Parabens are old-time chemical preservatives – they were first introduced in the 1950s after bacteria-contaminated facial lotions caused a small outbreak of blindness. Today, they are used in a wide range of personal care items – from cosmetics to toothpaste, as well as some foods and drugs.
It is partly because of their stable history that the Food and Drug Administration describes them as safe, at least in the trace amounts – 0.01 to 0.3 percent – found in most consumer products.
However, and here’s where the answer gets complicated, in recent years, environmental health advocates have challenged that conclusion. Their concerns grew after a 2004 study found paraben compounds in breast cancer tumors.
Although no real link to the cancer was established, research has also found that parabens are weak estrogen mimics, capable of altering cell growth in culture, and may also act as endocrine disruptors, which can disrupt the normal function of hormones and interfere with development. The F.D.A.’s position is that parabens are too weak in this regard to cause any real concern.
The primary issue has become their ubiquity. “Parabens are found in between 13,000 and 15,000 personal care products,” said Janet Gray, director of the science, technology and society program at Vassar College. “So we are not talking about a single exposure but a more pervasive one.”
A 2006 analysis by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found evidence of parabens in more than 90 percent of people tested, with women – who use more cosmetics – registering higher levels than men. And a recent report in Environmental Science & Technology found that parabens were so common in products like baby lotion that infants may also receive a relatively high dose.
Researchers like Dr. Gray say we need to get a much better sense of such potentially riskier exposures. “The standard model of studying one paraben at a time isn’t telling us what we need to know,” she said. “It’s the bigger picture that matters.”
By DEBORAH BLUM