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Parabens: Problematic Preservatives
Many salon products label their formulas as paraben free. Check out Groupon's exploration of why some beauty buffs might want to be paraben free, too.
Sometimes it can seem like the products used at any given salon or skincare studio are as noteworthy for what they don’t include as for what they do. The list of banished chemical bad guys often includes synthetic fragrances, artificial colors, sulfates, phthalates—and parabens. Excluding these is something of a feat: parabens are the most widely used preservatives in the cosmetics world. They help ward off germs and viruses that could make a home in personal-care products, thereby forestalling eye infections, rashes, or simply weird gloopiness. What they do to our bodies is a point of contention: some studies have shown a correlation between parabens and such health effects as cancer and reproductive issues, whereas others have found such risks overblown.
What makes parabens potentially harmful? It’s the fact that the body doesn’t recognize them as parabens at all. Parabens cling to cells' estrogen receptors, thereby mimicking estrogen itself. Though estrogen is a normal, useful hormone that inhabits every human body, it can cause harm in high doses—most notably, a lower sperm count in men and breast cancer in both men and women. If parabens are passing for estrogen, they might be causing these same problems. Some studies bear this out: in 2002, scientists gave parabens to male rats and found that both testosterone and sperm production were lowered after four weeks. And in 2005, a team of researchers found traces of parabens in 19 of the 20 breast-cancer tumors they studied.
These results might not be quite as alarming as they seem. In the rat study, the researchers administered twice as much of the stuff as most people who aren’t on an all-lotion diet consume each day. Furthermore, just because researchers found parabens in tumors does not mean that those tumors were caused by parabens. Another study in 2005 called the likelihood that the parabens we encounter daily could cause any estrogen-related health conditions "biologically implausible" because of government regulations on how much any one product can contain. But if the risks don’t seem worth it, many premium cosmetics and personal-care lines today either contain no preservatives or use natural alternatives, helping the skin look good and the mind rest easy.