Parabens are a class of chemicals widely used as preservatives in the cosmetic and pharmaceutical industries. Parabens are effective preservatives in many types of formulas. These compounds, and their salts, are used primarily for their bactericidal and fungicidal properties.
They can be found in shampoos, commercial moisturizers, shaving gels, personal lubricants, topical/parenteral pharmaceuticals, spray tanning solution and toothpaste. They are also used as food additives.
Their efficacy as preservatives, in combination with their low cost, their long history of safe use and the inefficacy of natural alternatives like grapefruit seed extract (GSE), probably explains why parabens are so commonplace. They are becoming increasingly controversial, however, and some organizations which adhere to the precautionary principle object to their everyday use.
Cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, and foods can all spoil if they do not contain a preservative. Consequently, propylparaben has become the preservative of choice, especially for cosmetics that are water-based – like moisturizers, shampoos, shower cleansers, conditioners, and sunscreens. It is even used in lipsticks, foundations, mascaras, and eye shadows – sometimes at levels approaching 25%. On its own, there are recommendations for how much propylparaben should be found in a particular product.
The problem arises when a product contains multiple parabens – such as propylparaben and methylparaben – then, there are not any recommendations for an individual user.
In the pharmaceutical industry, propylparaben is a common preservative for certain drugs. As a result, it is administered to humans in several ways: injections, orally, or through suppositories. However, it is almost always in concentrations of less than 1%.
The dangers of propylparaben are yet to be specifically identified. However, studies have been conducted that have created fear in some consumers. For example, a group of British researchers tested breast lump tissue samples that were taken from women who had cancerous breast tumors. The researchers found traces of parabens in the lumps of all 20 women. This has caused some people to wonder whether the parabens caused the cancer.
Other examples that cause concern include a September 2008 study of 20 girls between the ages of 14 and 19. The girls used multiple cosmetics products every day – from moisturizers to deodorants to make-up. In that study, propylparaben was found in every girl. The fear is that parabens mimic estrogen in the body and thereby increase a woman’s risk for breast cancer. Yet, there is no evidence that parabens cause cancer and further research must be conducted.
Since there is increased awareness and concern, some cosmetics manufacturers, specifically those that are organic in nature, are looking for ways to prevent their products from spoiling or for inhibiting microbial growth.
Shorter shelf lives and new formulas are all being explored by some manufacturers, as well. Until more research is conducted, the safest bet is to limit the amount of parabens that is absorbed into the body.