The controversy around parabens is derived from a 2004 piece of research done by the University of Reading, U.K., in which scientists took biopsies of breast tumors and found parabens inside. This formed the basis of a theory that parabens, which can weakly mimic the hormone estrogen, can disrupt hormones and increase the risk of breast cancer. However, the study has since been widely criticized. It was pointed out that the researchers involved did not examine healthy tissue for traces of parabens, and also could not guarantee that the equipment used to conduct the study had been cleaned using paraben-free materials.
Evaluating the 2004 conclusions, and subsequent studies led by the same chief researcher, European safety body The Scientific Committee of Consumer Safety, concluded that there was insufficient data to establish a link between the use of underarm cosmetics and breast cancer. Rachel Rawson, Senior Clinical Nurse Specialist at Breast Cancer Care agrees. “There is currently no conclusive evidence to suggest that the use of products containing parabens is directly linked to the development of breast cancer,” she says.
In fact, parabens have been subjected to such rigorous testing that experts now believe that they are safer than other synthetic alternatives. “I feel absolutely sure that parabens are safe,” says Dr. Edmund Fowles of EF Chemical Consulting Ltd. “As a result of all the fuss about the potential risks, there has been exhaustive research, which has covered all angles. Paraben-free cosmetics simply use a different type of preservative, which will have been much less rigorously researched, so how can we say that it’s better?”
Of the 75,000 metric tons of synthetic preservatives used in 2015, only 17 percent were parabens. “The other 83 percent, we know very little about,” says Lush co-founder and product inventor Helen Ambrosen.
Take formaldehyde, for example. This colorless, strong-smelling gas has antiseptic qualities which prevent microorganisms from growing, and is used to preserve biological specimens in the lab. Formaldehyde is also put to use as a disinfectant in household products, cosmetics, medicines and as a resin hardener in building materials. In strong concentrations, formaldehyde has been shown to irritate the airways, which has caused concern in recent years. Some preservatives work by breaking down to release formaldehyde in the product.
Another alternative is methylisothiazolinone, an antimicrobial substance used in cosmetic preservation, moisturizers and baby products. This less effective preservative has to be used in higher quantities and is increasingly causing skin allergies.
Proven safe alternatives to parabens, then, are limited. As D.C. Steinberg wrote in “Cosmetics & Toiletries: Preservatives for Cosmetics” (1996), “the ideal preservative does not—and probably cannot—exist.”
Dr. Stefanie Williams of European Dermatology London puts parabens into perspective, explaining: “Parabens have a long history of safe use and are very commonly used in skincare. They are well established skincare preservatives and, for the vast majority of customers, won’t cause any problems. In very few people, parabens might cause contact allergies, although that’s rare compared to their widespread use.”
Although confident that the materials are safe for use, Ambrosen, who has been developing preserved and self-preserving products since 1982, is keen to reduce the amount of synthetic preservatives used on environmental grounds (as well as for human health). “Synthetic preservatives that are available to the cosmetic industry, like parabens, stop things decaying in the environment” she says. “So when people use them, they are going down into water systems and so on. There’s an argument for preserving products with materials like honey, which will not harm the environment in any way as they will break down naturally.”