Parabens are the most widely used preservatives in personal care products. Parabens stop fungus, bacteria and other microbes from growing in shampoos, mascara, foundations and body lotions. However, over the past few years, a debate has been building among scientists, product safety regulators and cosmetic manufacturers about whether these ubiquitous chemicals, used for almost 70 years, may actually be harmful to our health.
The most common question being asked: Is the rising incidence of breast cancer linked in part to the fact that parabens, which have a weak ability to mimic estrogen, have been found in breast cancer tumours and can be isolated from other body tissues? Are declining sperm counts and increasing rates of male breast cancer and testicular cancer related to the fact that these chemicals can be absorbed into our skin, potentially disrupting our endocrine systems?
Studies have shown that some parabens can mimic the activity of the hormone estrogen in the body’s cells, and while estrogenic activity is associated with certain forms of breast cancer, parabens have been found present in breast tumors.
Philippa Darbre, a senior lecturer in oncology and researcher in biomolecular sciences at the University of Reading, in England published a pivotal study in 2004 that detected parabens in 18 of 20 samples of tissue from breast tumour biopsies. Her study didn’t prove parabens cause cancer, only that they were easily detected among cancerous cells.
“We’ve known for more than 25 years that estrogen exposure is linked to breast cancer development and progression; it is the reason tamoxifen [commonly prescribed to women with breast cancer] is used to disrupt estrogen receptors,” says Darbre. “So it is not such a leap to be concerned that repeated, cumulative, long-term exposure to chemicals that weakly mimic estrogen might be having an impact.”
So far there is no scientific evidence to prove that parabens have any link to cancer. However, if you’re weary about taking a chance using products that contain these chemicals, then don’t! There’s a wide range of beauty products that are paraben-free.