Dear Sex Counselor,
I keep hearing about the dangers of parabens, but it seems like so many products contain them, including lubricants. Are parabens really that bad? Should I avoid parabens just to be on the safe side?
A Woman's Touch is dedicated to the sexual health and pleasure of our customers. Because we promote knowledge of sexual health we are frequently asked about the ingredients used in the products we carry, or why we do not carry certain products.
We research those issues very carefully, in order to address the varied needs of our customers, many of whom are referred to us by medical providers because of chemical sensitivities, allergic reactions, autoimmune disorders, hormonal issues and/or cancer treatment. We are confident that the products we carry are safe and effective for their intended purpose, though not every product we carry is suitable for every customer.
One ingredient group we receive frequent questions about is Parabens. There is much misinformation and misunderstanding available on the internet regarding the estrogenic effects of parabens, and concerns that they may contribute to breast cancer.
What are parabens?
Parabens (i.e. methyl paraben, butyl paraben, ethyl paraben, propyl paraben) are used to inhibit the growth of fungus and bacteria in cosmetic products. They are sometimes used in combination to reduce the total amount necessary to be effective. US safety standards allow them to make up as much as 25% of the total product, though in practical use most products contain far less than that, usually less than 1%. (Liquid Silk, for instance, contains less than .04%).
Parabens have been used in cosmetic, pharmaceutical and food products for decades. They have a long history of being effective, non-toxic, non-irritating and non-sensitizing (except to the small percentage of the population who are allergic to them, which is true of any substance). While the parabens used in cosmetics are synthetically produced, parabens are naturally occurring substances. Methyl paraben, for instance, is found in blueberries.
Misinformation About Parabens
What makes the paraben issue particularly confusing is that it is based on two wildly exaggerated study findings:
First, in 2004, a single small study attempting to link antiperspirants to breast cancer found parabens in 18 of 20 tumors tested. However, there was no attempt to determine whether parabens also existed in healthy tissues, or in any greater percentage of women with cancer than without, nor whether they had any effect on the development or progression of the cancer. The study was too small and contained too little information to draw any useful conclusions about the source or significance of the parabens that were found, including whether the source of the parabens may have been paraben-containing medications used in the treatment of those tumors. No followup study has ever been published.
Second, it has been shown that parabens have a weak estrogenic effect. What is almost never pointed out, however, is that the most potent paraben used in commercial application is 10,000 times less estrogenic than the estrogens that naturally occur in your body, and even then, the effect was only seen at dosages 25,000 times larger than the maximum allowable exposure in a cosmetic product. Parabens, in the amounts found in cosmetics and lotions, are far less estrogenic than many foods (including soy products) and the phthalate-containing plastics found in household products and clothing.
Both the American Cancer Society and the US Food & Drug Administration have published position papers refuting the exaggerated dangers, and clarifying that there is no scientific evidence that parabens are dangerous or carcinogenic (see Resources, below for links).
Problems with Paraben Alternatives
While eliminating parabens "to be on the safe side" may seem like a good idea, it is important to consider what would replace them. Many products that are labelled as "paraben-free" replace the parabens with chemicals that release known carcinogens like benzene or formaldehyde. Many of these chemicals will only work at a pH unsuitable for genital use, or are not proven effective.
As a result of our research, and our experience with thousands of customers over the years, we have determined that the benefits of the lubricants we carry far outweigh any potential risks from the tiny amounts of parabens used to keep them fresh. We are confident that these products are safe and effective.
However, we do understand that some customers have concerns, and we want our customers to feel confident in the products they purchase. If you decide you prefer a lubricant that does not contain parabens, our Pleasure Specialists can assist you in identifying which of our lubricants may be a more suitable choice for you.
For a more detailed explanation and scientific references, please see our article "Are Parabens Safe" at http://www.awomanstouchonline.com/dr_myrtle.php?articleID=2999
http://www.melaleuca.com/wc/pdf/Ingredient_Myths.pdf: An excellent article describing ways legitimate medical and scientific studies are twisted to mislead and frighten people for commercial gain. Specifically discusses several commonly vilified ingredients.
FDA Statement on the Safety of Parabens: http://www.fda.gov/Cosmetics/ProductandIngredientSafety/SelectedCosmeticIngredients/ucm128042.htm
American Cancer Society position on parabens: http://www.cancer.org/docroot/MED/content/MED_6_1x_Antiperspirants.asp
"Final amended report on the safety assessment of Methylparaben, Ethylparaben, Propylparaben, Isopropylparaben, Butylparaben, Isobutylparaben, and Benzylparaben as used in cosmetic products." in the International Journal of Toxicology, 2008 (Int J Toxicol. 2008;27 Suppl 4:1-82.) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19101832
Wikipedia article on parabens: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paraben