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Parabens: What are they, and are they really that bad?

Parabens are a common cosmetic ingredient—and, lately, the object of much vilification. Find out what they really are and whether you should be seeking out paraben-free products.

Here is a partial reprint of an article by Anne Mullens that appeared on Best Health magazine's web site.

You may have noticed lately that “paraben free” labels have been popping up on some beauty products at the drugstore and elsewhere. Parabens are the most widely used preservatives in personal care products; they stop fungus, bacteria and other microbes from growing in your favourite creams and makeup, especially in the moist, warm environment of a bathroom.

Their names are a mouthful—methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben and isobutylparaben. You’ll find them listed on thousands of personal care products such as shampoos, mascara, foundations and body lotions. But over the past few years, a debate has been building among scientists, product safety regulators and cosmetic manufacturers about whether these ubiquitous chemicals, used for almost 70 years, may actually be harmful to our health.

 

Some of the questions being asked: Is the rising incidence of breast cancer linked in part to the fact that parabens, which have a weak ability to mimic estrogen, have been found in breast cancer tumours and can be isolated from other body tissues? Are declining sperm counts and increasing rates of male breast cancer and testicular cancer related to the fact that these chemicals can be absorbed into our skin, potentially disrupting our endocrine systems?

 

We don’t know yet. But some researchers feel there may be reason for concern. One of the most vocal is Philippa Darbre, a senior lecturer in oncology and researcher in biomolecular sciences at the University of Reading, in England. She specializes in the impact of estrogen on breast cancer. In 2004, Darbre’s team published a pivotal study that detected parabens in 18 of 20 samples of tissue from breast tumour biopsies. Her study didn’t prove parabens cause cancer, only that they were easily detected among cancerous cells. The study was criticized for not comparing paraben levels in normal tissue, but nevertheless, the results called out for more investigation.

 

“We’ve known for more than 25 years that estrogen exposure is linked to breast cancer development and progression; it is the reason tamoxifen [commonly prescribed to women with breast cancer] is used to disrupt estrogen receptors,” says Darbre. “So it is not such a leap to be concerned that repeated, cumulative, long-term exposure to chemicals that weakly mimic estrogen might be having an impact.”

 

Darbre is particularly concerned about lotions and deodorants being applied under the arms or near the breast, and hasn’t used underarm deodorant herself for 10 years, opting instead to use just soap and water. She notes that research has found that roughly 55 percent of all breast cancer tumours occur in the upper outside portion of the breast, the section closest to the underarm. The U.S. National Cancer Institute has partly dismissed the claim, maintaining that at present, there is no decisive evidence to conclude that the parabens in these products are linked to breast cancer, but that more research is needed.

 See the remainder of the article by clicking on the link below.

Parabens: Evaluating the risks