Questions about parabens

It is unknown if the chemicals found in cosmetics cause harm

October 04, 2007|By Julie Deardorff

CHICAGO -- Lotions and sunscreens have long contained parabens, or synthetic chemicals used as preservatives, but now that products promoted as "paraben-free" have hit store shelves, concerned consumers are asking: "What, exactly, are parabens, and are they dangerous?"

Mainstream products made by Burt's Bees, which never has used parabens, are available everywhere from Whole Foods and Target to Borders, CVS, Walgreens and even Hallmark stores.

For years, parabens (methyl, ethyl, propyl and benzyl) have been considered a cheap and indispensable way to inhibit the growth of bacteria, yeasts and molds in personal-care products such as shampoos, conditioners, deodorants and sunscreens. Parabens are why products can survive the three-month boat trip from China, sit on store or warehouse shelves for years or be exposed to extreme temperatures.

But studies have shown that some parabens can mimic the activity of the hormone estrogen in the body's cells. Estrogenic activity in the body is associated with certain forms of breast cancer. And parabens are turning up in breast tumors.

What further concerns some scientists is that parabens aren't the only potential endocrine disrupter out there. Breast tissue and breast milk are exposed to a range of chemicals, including pesticides and polychlorinated biphenyls.

New research, meanwhile, has shown that parabens can be measured in human urine. And a recent Danish study showed that when parabens are applied as a cream to the backs of healthy male volunteers, the chemicals can be measured in the blood within hours.

"This demonstrates that parabens do indeed penetrate the human skin from cosmetic products," said Philippa Darbre, a researcher at the United Kingdom's University of Reading whose research team was the first to detect parabens in human tissue. Her controversial 2004 study detected parabens in 18 of 20 samples of tissue from human breast tumors, but it did not show that they cause cancer.

"Whether parabens cause any harm in the body remains unknown," said Darbre, who wants to know whether the use of underarm cosmetics might be a factor or cause in the rising incidence of breast cancer. "But I think that there is no doubt that parabens do get into the human body intact, something that was previously dismissed as impossible and why our study was so controversial."

The Food and Drug Administration says parabens have much less estrogenic activity than the body's naturally occurring estrogen and has deemed parabens safe, which is why companies such as the Swiss firm Alchimie Forever continue to use them.

"With such a track record of safety and efficacy as preservatives and antibacterial agents, parabens are a much better choice than their alternatives, which have not been investigated to the same degree and which have not yet been proven," said Alchimie Forever founder Ada Polla. "Furthermore, such alternatives tend to affect the texture of the product in negative ways."

But critics say the FDA does not have the authority to approve most cosmetic ingredients. And though the FDA's Cosmetic Ingredient Review assessed the chemicals in 1984 and 2005 and found them safe, the CIR is an industry-sponsored organization; the FDA participates in a nonvoting capacity.

Burt's Bees, which is trying to salvage the word "natural" and uses synthetic ingredients only when viable alternatives don't exist, says there is enough evidence to suggest that parabens are potential endocrine disrupters.

"Natural preservative systems are available and equally effective; we've been using them since the early 1990s," said Burt's Bees chief marketing officer Mike Indursky.

Julie Deardorff writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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