Parabens are a class of man-made chemicals used in the manufacture of a wide range of cosmetics and personal care products, including makeup, moisturizers, shaving gels, shampoos, personal lubricants and spray tan products. Concerns about the potential health risks of parabens began to emerge in 2004 when one study suggested they may increase the risk of breast cancer, leading some organizations to caution against their widespread use.
Parabens preserve cosmetics and personal care products by keeping bacteria, mold and fungi at bay. In 2010, parabens were the most widely used preservatives in personal care products, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Their superior preservative properties and low cost explain their widespread use, says Cal Baier-Anderson, Ph.D., a health scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund in Washington, D.C.
Breast Cancer Risks
A 2004 study published in the “Journal of Applied Toxicology” detected parabens in the breast tumors of women with breast cancer. This is a concern because studies have shown that parabens have weak estrogen-like properties, and estrogen is known to play a role in breast cancer, reports the American Cancer Society. “While it has not been shown that parabens cause breast cancer, there’s a possibility that they could,” says Baier-Anderson.
The effect of parabens on the male reproductive system has been studied in mice. A 2002 Japanese study published in "Archives of Toxicology" found that parabens reduced sperm counts in male mice. Parabens have also been linked to skin cancer; paraben applied to skin that was exposed to sunlight caused changes in epidermis cells that could lead to skin cancer, suggests a 2006 Japanese study published in the journal "Toxicology."
The FDA participated in an assessment of the safety of parabens by a group called the Cosmetic Ingredient Review in 1984 and in a reassessment in 2005. The FDA is a non-voting member of the Cosmetic Ingredient Review. Both assessments concluded that parabens pose no health risk, due to the low doses used in consumer products and minimal estrogen-like properties. As of June 2010, the FDA believes that parabens in cosmetics and personal care products are safe for consumers. The agency will continue to review any new data regarding the safety of parabens. In addition, as of 2013, the American Cancer Society asserts "there are no clear health risks from parabens in food, drugs, cosmetics, and skin care products."
Parabens in consumer products are easy to identify because all ingredients must be listed on the label. If you are concerned about parabens, look for ingredients ending with the word paraben, such as methylparaben, butylparaben, propylparaben and benzylparaben. They’re usually near the bottom of the ingredients list, notes Baier-Anderson. In 2009, some companies began voluntarily removing paraben from their products due to consumer concerns. Products made without paraben usually state “paraben-free” on the packaging.