are parabens bad for your health? (now with gifs!)

Paraben (p-hydroxybenzoic acid)

the molecule that asks the question: Is it spelled “O” OR “OH”?

“The above-mentioned studies have resulted in scientific debate that in turn led to popular controversy largely propagated by mass e-mail”


I love debates that start via email chains. Who doesn’t? Oh, that’s right, people who aren’t idiots. Unless, I guess, they are scientists who are studying why people believe anything contained in a message whose subject line is preceded by “FW: FW: OMG WHAT??!?1 FWD: RE: FWD: there is a deadly disease… IN YOUR HOME.”

Anyway, let’s quickly discuss parabens, because they’re kind of strange. They’re a family of manufactured chemicals that are used as preservatives in weird stuff like makeup, hair care products, shaving products, and other stuff that YOU SHOULD NOT BE EATING. But we are putting it on our skin, so it’s perfectly reasonable to not want it to be dangerous.

Way back in 2004 some science dudes and dudettes (Darbre, Journal of Applied Toxicology) found parabens in a cancerous breast tumor. The study did not show that parabens caused the cancer. It didn’t show that they are harmful in any way. The study didn’t even bother to look at paraben levels in normal tissue. Essentially, this highly cited and oft-quoted study gave us very little to zero useful information on the danger of parabens.

“Parabens cause cancer” is the inference that those who reported on the story wanted a reader or viewer to make. Even worse, it’s one of those stories where reporters cavalierly will imply the above statement without a second thought. Don’t ask me why science reporting is so terrible. It just is. I guess we just have to deal with it.

Since 1984, the Cosmetic Ingredient Review (seriously, this is a thing) has agreed that parabens are safe for use in cosmetic products at levels up to 25%. Nowadays, parabens are typically found at levels ranging from 0.01% to 0.3% — not bad, right? (B-T-dubs, Europe limits a product to contain only 0.4% parabens. Yes, their laws regulating chemicals in everyday products we rub on our skin are better than our laws. Woop-dee-doo.)

So, some doctors found paraben in a tumor. Other ingredients in a tumor include cancer. But parabens aren’t cancer, they’re just a funny looking molecule that fungi don’t like.

And I should know, I am a funguy after all.

Are parabens chemically similar to estrogen? From Elsevier’s journal Food and Chemical Toxicology:

…cosmetics containing parabens do not, on the basis of currently available evidence, pose a health risk; because of the low doses involved and the low probability that parabens will penetrate into the tissue, remain intact, and accumulate there.

The quote specifically refers to estrogenic activity. The effect of butylparaben (the most suspect paraben, due to the length of its alkyl group) was determined to be approximately 100,000 times weaker than that of estradiol, an actual synthetic hormone.

Maybe we could have further research, but these guys are low on my list of personal threats…

This is Dr. Jeff Abrams, from the National Cancer Institute.

He deals with a lot of people who are worried about getting cancer. He’d like you to know that wearing a bra doesn’t cause breast cancer and that antiperspirants don’t cause breast cancer. He’s one of those guys who go around saying things like “these rumors have the potential to do harm.”

He also claims that “…you can stuff your rumurs in a hat, mister!” (ok I made that one up).

But I know what you’re thinking: “But, but… parabens… It’s not a rumour!”

Calm down Arnold. Yes, it’s not a rumor. It’s more akin to an untested and unsupported hypothesis. In simple, non-sciencey language, a hypothesis is the equivalent of a guess.

For example, I could make a guess that if I get 500 people into the basement of the Empire State Building and we all close our eyes and focus and wish and hope then we can raise the entire Building one inch into the air using only the collective powers of our minds. Sounds outrageous, no? Nearly all scientists would agree that it’s false, right? But that’s all it takes to be a hypothesis. This is essentially what the 2004 study is.

So it’s pretty safe to rub that lotion in. Real good. Keep a rubbin’…

Just don’t use gobs and gobs of moisturizer to fashion an ice-cream cone of paraben-rich deliciousness.


Ok, now I am just taunting science.

Anyway, let’s get back to the business at hand

Note that the FDA’s opinion is that there is no reason for consumers to be concerned about the use of cosmetics containing parabens. Of course, the FDA has the same opinion of high fructose corn syrup, and we all know something funny is going on with that. So how are we to know what’s right?

Most likely “everything in moderation” will guide us safely through life (statistically speaking of course).


Except for cat gifs. There are not enough cat gifs in the entire universe.