Parabens are old-time chemical preservatives – they were first introduced in the 1950s after bacteria-contaminated facial lotions caused a small outbreak of blindness. Today, they are used in a wide range of personal care items – from cosmetics to toothpaste, as well as some foods and drugs.
It is partly because of their stable history that the Food and Drug Administration describes them as safe, at least in the trace amounts – 0.01 to 0.3 percent – found in most consumer products.
However, in recent years, environmental health advocates have challenged that conclusion. Their concerns grew after a 2004 study found paraben compounds in breast cancer tumors.
Parabens are weak estrogen mimics, capable of altering cell growth in culture, and may also act as endocrine disruptors, which can disrupt the normal function of hormones and interfere with development. However Parabens are found in between 13,000 and 15,000 personal care products. A 2006 analysis by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found evidence of parabens in more than 90 percent of people tested, even products like baby lotion that infants may also receive a relatively high dose.