What’s all the fuss about “parabens?”

This is the second in series on the controversies about chemicals in natural cosmetics.

Methylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben, etilparaben, ethylparaben… Are parabens poison?

Just what is a paraben? And what’s all the fuss about?

Paraben preservatives are in the news and the debate rages on about their harmfulness to humans. In a recent blog, we asked the question, “Is this simply a marketing hoax to gain customers?” With the necessity to find ways to keep our products fresh and safe for our customers’ use, choosing a non-toxic preservative is essential.

Should “natural cosmetics” use preservatives? Plants do! Almost every plant has some kind of anti-microbial protection. “Chemical preservatives” have become ‘dirty words’ to many health-conscious people. It’s important to sort out the differences between harmful synthetic chemicals and those found in nature that are beneficial. The reality? Everything in the universe is composed of chemicals; some are good for you, others not so much.

What is a paraben?

Parabens can be chemically synthesized in labs but also occur naturally in many plants, blueberries as one example. They are esters of para-hydroxybenzoic acid which are formed, like all esters, “by condensing an acid with an alcohol.“

    “Esters are common in organic chemistry and biological materials, and often have a characteristic pleasant, fruity odor. This leads to their extensive use in the fragrance and flavor industry.”

Having anti-microbial and other preservative qualities, they have thousands of applications and for manufacturing purposes are easy-to-use, low-cost, effective and non-toxic preservatives.

How did the controversy about parabens begin?

A UK molecular biologist named Philippa Darbre reported in 2004 in a study of just 20 breast cancer patients that indicated that their tumors came from something applied to the skin, such as an underarm deodorant, cream or body spray. She stated that the results helped to explain why up to 60% of all breast tumors are found in just one-fifth of the breast – the upper-outer quadrant, nearest the underarm. She pointed out that deodorants and other applications contain parabens. Published in the Journal of Applied Toxicology (2004), her paper stirred up much controversy among scientists about the carcinogenity and estrogen-like chemistry of parabens.

The American Cancer Society concluded that there was insufficient scientific evidence to support a claim that use of cosmetics such as antiperspirants increases an individual’s risk of developing breast cancer, although they recommended further studies. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) received thousands of inquiries and did some investigation as well, concluding:

    “The FDA believes that at the present time there is no reason for consumers to be concerned about the use of cosmetics containing parabens.”

Scientific debate quickly turned into popular controversy, with mass e-mails, websites, and blogs urging avoidance of parabens. Google the topic and you’ll find lots of websites using “scare tactics” about parabens to promote their own product sales.

To quote Halyna Breslawec (December 2011), Chief Scientist of the Personal Care Product Council: “The cosmetics industry formally requested that the Cosmetics Ingredient Review (CIR) re-examine the safety of parabens as they are used in cosmetics and we are gratified that the panel has done so and confirmed the safety of these ingredients.”

Paul Penders products are all “paraben-free.” Yet our chemists follow the controversy — but based on science and literature, not internet ‘blah-blah’ from people who don’t know. Our products are preserved using various anti-oxidants, grapefruit extract, essential oils and more — being “natural chemicals.”

By Teviot Fairservis.


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