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Health Beat: Reading the Labels

Concern rises over effects of parabens

by Julie Deardorff, Tribune health and fitness reporterChicago Tribune
September 4th, 2007

Chicago Tribune

A vigilant label reader, 36-year-old Karen Altschul of Vernon Hills has known her favorite lotions and sunscreens contained parabens, or synthetic chemicals used as preservatives. But now that she routinely sees products at Sephora touted as "paraben-free," she wonders: "What, exactly, are parabens, and are they dangerous?"

Those are questions more consumers are asking now that "paraben-free" offerings have hit the mainstream; products made by Burt's Bees, which never has used parabens, are available everywhere from Whole Foods and Target to Borders, CVS, Walgreens and even Hallmark stores.

For years, parabens (methyl, ethyl, propyl and benzyl) have been considered a cheap and indispensable way to inhibit the growth of bacteria, yeasts and molds in personal-care products such as shampoos, conditioners, deodorants and sunscreens. Parabens are why products can survive the three-month boat trip from China, sit on store or warehouse shelves for years or be exposed to extreme temperatures.

But studies have shown that some parabens can mimic the activity of the hormone estrogen in the body's cells. Estrogenic activity in the body is associated with certain forms of breast cancer. And parabens are turning up in breast tumors.

What further concerns some scientists is that parabens aren't the only potential endocrine disrupter out there. Breast tissue and breast milk are exposed to a range of chemicals, including pesticides and polychlorinated biphenyls.

In the blood and urine

New research, meanwhile, has shown that parabens can be measured in human urine. And a recent Danish study showed that when parabens are applied as a cream to the backs of healthy male volunteers, the chemicals can be measured in the blood within hours.

"This demonstrates that parabens do indeed penetrate the human skin from cosmetic products," said University of Reading researcher Philippa Darbre, whose research team was the first to detect parabens in human tissue. Her controversial 2004 study detected parabens in 18 of 20 samples of tissue from human breast tumors, but it did not show that they cause cancer.

"Whether parabens cause any harm in the body remains unknown," said Darbre, who wants to know whether the use of underarm cosmetics might be a factor or cause in the rising incidence of breast cancer. "But I think that there is no doubt that parabens do get into the human body intact, something that was previously dismissed as impossible and why our study was so controversial."

The Food and Drug Administration says parabens have much less estrogenic activity than the body's naturally occurring estrogen and has deemed parabens safe, which is why companies such as the Swiss firm Alchimie Forever continue to use them.

"With such a track record of safety and efficacy as preservatives and anti-bacterial agents, parabens are a much better choice than their alternatives, which have not been investigated to the same degree and which have not yet been proven," said Alchimie Forever founder Ada Polla. "Furthermore, such alternatives tend to affect the texture of the product in negative ways."

But critics say the FDA does not have the authority to approve most cosmetic ingredients. And though the FDA's Cosmetic Ingredient Review assessed the chemicals in 1984 and 2005 and found them safe, the CIR is an industry-sponsored organization; the FDA participates in a non-voting capacity.

Natural effectiveness

Burt's Bees, which is trying to salvage the word "natural" and uses synthetic ingredients only when viable alternatives don't exist, says there is enough evidence to suggest that they are potential endocrine disrupters.

"Natural preservative systems are available and equally effective; we've been using them since the early 1990s," said Burt's Bees chief marketing officer Mike Indursky.

And though it's more difficult and expensive to formulate paraben-free products, proponents say it's better for the body and the planet. "Our mission is to formulate products from ingredients that don't create environmental pollution problems when the ingredients are manufactured or when the products are used, washed down bathtub drains into our waterways and ultimately our drinking water," said Diana Kaye, co-founder of Terressentials, which produces natural and organic personal-care products.

Darbre, for one, still suspects that parabens are linked to breast cancer, but until she has solid proof, she recommends reducing or cutting out the use of cosmetic products around the arm and around the breast, rather than switching to other products or targeting individual chemicals.

"I have not used these underarm cosmetics for over 10 years now," she said. "I wash with soap and water twice a day, and no one has yet complained."