The second toxic ingredient to be discussed in this blog series is a group of preservatives collectively known as “parabens”.  Parabens have recently been linked to breast cancer and the destruction of our precious coral reefs due to their inclusion in sunscreens.  For these reasons more and more products are undergoing formula changes to enable them to be labelled  “paraben free”.

Parabens – what are they?

Parabens are the most widely used preservatives in cosmetic products. Chemically, parabens are esters of p-hydroxybenzoic acid. The most common parabens used in cosmetic products are methylparaben, propylparaben, and butylparaben. Typically, more than one paraben is used in a product, and they are often used in combination with other types of preservatives to provide preservation against a broad range of micro-organisms.   Unfortunately, methyl; propyl; and butyl paraben aren’t the only names used – there are dozens of  synonyms found on product labels.  To help you accurately identify parabens a link to a full list of synonyms and supporting CAS numbers follows later in the blog.

Why all the fuss?

In 2004, a UK study established the presence of intact parabens in human breast tumours (Darbre et al. 2004 Journal of Applied Toxicology). At least one type of paraben was detected in 19 out of 20 tumors. Methylparaben was the most commonly observed paraben (18/20) and was detected at the highest average level.

Subsequent studies have confirmed the ability of parabens to be absorbed systemically from topical application – paraben levels were shown to increase in blood and urine of healthy young men following topical application of parabens in a cream cosmetic formulation (Janjua et al. 2007).

Given the fact that one in nine women in Australia will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime and worldwide hundreds of thousands of women and men die from breast cancer  each year (see, these studies gave rise to global alarm and consumer boycotting of paraben based products. Responding to consumer demand, cosmetic houses reformulated en mass, dumping parabens from products, particularly in underarm deodorants and antiperspirants.

Critics of the UK Darbre study argue that only a small sample of 20 tumours were utilised. No healthy breast tissue (or other tissues from affected women) was analysed and the source(s) of the parabens found in the breast tumours and routes of exposure were not identified.

Australia’s chemical regulatory body NICNAS has stated that “this research alone is insufficient to establish that these chemicals caused the breast tumours. There is a need for further research to establish the significance of the presence of parabens in these tumours and to establish any link between parabens in underarm cosmetics and the development of breast cancer.   …  Following analysis of all available data, NICNAS believes that further research is required before a causal link between parabens in cosmetic products and breast cancer can be established.  (view full NICNAS report here

NICNAS have not published the “approved” level of parabens in product for sale on the Australian market, but the US FDA have stated that the current “approved” level is 25% of a product formulation. (link to FDA site  Given that cosmetic products typically contain parabens at levels ranging from 0.01 to 0.3% and yet parabens have been detected in breast cancer tumours one could argue that the “safe” level really needs to be revisited!

Sunscreens & coral reef destruction – another good reason to avoid Parabens

In Australia we pride ourselves on being sunsmart and dutifully slather ourselves in sunscreen before we enjoy a day at the beach.  However, according to a National Geographic extensive research study conducted in 2008, the same sunscreens that may be protecting your body are also killing coral reefs worldwide.  Link to report here

Four commonly found sunscreen ingredients (1) paraben, (2) cinnamate, (3) benzophenone, and (4) a camphor derivative can awaken dormant viruses in the symbiotic algae called zooxanthellae that live inside reef-building coral species.

Normal coral (left) exposed to ultraviolet filters found in sunscreen “bleaches” white (right) when the algae living inside it die.

The chemicals cause the viruses to replicate until their algae hosts explode, spilling viruses into the surrounding seawater, where they can infect neighboring coral communities.  Zooxanthellae provide coral with food energy through photosynthesis and contribute to the organisms’ vibrant color. Without them, the coral “bleaches”—turns white—and dies (see photo above).

The researchers estimate that 4,000 to 6,000 metric tons of sunscreen wash off swimmers annually in oceans worldwide, and that up to 10 percent of coral reefs are threatened by sunscreen-induced bleaching. The study found that water around coral exposed to sunscreen had more than 15 times as many viruses as water around non-exposed coral.

On the National Geographic website, it recommends beach visitors to purchase and use sunscreens with physical filters such as titanium dioxide or zinc oxide, which it says are eco-friendly sunscreens. These ingredients do not biodegrade per say, but they sink to the bottom of the ocean floor and do not interfere with the coral making them a far better choice.  Just make sure to only buy nano particle free versions of these ingredients (for more information on nano particles and help in choosing a good sunscreen view “Friends of the Earth Sunscreen report” here

Basically the bottom line is, if we like the ocean and our beautiful coral reefs we as a society should do our best to protect them.  As we observed with the reported possible link between parabens and breast cancer it was consumer demand that has led to cosmetic manufacturers dumping parabens from their formulations.  Consumers can change how products are made by forcing companies to be more environmentally friendly.

The next time the beach is on the cards, think twice about the type of sunscreen being put on the skin and search for those better options. They are out there.

What to do?

Remember – a good rule of thumb is to decide to use a product only if the expected benefit outweighs the possible risk.  In the case of  parabens, the claimed benefit is product preservation but the risk is a possible link to breast cancer and known destruction of our coral reefs.  Avoiding these ingredients seems a very sensible option.  However, what should paraben be replaced with?  Now we experience the downside to this debate, cosmetic houses are replacing paraben preservatives with other equally questionable ones, such as DMDM Hydantoin (an antimicrobial formaldehyde releaser preservative) .  As consumers develop more ingredient knowledge and seek safer and more natural paraben alternatives the race is on to find that perfect preservative.

I still believe in this instance the risk of using paraben preservatives is greater than the claimed benefit BUT you would need to choose to switch to a product that offered a real, safe alternative and not dump one toxic and potentially carcinogenic ingredient for another.  Not so simple, unless you choose to support certified organic personal care products – guaranteed to be preserved with ingredients safe for human health.

How to identify parabens on labels:

A list of common parabens along with their synonyms and CAS Numbers has been provided on the NICNAS site, click here to view the report.

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1 Comment on Green Tip: Parabens – endangering human health & our coral reefs

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