Parabens: The Root of All Evil? Or Our One True Savior? Or… Neither?

Parabens are a hot-button topic for a myriad of reasons. Let’s break ‘em down! (Also, yes, I know, this article’s going to be a bit dry and picture-less, but there are so many points to hit on this alleged Big Bad, that I figured my best course of action would be a two-parters – first addressing the issues and then offering you some paraben-free options.)

An Isopropylparaben in the wiki-wild

What are parabens?

They’re a para-hydroxybenzoic acid mixed with an alcohol, which yet again gives us an ester. Various alcohols can be used to create polymers of various lengths for use in a huge variety of products, thus producing methylparabens, ethylparabens, isobutylparabens, etc. This group of man-made esters has been widely used as a preservative since WWII. They are awesome at their job, inhibiting germ growth and extending the shelf-life of makeup, toothpaste, moisturizers, hair care products, lube, shave gel, and food of all sorts. When people talk of ‘cutting out preservatives’, this Big Bad is likely central to their crusade. However, parabens are the best broad-spectrum antimicrobial and antifungal agent we’ve come up with thus far, and that’s important to keep in mind.

Are they giving me cancer?

There is, to date, no proven cancer link. Cancer.org tells me, “There are no strong epidemiologic studies in the medical literature that link breast cancer risk and antiperspirant use, and very little scientific evidence to support this claim.”

The 2003 study often cited (concerning women who developed breast cancer at a younger age reporting that they began shaving at an earlier age than women who developed breast cancer later in life) lacked a cancer-free control group of women, young or old, and fails to take into account that shaving and deodorant use are fairly newfangled concepts, in the grand scheme of things, and there’s definitely been a generational shift in how early we start to use the associated products.

The “upper outer quadrant” breast cancer scare comes from, as far as I can tell, the speculative statements of one doctor in the early 2000’s speaking to what she’d observed and then hypothesizing a potential cause. There is no study that I can find that backs up her hypothesis.

Unlike many of our makeup Big Bads, parabens, as I said before, are included in our food, which means they cross over into FDA territory, which has garnered them far more attention and tons of studies, with the FDA, even now, pushing for more on all of the topics I’m addressing here.

What about the estrogen-mimic effect? Are parabens wrecking my lady bits?

The effects of parabens on estrogen production and gene expression vary among the various paraben types. As the polymer length varies, so to does the way it’s able to interact with our cells. But on the whole, parabens likely lead to a minimal increase in estrogen levels. We use them in small amounts and metabolize them quickly, but it’s unclear how much build up occurs and how that affects us over time. Clearly, more studies are needed (and possibly already being done). That said, the U.S. and most European countries currently certify parabens, at the level we’re typically exposed to, completely safe for use. Your lady-bits are probably fine. if you have man-bits, your shower gel isn’t destroying them, either. You’ll likely be no more feminine five years from now than when you started using that fancy 3-in-1 wash in the first place.

Is it an allergen? Is that the plan: off-me quick with anaphylactic shock?

A small portion of the population is allergic to parabens. If you don’t have a specific existing issue with parabens, they should be non-harmful to healthy skin in this regard.

Are parabens teaming up with UVB radiation to kill me just in case nothing else does the job???

Sun-exposure risk studies are in the early stages. The paper most often cited (the 2006 study) concerned skin cells in isolation, in a petri dish, in lab settings. In vivo studies (on skin in all its, preferably living, glory) need to occur for us to more fully know how the complex relationship of skin, parabens, and UVB radiation plays out in the real world. Increased cell die-off is bad, but how our body deals with it matters, and how frequently mutagenic changes result really matters. So… it’s too early to know for sure. Always wear your sunscreen and check to see if it has parabens in the mix (your self-tanner likely does – fair warning there).

Bottom Line

Holy well-preserved crap, you guys! There are a ton of papers out and a ton more on-going studies on all the various potential paraben risks. It was a lot to wade through. What are my final thoughts? Well, regardless of the veracity of the armpit claims, I’m finally trying to make the leap to using less bad-ass deodorant/ antiperspirant at least part of the time. This is more me realizing it’s probably better to just let myself sweat during warm weather workouts than anything else. I’ve switch to a deodorant with no antiperspirant for those sorts of activities. Other than that, I’m actually not too scared of parabens. But you know what IS scary? A world completely devoid of them.

That’s the thing: parabens are one of the best cheap preservatives out there, preventing bacteria and mold from taking root in all our stuff. Going paraben-free means you probably need to pay more attention to expiration dates and know what preservative alternatives are in the mix (if any). Grape seed oil is a natural alternative that crops up quite often, though there seems to be debate about just how effective it is at its job. There are several other organic compounds on the market as alternatives today, but none offer the kind of nearly complete broad spectrum protection you’ll get from parabens. Typically, multiple preservatives must be added (an anti-fungal and an antibacterial agent) to approach the same level of protection. One of the alternatives is more formaldehyde releasers, which seem to also make people uneasy (we’ll get to those at a later date), but which offer possibly the second best alternative to paraben use.

Going au naturale and forsaking all the wonders of the past century that prevent us from dying of botulism or needing antibiotics far too often (and thus contributing to drug-resistant strains) is a choice that shouldn’t be taken lightly. If what you’re using is truly preservative-free, it most certainly won’t last you more than a month (and that’s being generous in most cases) and could be harboring any number of nasty microbes just waiting for the chance to murder the heck out of you. Preservatives represent a HUGE technological advance for for us, allowing the food (and personal care) infrastructure we rely on today to exist without enormous expense on our end and/or widespread, frequent food-poisoning epidemics and skin infections. And again, if we aren’t treating our makeup stash like a mad scientist’s cell culture lab, growing and nurturing bacteria at break-neck speed, and then contracting random awful illnesses as a direct result, we don’t have to struggle to stay one step ahead in treating those illnesses as they crop up. Makeup irritating your skin? Maybe it’s not the ingredients themselves causing problems. Maybe your culprit is whatever’s grown inside your makeup since you opened it.

Preservatives, on the whole, are NOT your enemy.

Can I get a “Huzzah for Hygiene”?

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