"I read that your products do not contain parabens, and I've heard that they are bad for you. What are parabens used for, and why are they bad?"
That's a good question. There is a lot of talk about the dangers of parabens, and they are being used as a preservative very extensively in the skin care and cosmetics industry. When we read the reports carefully, however, most of the articles are short on facts but still strongly warn of vague dangers, or use inflammatory rhetoric to make parabens sound scary. The articles sometimes point to individual episodes and rely on anecdotal evidence, even when other possible causes are suggested by the circumstances. Nonetheless, there is some scientific evidence of health risks associated with parabens that goes beyond the controversy and the loud talk, and I will tell you what I've been able to discover.
In the end, my take on the issue is that avoiding parabens whenever possible is a good idea.
Researchers from the Department of Biology and Biochemistry of Brunel University in the UK conducted a study that found that the alkyl hydroxy benzoate preservatives (that is, methyl-, ethyl-, propyl-, and butylparaben) are weakly estrogenic. In other words, these preservatives have the ability to mimic estrogen in the body. They found butylparaben to be the most estrogenic. The study found that parabens can cause these adverse (oestrogenic) effects when injected under the skin of laboratory animals. The researchers believe that parabens that might be absorbed through the skin of pregnant women may act like an alien female hormone, affecting the development of the fetus, especially in regard to male fetuses' future fertility. Professor John Sumpter, one of the researchers, wrote an article in The Independent where he expressed concerns that parabens may play a role in explaining why sperm counts have been falling in men and breast cancer in women is on the rise. However, the professor noted that the clinical results were based on animal studies only, and that human trials have not been done.
It is also reported in the literature that various allergic reactions and dermatitis are caused by parabens. I personally think that it is likely that some of these allergic reactions are caused by parabens, although I don't know of any studies that have tried to isolate these reactions so that we would know whether the parabens or some other ingredient caused the reactions. If you develop a skin rash after using a new shampoo, and it goes away when you switch again, did parabens cause that? Did any ingredient of the first shampoo cause that? Did the reaction have to do with other environmental factors I was exposed to at that time? I simply don't know.
At Starflower Essentials Organic Skin Care, we are often asked whether our products contain ingredients that we are told are bad for us. We are rarely asked whether they really are a problem! I hope this addresses the specific question. More generally, my view is that we are exposed to a daily bath of chemicals that do not natural occur in our environment. A recent study found traces of more than two hundred man-made chemicals in the bodies of people who were just living ordinary lives. That's two hundred different chemicals in every single person, not a total of two hundred among all of the people in the study. Things like DDT are still in their tissues. That's incredible to me. Scientific studies aside, common sense (well, my idea of common sense) tells me that attempting to limit our exposure to these chemicals is likely to help prevent disease and adverse health consequences. ~~ Brad