Should I be worried?

On my way home there was a physician speaking about environmental health and the topic of potential dangers of parabens arose, in my Time Magazine there was a blurb about the fact that Denmark banned parabens in products for children under 3, and finally, as I was reading about breast cancer the study that found parabens in cancerous breast tissue was mentioned.

Since parabens seemed to be at the forefront of my mind lately, I thought I’d focus on these specifically to educate myself.  As I work to “green” my household I wanted to know if I needed to rid my home of these chemicals.

What do parabens do anyway?  Essentially, they function as preservatives to prevent bacteria and fungi from growing in many of your healthcare products.  Without going into organic chemistry, the main paraben structure is altered by adding different chemical groups, varied chain lengths give them their names and chemical activity – methyl, ethyl, propyl, butyl, isobutyl, isopropyl, benzyl etc.

I decided to go through my own medicine cabinet and just about everything had some type of paraben.  Various paraben structures were found in my makeup, face wash, lotion, conditioner, my husband’s hair gel as well as my child’s lotion and toothpaste.

Since Denmark banned parabens in children’s lotions, should I be concerned that they are in my child’s lotion and what about his toothpaste?  What should I tell my patients if they ask me about the risk of breast cancer or what’s the risk for women with a history of breast cancer?

Around 1998 studies began to indicate that parabens had estrogenic activity. Since most breast cancers respond to estrogen, the theoretical link between deodorants and breast cancer surfaced.  In 2004, a study by Philippa Dabre at the University of Reading, Edinborough, found parabens in tissue samples of breast cancer tumors.  However, no control tissue was reviewed, therefore normal breast tissue may be found to have comparable levels of parabens.  The data hasn’t concluded that parabens cause breast tumors, just that they have been found there.

More recently, Denmark banned parabens in children’s products after producing their scientific report.  This review was conducted by The European Union and published in 2010 and is where the following studies were cited from.   They concluded that there wasn’t convincing data to prove parabens cause breast cancer but they were concerned enough about unknown effects in developing children.

They found that parabens are both estrogenic and anti-androgenic.  The longer the chain, it appears the higher the potency.  However, all were still well below positive controls receiving 17 Beta-estradiol, a potent estrogen. In addition to the estrogenic activity, adverse effects were noted on sperm production and testosterone levels in male rats (a cited study by Oishi).  The review also concluded that dermal absorption and metabolism between rodents and humans likely differ (Fasano 2004).  Seemingly, parabens are safer to eat.  When they are eaten they degrade and their estrogenic properties decrease.  That makes my child’s toothpaste less concerning than his lotion.

They deemed simpler groups such as Methylparabens (they are found in blueberries) and Ethylparabens as effectively harmless.  This report concluded the use of Butylparaben and Propylparaben as preservatives in finished cosmetic products as safe as long as the sum of their individual concentrations does not exceed an allotted amount.  Limited to no information was available to evaluate Isopropyl-, Isobutyl-, Phenylparaben, Benzylparaben and Pentylparaben. Therefore, human risk couldn’t be determined.  Given, the lack of scientifically sound data on the link between dermal absorption in different species, final conclusions are difficult.  Additional data and studies are required regarding metabolism of the compounds in human skin.  Another problem is the “sum” of the concentrations, since so many products contain parabens, what is the “sum” that we absorb?

So, to my patients who ask about parabens and their breast cancer risk I’d say there are other, more concerning estrogenic contributors to breast cancer risk.  Being overweight or taking hormone therapy is more likely to increase estrogenic influence on breast cancer risk.  However, because of the apparent estrogenic activity, even weak, it is possible that the cumulative exposure to estrogenic chemicals in our environment, of which parabens are only a few, may contribute to one’s cumulative risk.

Because of the limited data on the more complex parabens and complex endocrine issues that may arise from exposure for younger children, Denmark made the choice to ban them for children under 3.  For myself, I am also choosing to ban them from our home any products with parabens.  Given that it is so prominent in healthcare products, it is the “sum” effect of using a variety of products with these chemical substances that I am concerned about.  As the European Union’s review determined, “as long as their individual concentrations do not exceed an allotted amount” they are permitted in final products.  Because they are so pervasive it seems that use in our daily lives could exceed that allotted amount.