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Ask the Pharmacist: Parabens found in thousands of cosmetics

Suzy Cohen
Columnist

Parabens are a category of preservatives used in cosmetics, medications and foods. If you read labels you’ll see them listed by their name or an E number such as methylparaben (E218), ethylparaben (E214), propylparaben (E216), heptylparaben (E209) and butylparaben.

Parabens may or may not be associated with cancer; there’s a lot of controversy.  It has been reported in the past that parabens are found in 99 percent of breast tumors; however, there is no evidence that they cause breast cancer. Also, keep in mind many issues have to collide in order to develop cancer. There was a 2013 study entitled “Combinations of parabens at concentrations measured in human breast tissue can increase proliferation of MCF-7 human breast cancer cells.” 

Parabens mimic estrogen, the female hormone. They’re sticky, too; they don’t seem to let go of the tissue once inside it. This is why they are best avoided, especially in hormone-driven diseases. 

The argument for parabens is that your foods and personal care items should be resistant to bacteria, mold and yeast, so a preservative is crucial. The food, pharmaceutical and cosmetic industry frequently rely on strong synthetic chemicals like sulfites, propionates, EDTA, formaldehyde, alcohol or a paraben chemical. They are trying to protect us from germs. Here’s how you get exposed:

You eat them. 
It’s common to find parabens in some brands of sauces, chutneys, jams, pickles, ice cream, soft drinks, desserts, broths or processed vegetables and flavoring syrups. Read the labels...you’ll see.

You slather them on.
Whether you use antiperspirants, make up, toothpaste, face creams or moisturizers, you are for sure exposing yourself to parabens. But how many? Is it every product? You do have choices; they are not in everything, so you should begin reading labels and researching. There’s a website that exposes the ingredients of dental products, fragrances, cosmetic and skin care products and much more: Skin Deep. I told you about this site about 12 years ago, and it’s gotten considerably more comprehensive: www.ewg.org/skindeep. I searched the word “paraben” and it picked up over 30,991 products just in its database. It’s easy today to avoid this preservative...you just have to look harder and read labels, but there are trustworthy brands out there. 

You take them unknowingly. 
Parabens are in hundreds of medications as a preservative, but they do not have any pharmacologic activity. They’re commonly found in some ashtma and steroid inhalers. They say parabens are completely absorbed upon ingestion and broken down to para-hydroxybenzoic acid, and metabolites are supposedly sent out from your urine. Depending on who you ask, or what lab test you read, there may be no evidence of accumulation. Parabens are obviously regarded as “safe” by the United States FDA, so I wouldn’t concern yourself with parabens if they’re in your medication(s) since the actual medication itself is just as synthetic as the paraben. You can certainly limit your exposure by looking for products labeled “paraben-free.” Many cosmetics manufacturers have found effective alternatives to parabens to prevent microbial growth in personal care products.

Ask The Pharmacist

Suzy Cohen is a registered pharmacist. The information presented here is not intended to treat, cure or diagnose any condition. Visit SuzyCohen.com.