healthiest way possible. On the other hand, sometimes these processed foods can make the difference between a safe and healthy meal or starvation. In common practice, certainly here in the US, excess consumption of processed foods is simply more likely to lead to obesity and other related health conditions.

      Which brings me to point number two. I would be much more concerned about salt than I would about parabens. While it is true that salt is naturally occurring, so are many parabens — the fact that most people will test positive for parabens does not automatically mean that they were consumed as chemical additives. Also, while salt does process out of the body somewhat quickly, the harm it is capable of doing is well documented and long-lasting. More Americans suffer from the byproduct of sodium consumption than anything even remotely identifiable as connected to parabens.

      Parabens have been in use as preservatives for over 50 years and not a single study has directly linked them with adverse health problems in humans during this time. Obviously, that does not mean they are guaranteed 100% not to have any adverse effects on the body, only that no link has been found. The high concentrations used in rat studies do not correlate to how the chemicals are used in human consumption, and as you know, rat biology and human biology have vast differences that rarely correlate precisely, if at all.

      Some of your concerns, such as the light absorption through the skin, appear to make an assumption that there would be enough parabens to cover the skin when you spread a lotion. There is a logical fallacy there with regard to concentration. Even if parabens blocked the sun’s rays, you would have to be coating the skin with parabens, not a lotion of which parabens were but a very small percentage — typically parabens are used at levels ranging from 0.01 to 0.3%. In this regard, you should be more concerned about wearing a long-sleeved shirt, because clothing will dramatically inhibit the amount of light passing through to the skin, much more so than a skin lotion. Even sun block does not block the light from your skin as well as clothing. Also, these are issues that are addressed in other ways by looking at how skin color lightens as populations moved away from the Equator, adapting to more distant (and colder) environments. Human adaptation over time involved some physical adaptations (lighter skin, less hair) and some intellectual adaptations (warmer clothes, better shoes, sunglasses) that both protect us and help our bodies get what they need from the environment. So far, I have seen no indication that parabens are a threat to necessary absorption of the sun’s rays in anything remotely associated with practical use. For myself, I also try to limit my time in the direct sun so that I can avoid slathering lotions on my body in the first place. But if I am going to the beach, I’m all in for the sun block because I do know that, in actual and proven practice, it is more harmful to get a few repeated sunburns than it is to use a lotion with parabens as one of the lowest concentration ingredients. Sunburns, after all, will impede all of the skin’s functions, as well as opening the door to various ailments.

      One of your main concerns is bioaccumulation. Parabens are quickly excreted from the body when they are eaten and presumably when absorbed through the skin — I do not have access to data that suggests any difference between the two. Parabens come out — intact — in urine. This is an indication that they are not readily bonding with any cells or anything else that you were concerned with. They are, simply, passed through. This should also address your digestive concerns. Parabens occur in such small concentrations that altering the ecosphere of the digestive tract as they pass through seems extraordinarily unlikely. Likewise, the estrogenic activity of parabens is so incredibly weak that it cannot impact the effects of naturally occurring hormones.

      As for parabens to avoid, if you are going to take the time to skip any of them, I would consider avoiding propyl paraben based solely on the single rat study that showed reduced sperm counts in juvenile males. This has not been replicated in humans to my knowledge, but if you want a tangible reason to avoid parabens, this is the best one I can find. No other parabens have been linked to adverse biological functioning.

      As for parabens as electrical conductors, I don’t see any place where that would have a bearing on human biological functioning. It does, of course, have some bearing on how parabens are used in various ways outside of the body, particularly in medical applications and in scientific analysis. But pure water is a poor electrical conductor and I don’t think there is any reason to consider that as unhealthy for consumption. The cellular level electrochemical communication that you bring up is not something that would be affected by our consumption or absorption of parabens, and since there is no indication that there is any “bonding” going on with paraben molecules and any human cells, I cannot see where this line of reasoning would lead to any concerns.

      So, to summarize, I understand the concerns (I think pretty well) and where they come from. Certainly, we should all be aware of what we put in our bodies — and, I think, recognize that whenever possible a whole-food diet is preferential to a processed food diet. My advice is always about moderation and balance. But I also do not think that there is any compelling evidence to fear parabens. With a 50 year track record and no conclusive health issues, parabens are highly studied and well-known commodities. They do their job effectively, and that alone offsets many of the theoretical downsides to their use, which may not actually exist in real-world practice. This does not, of course, mean that we should stop studying these chemicals. Even if they appear naturally (for example, in blueberries), there is still reason to pay attention to their possible effects. Who knows, they may also turn out to be more beneficial than currently believed to be — in fact, their antioxidant properties have cropped up in a lot of articles. But the bottom line, although there is a chance for some people to have skin sensitivity to products containing parabens, the chemicals themselves are quickly eliminated from the body through the kidneys and there is little to no possibility of toxicity.

  2. Great post Jeff and I definitely appreciate your thoughts on the matter.

    We are in the beginning stages of learning about how our skin works as an organ. As Steve pointed out, our skin, among other things, is photo reactive. In addition, it can absorb about 60% of that which is put on it. The size of the molecule is the determining factor as well as its absorptiveness, which is why certain medications are dispensed transdermally.

    Unlike the digestive tract which metabolizes, sorting nutrients from contaminants and sending them to where they are needed (even excreting through the skin), the skin does not have that capability, so basically anything that can get past the dermal layer, will enter the blood stream directly. It’s true that paraben research is inconclusive, but in light of this fact, perhaps it would be wise to avoid things that could possibly bio accumulate as a result of exposure to the skin. Parabens have been used ubiquitously in personal care products: lotions, shampoos, conditioners, toothpaste, deodorants, etc the list goes on…and these products are often used daily, so who knows what their impact could be in the long haul.

    As far as that lip balm brand is concerned, their packaging is the problem. The dome shape of the balm allows more surface area for bacteria to grow.

    Hope to continue the discussion!

    1. “In addition, it can absorb about 60% of that which is put on it. The size of the molecule is the determining factor as well as its absorptiveness, which is why certain medications are dispensed transdermally.”

      Here’s the thing though:

      * The main purpose of skin is to act as a barrier – it keeps things out spectacularly well, which is why all the collagen creams in the world can’t stop wrinkles. If it could absorb 60% of things that were put on it, it would be a scary world indeed. You’d get drunk from using antibacterial hand rub. You’d wake up with no clothes or blankets. There’s zero evidence for the popular 60% claim – it seems to have come from a hippie book in the 1980s.

      * Very few medications are dispensed transdermally. There are hundreds of thousands of drugs used in the world – only about 5 are commonly dispensed transdermally, and they contain penetration enhancers and other fancy doodads to get the medication through. A nicotine patch only works because it’s in patch form – a cream won’t work because you need occlusion. Even Voltaren cream doesn’t seem to work.

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