Green is in these days, and many people are interested in purchasing natural products. New organic food and other green products seem to appear each day -- in fact, in 2006, manufacturers produced 2,000 new personal care products that were marketed as organic or natural [source: Birnbaum]. With growing concern over what you put in and on your body, you may have become more label-conscious. But when you look at the label of a lotion, you're probably not surprised if you don't recognize many of the difficult-to-pronounce ingredients. What are these mystery ingredients? And could some of them be bad for your health?
Some of these ingredients are preservatives, a common and necessary ingredient in skin care products. Preservatives prevent the growth of fungus and bacteria in cosmetics, and they also prevent damage to the product from oxygen and light exposure. In fact, if a skin care product contains water, it must contain preservatives [source: American Academy of Dermatology].
Parabens are one type of preservative -- they're antifungal agents used in food, pharmaceuticals and skin care products [source U.S. Food and Drug Administration]. Although they're common preservatives, you may have recently heard about them in the news for other reasons, and you may be wondering if using products that contain them will increase your cancer risk. This prospect naturally alarms many people -- especially because parabens are such a common ingredient. But once you understand parabens, the reality of the cancer risk and the availability of paraben-free products, you'll be better equipped to make product decisions. Read on to learn exactly what parabens are and why they're so commonly used.
What is a Paraben?
Parabens are antifungal agents that are used as preservatives in foods, pharmaceuticals and skin care products. In fact, parabens are the most widely used preservatives in the cosmetics industry. They're used in makeup, hair care products, moisturizers and shaving products, and despite what you may have heard, parabens are rarely used in deodorants and antiperspirants. There are several types of parabens, the most common being methylparaben, probylparaben and butylparaben [source U.S. Food and Drug Administration].
Preservatives are used in cosmetics and other skin and hair care products to maintain the integrity of the product. Preservatives like parabens protect cosmetics from the growth of fungus and bacteria. If fungus and bacteria were to grow in these products, they'd no longer be effective for their intended use and you'd be at risk for infection [source American Academy of Dermatology]. But while preservatives like parabens prevent potential skin infections, they can still be irritating to some people's skin. Not all people respond to parabens in the same way, so a lotion that causes skin irritation in one person may not affect another person at all.
While allergic reactions to parabens may be one of your worries, the possible link between parabens and cancer probably has you more concerned. Read on to learn more.
Parabens and Cancer
Cancer is a frightening prospect, so it's no wonder so many studies are conducted to research the effects of certain substances and their relation to cancer. But with so many studies out there, it can be difficult to separate established scientific fact from less-than-reliable word of mouth. You may have heard there's a link between parabens -- especially in antiperspirants and deodorants -- and breast cancer. Because so many products contain parabens, the possibility that they may be linked to cancer has garnered a lot of attention. However, studies have been inconclusive so far -- in fact, there's been at least one significant study that found no link between parabens and increased cancer risk [source: American Cancer Society].
Parabens have been a focus in cancer studies because they have estrogen-like, or hormonal, properties. Because estrogen can promote the growth of breast cancer tissue, some researchers are concerned that parabens may have a similar effect when absorbed through the skin. Scientists were particularly concerned about parabens in antiperspirants and deodorants because they're applied near breast tissue [source: National Cancer Institute].
A 2004 study revealed that parabens do build up in breast tumors -- the study found parabens in 18 of 20 samples of tissue from human breast tumors. However, the test didn't test healthy breast tissue, so there's no conclusive evidence that paraben buildup caused the tumors. Neither the National Cancer Institute nor the FDA has found evidence that preservatives -- including parabens -- in antiperspirants or other skin care products cause cancer [source: National Cancer Institute]. Scientists say more testing must be completed to make a conclusive ruling about the connection between tumors and parabens -- but at this point, they say there's little cause for concern [source: Mayo Clinic].
While no conclusive link has been found between parabens and breast cancer, you may decide to avoid products that contain parabens as a precaution. Keep reading to learn about paraben-free lotions.
Using Paraben-free Lotion
Paraben-free lotions are no different from other lotions -- they just contain different preservatives. Today, there are many paraben-free cosmetics and skin care products on the market, including moisturizers, sunscreens and body washes. The most important thing to remember is that while you may feel more comfortable using a paraben-free product, there aren't any skin care products that are entirely preservative-free. While a lotion may not contain parabens, it will use other preservatives such as antioxidants -- including acids derived from vitamins A, C and E -- that prevent the product from growing fungus or bacteria [source: American Academy of Dermatology].
Paraben-free products can be a bit more expensive, but they may put your mind at ease. To learn more about parabens, preservatives and alternative products, see the links on the following page.
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
- American Academy of Dermatology. "10 Tips: Selecting Age-Fighting Topicals." AgingSkinNet. 2009. (Accessed 9/9/09) http://www.skincarephysicians.com/agingskinnet/age_fighting_selecting.html.
- American Academy of Dermatology. "Cosmeceutical Facts & Your Skin." 2005. (Accessed 9/9/09)http://www.aad.org/public/publications/pamphlets/general_cosmeceutical.html.
- American Cancer Society. "Breast Cancer: Early Detection." 9/30/2008. (Accessed 9/9/09). http://www.cancer.org/docroot/CRI/content/CRI_2_6x_Breast_Cancer_Early_Detection.asp?sitearea=.
- Birnbaum, Cara. "Eco-Friendly Beauty Products." (Accessed 10/6/09) http://www.webmd.com/skin-beauty/features/eco-friendly-beauty-products?print=true
- Mayo Clinic. "Cancer Causes: Popular myths about the causes of cancer." (Accessed 10/7/09) http://www.cnn.com/HEALTH/library/cancer-causes/CA00085.html
- National Cancer Institute. "Antiperspirants/Deodorants and Breast Cancer." January 4, 2008. (Accessed 9/9/09) http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/factsheet/Risk/AP-Deo.
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration. "Parabens." October 31, 2007. (Accessed 9/9/09) http://www.fda.gov/Cosmetics/ProductandIngredientSafety/SelectedCosmeticIngredients/ucm128042.
- WebMD. "Skin Reactions to Beauty Products." (Accessed 10/6/09) http://www.webmd.com/allergies/relief-for-allergies-8/skin-reactions