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This group of chemicals are used as preservatives in cosmetics, and are antibacterial agents in some antibacterial toothpastes. Four main parabens are in use: methyl, ethyl, propyl and butylparabens; many products will have 2 or more of these chemicals as part of a preservative system. As preservatives in cosmetics are on the label in the EU it is easy to find out which products contain these chemicals.

Oestrogenic effects

In late 1998 John Sumpter's group at Brunel University, UK, published a paper identifying parabens as oestrogen mimics (Routledge et al., 1998). The authors state:

"Given their use in a wide range of commercially available topical preparations, it is suggested that the safety in use of these chemicals should be reassessed, with particular attention being paid to estimation of the actual levels of systemic exposure of humans exposed to these chemicals. The acquisition of such data is a prerequisite to the derivation of reliable estimates of the possible human risk of exposure to parabens."

In a screen with a human estrogen receptor expressed by yeast cells the potency of the parabens group was butylparaben>propylparaben>ethylparaben>methylparaben. When methylparaben and butylparaben were injected into immature or ovariectomized rats, butylparaben led to an increase in uterus weights (an oestrogenic effect), whereas methylparaben had no detectable effect.

Another study examining effects on excurrent ducts of the rat testis through puberty to adulthood found no effects from butylparabens (Fisher et al, 1999); however this used much lower doses than the Routledge work.

Industry response

The European Cosmetic Toiletry and Perfumery Association COLIPA stated that the Routledge work was 'irrelevant' as 'Parabens are hydrolysed in the skin and we have data to show that none are entering the blood stream', and said that the Industry had no plans to follow up the work.

Professor Sumpter replied that

'What we really want to know is what effects may come from low exposures over a long period of time. That is the realistic exposure mechanism' (ENDS, 1999a).

AstraZeneca toxicologist Dr John Ashby, who is very engaged in the science and policy debates on endocrine disruption, said at a conference in March that he had decided not to use parabens-containing products on his young daughter (ENDS, 1999b).

This page was last updated in October 1999
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ENDS, 1999a. Cosmetics and food preservatives are oestrogenic, study finds. ENDS Report 288, p4.

ENDS, 1999b. Industry glimpses new challenges as endocrine science advances. ENDS Report 290, p26-30.

Fisher, J. S., Turner, K. J., Brown, D. and Sharpe, R. M. 1999. Effect of neonatal exposure to estrogenic compounds on development of the excurrent ducts of the rat testis through puberty to adulthood. Environmental Health Perspectives 107, p397-405.

Routledge, E. J., Parker, J., Odum, J., Ashby, J. and Sumpter, J. P. 1998. Some alkyl hydroxy benzoate preservative (parabens) are estrogenic. Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology 153: 12-19.

URL: http://website.lineone.net/~mwarhurst/parabens.html