Paraben Paradox

Get the lowdown on the paraben controversy from Lexli International's Ahmed Abdullah, M.D., F.A.C.S, and discover why these preservatives may be the safest choice when it comes to skincare products.

Among the many buzzwords that have bubbled up in the spa industry in recent years, "paraben-free" seems to be among the most prevalent. Many spa professionals tell me their clients have begun demanding them. Yet, when I ask them why their clients are fearful, the answer is most often, "I've never asked." This trend begs a question: As trusted advisors to our clients' well-being, are we educating and empowering them so they may make better informed choices? Or, are we simply fulfilling their requests without consideration as to whether their decisions are good for them?

The Controversy

Parabens are the most commonly used preservatives in the cosmetics industry. Naturally derived and organic, parabens have been used for more than 80 years in not only cosmetics but also food products. (They are categorized as "food grade.") In fact, numerous fruits and vegetables, including blueberries, carrots, cucumbers, and raspberries produce parabens to protect themselves from bacterial attacks.

Despite their history of safe and effective usage in cosmetics, parabens have been under attack since 2004 when a study by Philippa Darbre, Ph.D., was published in the Journal of Applied Toxicology. That study showed paraben-like substances in breast cancer tissue, starting a firestorm that has only intensified in the years since. While various manufacturers and special interest groups have been working to "educate" the public about the dangers of parabens, several important facts relative to the Darbre study have been left on the table. Among them, the study demonstrated no causation of breast cancer by parabens and did not show them to be harmful in any way. Additionally, the study left several questions unanswered. For one, it did not look at possible paraben levels in normal tissue, an essential step if any valid conclusion was to be made.

Many have argued that, despite limitations in the Darbre study, it's better to err on the side of caution by choosing paraben-free products. At face value, this makes sense. However, considering that a preservative-free product is impossible if it is to have any shelf life, your alternative options become limited.

Paraben Alternatives

Because skincare products are shipped, warehoused, and sit on shelves before even being purchased by the consumer, preservatives are essential ingredients. Companies that manufacture paraben-free products are not necessarily preservative-free. Rather, they've turned to alternative preservatives to protect their products from bacterial attacks. Among the preservatives most often utilized by these companies are alpha-tocopherol, grapefruit seed extract, phenoxyethanol, potassium sorbate, and sodium hydroxymethylglycinate, among others.

Paraben alternatives are not foolproof, however. While organic product manufacturers may market their preservatives as "all natural," the catch is that all preservatives, including parabens, are derived from naturally occurring substances. Therefore, nearly any preservative may be "spun" through marketing speak to be considered all-natural or organic. Additionally, some of these preservatives come with documented risks. In fact, phenoxyethanol is restricted for use in cosmetics in Japan due to its potential damaging effects. Others are shown to have inferior microbial protection in comparison to parabens. Newer synthetic preservatives do not have nearly the same history of safety as that of parabens. And that factor comes with a risk. We will not know for some time whether or not there are dangerous side effects that come with use of these ingredients in skincare products.

Parabens Reviewed

What do the experts say about the safety of parabens? Following the paraben backlash that began after the publication of Darbre's study, a number of groups took a closer look at their use and potential risks. In 2005, the Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) reopened the safety assessment for parabens and found, after much study and evaluation, that parabens are indeed safe and effective for continued use, as originally believed. With that, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released a statement on parabens to set the record straight and reassure consumers that there was no reason to be concerned about the use of cosmetics containing parabens. Other groups, including the National Cancer Institute and the American Cancer Society have also come forward to publicly state that there is no proof of a linkage between parabens and cancer. In 2008, a comprehensive review by the CIR, published in the International Journal of Toxicology, concluded that parabens pose no adverse risks when used in the concentrations found in cosmetic products. Today, parabens remain officially approved for use in cosmetics by the U.S. FDA; the European Commission; the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare; and many more regulatory bodies.

