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What are parabens?

That tongue-twister on the label might be a paraben.
That tongue-twister on the label might be a paraben.
©iStockphoto.com/brazzo

Humans have been preserving foods and other perishable goods for as long as there have been ice and sunlight available to freeze or dry them out. Over time, more methods of preservation were developed: curing, pickling, fermenting and canning, to name a few.

Along this same timeline exists the history of cosmetics. Ancient people tried everything from arsenic to ox blood in their quest for cosmetic improvement, sometimes at great risk to their health. While the ingredient list for ancient makeup was much simpler to understand ("Contained within: one leech, for maximum paleness"), the contents of modern products can sometimes make you feel like you need a degree in chemistry to identify them.

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Among the ingredients that frequently turn up on labels of products ranging from toothpaste to deodorant are parabens. Parabens are identified by a wide array of names, such as propylparaben and parahydroxybenzoate.

Chemically, parabens are esters. An ester is a compound formed from an alcohol and an organic acid (in the case of parabens, that acid is p-hydroxybenzoic acid). Despite the occasionally tongue-twisting titles that identify them, parabens of any name are simply preservatives. Without them, bacteria and fungi would begin growing in these products, spoiling them and possibly harming you. Parabens are relatively easy to produce and incorporate into products, making them an ideal way to lengthen the shelf life of a variety of consumer goods.

Daily, most of us consume or apply parabens without knowing it. Some of the products in which they can found are:

  • Cosmetics, such as moisturizer, lipstick, foundation, concealer, eye makeup and makeup removers
  • Hygienic products, such as soaps, shampoo, "anti-wrinkle" creams, toothpaste, topical ointments, deodorant, sunscreen, bandages and eye drops
  • Household or industrial products such as textiles and glues
  • Food products such as salad dressing, mayonnaise, mustard, processed vegetables, frozen dairy products, jelly, soft drinks and baked goods

Handy product, right? So why do some people believe parabens harm the endocrine system, create hormonal disruptions and cause cancer? Read on to find out.

Though food items and medications have regulatory safeguards, cosmetics do not. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) only gets involved if a product is mislabeled or contaminated. The FDA also prohibits any cosmetic that has decomposed or become putrid, so preservatives like parabens actually prevent regulatory intervention from occurring in the first place.

Researchers (and, soon, the public) expressed concern in the 1990s about parabens and public health, but little consensus (or quantifiable information) has been formed since then. Because they're so commonly used, it's difficult to study how parabens affect us. The amount of parabens in any individual product is believed to be far less than the amount that would cause you problems. On the other hand, you may use several of these products every day of your life and spread them all over your body, where they normally remain for the majority of the day.

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Parabens are cause for concern because they're xenoestrogens, meaning they fit into specially shaped estrogen receptors located in your cells. Once a paraben molecule has fit into the estrogen receptor, other glands and neurotransmitters begin passing messages and making adjustments based on the presence of that "estrogen." Some researchers worry that parabens could affect estrogen production or other aspects of the endocrine system. One study of cancerous breast tissue found the presence of parabens, but parabens may very well be found in all tissue, due to widespread use. Parabens -- in large quantities -- have also been shown to lower the sperm count of mice in laboratory conditions [source: Oishi].

Despite these concerns, parabens are still generally considered safe in cosmetics because they're found in such small amounts. While there are suspicions that parabens may be harmful to us, there isn't much in the way of solid proof. If you have worries about parabens, seek out product lines that use biodegradable, nonhazardous and eco-friendly ingredients.

For more articles on skin care, see the links on the next page.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

Sources

  • Degen G.H.; Bolt, H.M. "Endocrine disruptors: update on xenoestrogens." International Archives of Occupational and Environmental Health. Sep. 2000. http://www.springerlink.com/content/t0xk0d0g9jy7bmj2/
  • Environmental Working Group. "Hormone-disrupting Cosmetics Chemicals Found in Teen Girls." Sep. 26, 2008. (Sep. 21, 2009) http://www.safecosmetics.org/article.php?id=359
  • Food and Drug Administration. "Parabens." Oct. 31, 2007. (Sep. 19, 2009) http://www.fda.gov/Cosmetics/ProductandIngredientSafety/SelectedCosmeticIngredients/ucm128042.htm
  • Leichman, Abigal. "Potentially toxic cosmetics have some people worried." The Record (Bergen, N.J.). Mar. 13, 2007. (Sep. 19, 2009) http://www.safecosmetics.org/article.php?id=103
  • Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. "Cancer causes: Popular myths about the causes of cancer." May 16, 2009. (Sep. 20, 2009)http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/cancer-causes/CA00085
  • MedlinePlus. "Skin Layers." Aug. 22, 2008. (Aug. 5, 2009) http://www.nlm.nih.gov/MEDLINEPLUS/ency/imagepages/8912.htm
  • Metametrix Clinical Laboratory. "Phthalates and Parebens Profile." (Sep. 18, 2009) http://www.metametrix.com/content/DirectoryOfServices/Phthalates-Parabens
  • National Cancer Institute. "Understanding Cancer Series: Estrogen Receptors/SERMs." Apr. 27, 2006. (Sep. 17, 2009)http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/understandingcancer/estrogenreceptors
  • National Skin Care Institute. "Skin Types." (Aug. 5, 2009) http://www.skincarenet.org/skin-types.html
  • New Zealand Dermatological Society Incorporated. "Allergy to parabens." June 15, 2009. (Sep. 19, 2009)http://dermnetnz.org/dermatitis/parabens-allergy.html
  • Nummer, Brian A. "Historical Origins of Food Preservation." National Center for Home Food Preservation. May 2002. (Sep. 20, 2009) http://www.uga.edu/nchfp/publications/nchfp/factsheets/food_pres_hist.html
  • Oishi, Shinshi. "Effects of butyl paraben on the male reproductive system in mice." (Feb. 19, 2004) Archives of Toxicology. Volume 76, Number 7 / July, 2002. http://www.springerlink.com/content/yjdu10h80kvleeay/
  • WebMD. "History of Makeup." (Sep. 19, 2009)http://www.webmd.com/skin-beauty/guide/history-makeup

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