Parabens and cancer: do I have to worry?

Parabens and cancer are two words that unfortunately are inextricably related. The obsession with parabens and products without PARABENS or PARABEN FREE is increasing. Although this obsession is NOT justified, a very curious term has been coined to define it: parabenoia. Here is a decalogue to lose the fear of parabens:

1. Parabenoia: phobia of parabens

It is the phobia (or also paranoia) of parabens. This word, although it seems curious, is part of the title of a scientific publication in the journal DERMATITIS. The title is:  Parabenoia and demystification, who is afraid of parabens?  In other words, the scientific community is concerned with debunking the myths surrounding parabens because it has gotten out of hand.

2. What are parabens and what are they used for?

Parabens were not born yesterday, nor is it something modern that has been decided to add now to cosmetics: they are chemical compounds that were discovered in 1924. Their function: they are preservatives. They are antimicrobial and antifungal: they serve to prevent bacteria and fungi from proliferating. They have been widely used in industry, mainly in cosmetic products, but also in medicines and food.


3. What foods or cosmetics are parabens in?

For example in cosmetic products, deodorants, shower gels and body creams. Also in sunscreens, which can be unstable and in which it is interesting to introduce preservatives. And as for food, they are in many processed products such as confectionery, pâtés, potato and starch-based snacks (snack bags) or coated nuts. There might even be parabens in fruit in small amounts.

4. Parabens and allergies: where it all started.

Like any compound used in cosmetics, parabens can cause allergies. In the 60s and 70s it was described how its use could cause dermatitis. But since then thousands of studies have been conducted and it appears that these allergic reactions would occur in only 1% of the population. Parabens comparatively do not have a high allergenicity index.

Furthermore, at that time very high concentrations were used and now the permitted concentrations are very low, less than 1%, and the risk of adverse reactions is lower. A maximum of 0.4% is allowed for each paraben and 0.8% of the total of parabens … it would be something “similar” to what happens in airplanes, which do not allow containers of more than 100ml per individual and then not more than a liter in total.

5. Parabens and cancer: when does the controversy arise?

In 2004 a study was published that related the concentration of parabens that had been found in the breast tissue of some people with breast cancer and that was where the hare jumped. Dr. could not demonstrate that parabens found in breast tissue caused cancer, but the fear was already in. Parabens became heap preservatives to be preservatives in the crosshairs, so health authorities took action on the matter and began analyzing parabens to see if they really were as harmful as was being said.

The conclusion was that some parabens, in high doses (thousands of times higher than normal) could work as endocrine disruptors. What does this mean? That they are chemical substances with a structure similar to some hormones and if they were consumed in very high quantities they could act as hormones “confusing” the organism and altering the hormonal balance.

6. Do parabens really cause cancer?

As a result of all the comments, many studies were carried out and although some were contradictory, it was seen that there was a possibility that some would damage the sperm, fertility problems, abortions, precocious puberty … So in different “batches” the European Commission has suppressed some or have changed the allowed limits. They were largely eliminated by a precautionary principle: it is not known for sure if some may be harmful so when in doubt those that were potentially dangerous were dispensed with, and others that were considered safe were kept authorized. For example, in 2014 it was very popular when 5 parabens were banned in the European Union: isopropylparaben and isobutylparaben . and others less used like phenylparaben, benzylparaben or pentylparaben.

7. Are all parabens equally “dangerous”?

We cannot put them all in the same bag. Each type of paraben has a chemical structure with different properties. Simplifying, we could say that the paraben structure is benzene (like a hexagon) and has a chain that follows it. The longer the chain, the easier it dissolves in fat, the more fat soluble it is and also the more dangerous. There have been 4 authorized, which are the smallest in size: methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben and butylparaben. And there is no need to worry, because these four compounds are totally safe.

8. How can we know that the product we are buying does not have “bad” parabens?

Labels can be a true hieroglyph, but in this case it is easy: potentially dangerous parabens are prohibited. If we buy products in establishments that offer us guarantees, there is no problem because they will not contain them.

8. Why are “paraben-free” products advertised as if these products were better?

For marketing. Pure and simple marketing. Chemophobia is in fashion. And thanks to marketing we have a claim that really confuses the consumer. When the parabens we mentioned earlier were banned in Europe, it became clear that there were 4 that could be used. But some companies, MANY companies, decided to totally remove parabens to give a sense of security.

And this is wrong. It can lead to false security because cosmetics need preservatives. If they do not have the appropriate preservatives, bacteria and fungi proliferate because they are a breeding ground between the contamination that is in the environment or the one that we put ourselves when we put the finger in the cream. If they had no preservatives they would expire soon. Or as with some masterful formulas, they should be kept in the fridge.

10.    Why are parabens not substituted by other preservatives?

One of the main advantages of parabens compared to other preservatives that only act in acidic media, is that parabens are active in neutral media (pH 7), which is the pH of many cosmetics. Furthermore, they are very cheap to produce. Imagine that a company eliminates parabens but does not want to raise the price of its product … Among other things because the consumer is also not willing to pay a higher price. What would I do then? Choose another preservative. But sometimes the alternatives that are chosen to replace parabens and that are cheap cannot offer exactly the same functions. Sometimes the alternatives have antibacterial but not antifungal properties, or are more allergenic compounds …

The question is: does it make sense to delete these four types of parabens that have been shown to be safe with other preservatives, which need not be better? Not in my opinion. Unjustified fear leads us to be more papist than the pope and to consume more expensive products, taking refuge in the beneficial halo of “natural” that is neither better nor safer.


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