In April 2014, five long-chain parabens: isopropylparaben, isobutylparaben, phenylparaben, benzylparaben and pentylparaben were banned by the European Commission, under the recommendations of the Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety [Regulation (EU) No.358/2014]. Companies were given six months to place (new) compliant products on the market – deadline was October 30 2014, and fifteen to withdraw the existing non-compliant ones – action to have been undertaken by the 30thof July 2015.
In October 2014, new restrictions were imposed on butylparaben and propylparaben whose maximum allowed concentration has been lowered to 0.14% (as esters), “when used individually or together”. In addition, the two have been prohibited in leave-on products intended for the nappy area of children under three years of age. All new products made available to the consumers after the 16th of April 2015 have had to comply with the new requirements, whilst the cosmetics already placed on the market could still be marketed until the 16th of October 2015.
The EC’s decision is much related to the 2011 Danish ban concerning products designed for children under three, after which the SCCS was asked to investigate further.
However, the whole controversy surrounding parabens is not recent news and has arisen from an assumed critical endocrine-disrupting activity and endocrine-related toxicity of propyl and butylparaben and their iso compounds, and of benzylparaben (according to the SCCS, “these properties appeared to increase with increasing chain length”).
The debate has commenced in 2004, when three medical reports formulated by an oncologist stating to have found parabens in human breast cancer tissue were published. Even though the results had never been supported by any of the global scientific communities, the media rapidly embraced the story. The outcome? Consumer hysteria and consternation. On a global scale.
We all know that, while parabens might indeed have an “oestrogen-like” effect, those added to cosmetic formulations cannot go any deeper than the stratum corneum. Parabens are also easily metabolized so the body can get rid of them very quickly. They are present in cucumber, vanilla, olives, onion, carrots, they can be found in insects and animals, as well as in a precursor of coenzyme Q10 in humans – the para-hydroxybenzoate (parabens are esters of para-hydroxybenzoic acid). Even though the study might have indeed found that parabens can accumulate in tissues and that there might be a risk associated with them, no connection with the development of malign tumors could be established.
They have been successfully used for decades for the preservation of foods and personal care products, due to their low cost, low toxicity, versatility, efficiency and tolerance rate. Since 2005, parabens have been evaluated by the Scientific Committee Consumer Safety various times. This final decision relating to their use in cosmetics was adopted on a worst-case-scenario hypothesis, as potential risk to human health could not be assessed due to inconclusive or lack of data.
This might have been one of the worst decisions ever made in regards to the restricted and prohibited cosmetic ingredient lists, since the catalogue of safe preservatives is not very generous as it is anyway; besides, I cannot see any movement towards providing innovative and safer alternatives. Even if, while the science evolves rapidly, it is still going to take years, maybe even decades, to complete assessments on the safety of new, innovative preservatives.
Meanwhile, people are encouraged to purchase paraben-free products, obviously by “free-from” advocating companies. It is hard to change the general consumer’s perception taking into account that the majority does not have the qualification to understand the science behind cosmetic ingredients, but I trust it won’t take long before they realize that free-from-parabens products are not necessarily better alternatives. Just because a product does not contain a paraben, it does not make it a healthier, more efficient, or a safer choice, as it can contain a series of much more dangerous ingredients disguised under the “free-from a, b, c” message on the label.
Looking forward to the day the Commission will take serious action against “free from” claims made by companies that take advantage of the lack of knowledge amongst consumers and of the fact that the legislation is very unclear in regards to the matter. But, well, that’s another story. In the meantime, we can only hope that the common user will also start making more informed choices. In the end, we should all avoid everything we have health concerns about, but what I cannot agree with is companies promoting paraben, silicon and other “chemical”-free products as a safe option, when we all know that, in most cases, this is just a marketing strategy to attract clients, increase sales and improve reputation.
More about the science behind this debate below (SCCS Opinion on Parabens, adopted in December 2010 and revised in March 2011):