• Anna Solana, science journalist

    Are parabens dangerous?

    26 Nov

    Although many scientists deny the health risks and consider parabens to be irreplaceable, the alarm has sounded. France even wants to ban parabens by law. The cosmetics industry is beginning to develop paraben-free formulations.


    The alarm was raised in 2004 when the Journal of Applied Toxicology published a study by Dr. Philippa Darbre and co-workers from the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Reading (United Kingdom). The study pointed to the high paraben levels in tissue samples from 18 breast tumours, indicating the possible influence on oestrogen activity of parabens, chemicals used as preservatives in the food, pharmaceuticals and cosmetics industries.

    There has been growing debate about the effects of parabens since then, especially in emails and blogs. How do parabens work? Are there sufficient grounds for applying the precautionary principle?

    Parabens are effective against yeasts and moulds and so are used in drugs such as paracetamol and ibuprofen, cough syrups, antacids, toothpastes, cosmetics, soaps and creams. Parabens is the common name for the hydroxybenzoic acid esters, discovered to have antimicrobial properties in 1924. Since then, parabens have become the least expensive and most effective preservative used in the cosmetics industry. In fact, according to Dr. Claude Monneret, director of research at the French National Scientific Research Centre (CNRS), no suitable alternative to parabens is currently available.


    France wants to ban parabens

    On 3 May 2011, the French National Assembly approved a bill seeking a ban on parabens, claiming that these chemicals belong to the group of endocrine disruptors with adverse effects. Interviewed for an article published a few days later in Le Figaro, François Chast, pharmacology and toxicology director at the Hôtel-Dieu in Paris, complained that "today, anything to do with chemicals is a suspected cause of cancer, birth defects or sterility problems.” He went on to point out that “we need to balance non-proven risks with the risks of not using preservatives,” given that the oestrogen-like effect of parabens is 10,000 to 100,000 times lower than that of estradiol (a sex hormone present in human blood).

    Both the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the EU Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety (SCCS) have issued opinions assuring consumers that there is no cause for concern. The FDA first issued an opinion in March 2006 and then in October 2007, whereas the SCCS has spoken out on several occasions. Between 2005 and 2007, the SCCS stated that the ethyl and methyl parabens could be safely used in cosmetics, but conceded there was insufficient information available on the propyl, isopropyl, butyl and isobutyl parabens. The European Cosmetics Directive (76/768/EEC) authorizes the use of all parabens to a maximum concentration of 0.4% for a single ester and to 0.8% for a combination of several.

    However, reports from Denmark led the SCCS to re-examine the issue in December 2010. It finally concluded, in March 2011, that "there is no evidence of a demonstrable risk for the development of breast cancer caused by the use of underarm cosmetics." Even so, the SCCS accepted an industry proposal to carry out further studies. Philip Harvey, editor of the Journal of Applied Toxicology, supported the move.


    The precautionary principle

    A number of organizations that apply the precautionary principle are opposed to the everyday use of products containing parabens. This is not only because they cause skin irritation, contact dermatitis and rosacea in a small percentage of people, but primarily because of their potential oestrogenic effects. Although studies to date indicate a negligible risk at recommended doses, these organizations are questioning the combined effect on any individual of daily use of a shower gel, shampoo, face moisturizer, body cream and deodorant, each of which respects the 0.8% limit on parabens. In other words, what is the accumulated risk of adding up the 0.8% limit for several products?

    Aware of consumer concerns, the cosmetics industry is working to develop paraben-free alternatives. As part of their marketing strategy, some companies whose formulations do not require these preservatives are already marketing their products with a ‘paraben-free’ label on the packaging. Other companies have chosen to reduce the amount of parabens used or to replace them with natural preservatives. The ideal substitute has still to be found.



    Study by Philippa Darbre and co-workers

    FDA Opinion

    EU Opinion