Recently, I have received a lot of comments regarding my post on parabens (esters of p-hydroxybenzoic acid), in which I conclude (as does the U.S. FDA) that most paraben-containing skin care products are in fact safe for normal use. However, I have received a multitude of comments from readers since who feel that it is better to be “safe than sorry,” and I also think that is fine: if paraben-free makes you feel most comfortable with your skin care, then please, do what makes you at ease. Yet what really bothered me was when several readers wrote, “I would not use parabens…if I can’t eat it, I wouldn’t put it on my body.” I felt I definitely needed to address this point.
According to the Journal of Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology, the average intake of parabens via food only in the U.S. for infants (younger than 2 years of age) is 1-16 mg/kg of body weight, and the average intake for those older than 2 years of age is approximately 4-6 mg/kg of body weight. It should be noted that these numbers are higher than the amount of parabens absorbed through the skin (50-60 mg/day, verifiable by this calculation, amounting to just 0.64 mg/kg/day for the average 86.6 kg male and 0.74 mg/kg/day for the average 74.5 kg female.) Therefore, food accounts for about ten times the exposure to parabens than average skin care and cosmetic product usages. Fortunately, the sum of these averages are in accordance with the European Union’s recommended daily allowance of no more than 10 mg/kg of body weight per day for methyl, ethyl and propyl p-hydroxybenzoic acid esters and their sodium salts.
It has been reported in the Journal of Applied Toxicology that parabens are allowed to be incorporated in foods in the U.S. in concentrations of up to 0.1%. Concentrations are reported to be higher in foods like cakes, pie crusts, pastries, icings, toppings and fillings (0.03–0.06% of a combination of 3:1 methyl and other parabens) by this article in Food and Chemical Toxicology), amongst other sources. Food Navigator.com reports that additional sources of parabens include “the jelly coatings of meat products, surface treatment of dried meat products, cereal- or potato-based snacks and coated nuts, confectionery (excluding chocolate), and liquid dietary food supplements.” Altogether, these sources add up to an average of 4-6 mg/kg/day for the average American.
However, the role of parabens as carcinogenic, teratogenic, or mutagenic has not been established in humans consuming average concentrations of parabens per day. Many are concerned by reports that parabens may accumulate in breast tissue and induce weak estrogenic activity. Addressing the breast tissue concern, in one major the study, MCF-7 human breast cancer cells are subjected to parabens in one million-fold molar excess, thousands of times beyond the amount of parabens a patient is subjected to in a typical day. Furthermore, numerous natural food products are weakly estrogenic. One excellent list, provided by GaiaResearch.com, includes: “coumestrol (found in clover and alfalfa sprouts, lower concentrations in sunflower seeds, lima bean seeds, pinto bean seeds, and round split peas), genistein (high in soy, lower in other legumes, eg chickpeas) and zearealone (a heat-stable fungal mycotoxin, found in cereals, wheat, grains, and rice)” as weakly estrogenic. In other words, some of the healthiest, most nutrient-rich foods may be weakly estrogenic.
Of course, if you still feel safer avoiding parabens, then feel free to do so. Just be sure that you keep track of the parabens you eat (via foods or pharmaceuticals) as well, as the average American is getting about 10 times the exposure from food sources than from their skin care products or cosmetics.
For more on parabens, please visit my February 15, 2008 post.