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.
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 below.
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
- 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