In the end, it remains a consumer's personal decision whether to use products with parabens or those with alternative preservatives. But I implore the experts within our industry to at least be ready with the full facts on the topic so we may continue to hold our valued position as expert advisors, rather than simply service implementers. After all, it's this type of dedication that will allow our industry to prosper and our clientele to become increasingly satisfied.

Get the scoop on the other side of the debate from Eminence Organic Skin Care's Meaghan Cochrane, who reveals why you may want to consider carrying only paraben-free products.

Parabens, a popular family of preservatives, have been the topic of hot debate in the skincare industry for the better part of a decade. Found in a variety of everyday products from shampoo, toothpaste, cosmetics, and deodorant, these additives are found in an estimated 90 percent of cosmetic products. If so many companies are including parabens in their products, what's the issue?

Researchers at the University of Reading (England) were the first to raise suspicions concerning a link to cancer in 2004 when parabens were identified in samples of breast tumors. According to an article published in the Journal of Applied Toxicology, lead researcher and oncology expert Philippa Darbre, Ph.D., found that the chemical form of parabens in 18 of the 20 tumors tested indicated that they originated from something applied to the skin, the most likely candidates being deodorants, antiperspirants, creams, or body sprays. Of the results, Darbre says: "Parabens are used as preservatives in thousands of cosmetic, food, and pharmaceutical products, but this is the first study to show their accumulation in human tissues. It demonstrates if people are exposed to these chemicals, then the chemicals will accumulate in their bodies," and added that "parabens have been shown to be able to mimic the action of the female hormone estrogen, and estrogen can drive the growth of human breast tumors."

Until this study, it was known that parabens could be absorbed from the gastrointestinal tract or the blood, metabolized, and eventually excreted in the urine. But with these findings, the presence of intact parabens in tumor tissue show that these chemicals can not only be absorbed through the skin but can also persist and accumulate in breast cancer tissue in their original form. The longer parabens are on the skin, the more opportunity there is for them to be absorbed directly into the blood stream and into soft tissue.

Always a pioneer in natural alternatives and precautionary measures, the European Union took this study seriously and banned propyl paraben use in food. So what's the holdup in North America? Not nearly enough research has been done on this side of the pond on the harmful effects of parabens, and this is mainly due to a lack of funding. There is an apparent absence of interest to fund more research from the American cosmetics industry, government, or health organizations. As backwards as it sounds, the FDA and the Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) are both funded by the industry they are supposed to monitor.

U.S. federal law allows the cosmetic industry, estimated at more than $50 billion, to use unrestricted amounts of chemicals in skincare products with no health monitors and no regulated testing. It can be argued that cosmetics and personal care items are the least regulated products available to consumers, and the FDA's own website details its limitations: "FDA's legal authority over cosmetics is different from other products regulated by the agency...Cosmetic products and ingredients are not subject to FDA premarket approval authority, with the exception of color additives."

With such free reign, it's no wonder many major cosmetic companies take the easy way out with regards to using parabens. Not only is the use of these additives unrestricted, but they are also cheap to produce and extend the shelf life of products far longer than other natural alternatives. A switch to paraben-free skincare products means cutting into corporate profits, because alternate natural ingredients and preservatives involve farming, processing, increased costs for development, and a shorter life span.

But there is hope. Natural- and organic-based skincare companies know that cosmetics and personal care products can exist using safer preservatives. Grapefruit seed extract, potassium sorbate, sorbic acid, and vitamin E are just a few of the naturally occurring options available to the industry and are extremely gentle and effective while giving a 12-month shelf life to products.

We've done our research and have heard the arguments from other teams. Sure, it's possible that more research needs to be done and that parabens are as harmless as honey; but it's also possible that the correlations to breast cancer are accurate and these preservatives are causing us to get sick. Without an industry standing up to ask questions, we are left to make sensible decisions for ourselves. When a natural option works and is readily available, why take a chance? An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.