Is paraben research sensationalised?

By Belinda Carli, Director, Institute of Personal Care Science

- Last updated on GMT

Is paraben research sensationalised?
Research can be used to support amazing and important findings – it can also unfortunately be taken the wrong way before a true causative relationship is established, to create fear.

There has been some recent research that has shown a relationship between higher urinary levels of butyl paraben associated with specific types of chromosomal abnormality. However, it is far too early to use this statement to jump to conclusions that personal care product inputs are to blame. Let’s take a look at why we need to more critically analyse the results of these studies, and how they should be taken into context; more importantly, what are the next questions we should be asking and how should we be investigating those questions to get more conclusive answers?

Research is almost always useful

First, let me clarify – I’m not knocking the work done by Joanna Jurewicz and her team – in fact, they used validated methods to quantify paraben levels in a broad range of urine samples. And, they have noted in their report that this is one of the first studies into the observation of a relationship between parabens and semen quality and that further work is needed. Those are all scientifically valid approaches to investigate a potential relationship and response to the results they found. It’s how the general consumer might take those statements, in light of the misrepresentation of parabens used in personal care, that is the problem.

Without good research using validated methods to investigate potential relationships, a hypothesis can neither be proven or disproven, and we can’t know what else to investigate. The point is, research is almost always useful – but not normally suitable to use to draw conclusions of wider relationships at such an early stage.

What questions does this research raise?

Parabens are widespread in cosmetics, foods, therapeutics and even beverages. The potential absorption through ingestion is far, far greater than when used topically, and the ability of an individual to absorb, digest and metabolise a chemical also varies. So, this research showed that those men with higher urinary levels of butyl paraben had associated chromosomal abnormality, but it then raises additional questions that need investigating such as:

  • What sources of parabens were these individuals exposed to – was a robust review done of the foods, medicines, cosmetics and beverages that they used? If not, then it is impossible to draw a conclusion that it is the parabens in their personal care being a major – or even potential – contributor to this relationship.
  • What were the levels of parabens they were exposed to – could it be that some men metabolised the parabens more readily than others, or is it related to their exposure? Which also brings us back to the first question, above, if relevant and not a metabolic relationship.
  • Chromosomal abnormalities in sperm are not necessarily the result of paraben exposure – was age, other dietary or medical conditions checked to disclude the possibility of another relationship present in the test group? What if there was an age or metabolic issue with metabolism of parabens (and/or other chemicals in the body, through dietary, medical or other use) rather than the levels or sources of parabens?
  • If there is a metabolic issue that impacts their excretion of parabens, could there be another health issue causing the chromosomal abnormality too?

As you can see, a relationship may be found but it doesn’t give us a true picture of where or how this relationship has occurred; and it could just be an indication of something else happening in the body that needs further investigation instead.

What research is there to prove paraben safety in cosmetics?

Regulatory agencies around the world have been more than diligent to investigate the safety of parabens as used in cosmetics. Regulatory limits have been set to help ensure consumer safety even when using multiple products containing parabens. These regulatory agencies are Government agencies – the same agencies that put out health research and funding, so they aren’t going to let a nation get sick from using personal care if they then have to fund preventative and recuperative health strategies!

If you are looking for more detailed evaluations of safety, you can refer to multiple evaluations put out by the Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety (SCCS) opinions, which are put out by the European Commission. They have done multiple evaluations over the years to determine the relative safety of parabens as used in cosmetics, including disproving any concerns regarding the use of parabens, underarm cosmetics and breast cancer.

Read more here:

How should a consumer take this research, and the use of parabens?

As the research authors have suggested, further work is needed to investigate this relationship before drawing conclusions. In light of the significant body of work that has also been conducted in the past by Government agencies, parabens should be considered safe as used within regulatory limits established.

People purchase personal care for one of two main reasons: fear or hope. Fear will lead to avoidance of an ingredient or product; while hope will lead someone to want to use a product or ingredient. The fear of a substance will always impact a purchasing decision more than hope, and it’s unfortunate that consumers may jump to conclusions when they read about the results of a study before wondering what those results may actually mean.

Unless a true causative relationship is found between the parabens used specifically in personal care, at the inputs they are limited to and in the correct manner of use, then the regulatory limits and research done to support those regulatory limits should be a reassuring factor to consumers as to the diligence of our Governments to uphold consumer safety.

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