Chemical of the Week 13 – Parabens

imageThere is a lot of cosmetic marketing based around the tag line ‘ no chemicals ‘ but of course what they really mean is ‘no parabens’. So the big question is what is a paraben ? Parabens are a family of compounds based around esters made from 4-hydroxybenxoic acid. The most common being used are methylparaben, ethylparaben, n-propylparaben, n-butylparaben and isobutylparaben. The ‘para’ in the name comes from the 4 position of the hydroxy group in relationship to the acid group which is referred to as para ( two is ortho, three is meta ). These compounds are nowadays obtained by industrial synthesis, however they can be found in plants such as blueberries or in grapefruit where they act as antimicrobial agents. They are made synthetically by the esterification of para-hydroxybenzoic acid with a corresponding alcohol such as methanol – this can be linked to the A2 course through both the esters and organic synthesis topics.

Parabens are used because they are very good preservatives and prevent the degradation of the cosmetics. They are found in most common cosmetics including face creams, toothpaste, shaving foams and under arm deodorants. There have been some reports on the safety of parabens, in particular in under arm deodorants, as they have been linked to breast cancer. The worry over their safety has been in the public domain since a scientific report in 2004 which reported parabens being present in the breast tissue of cancer patients. The paraben molecule has some similarity to oestrogen and the worry is that they can latch on to hormone receptor sites in the body. This may cause the increase in the expression of oestrogen response genes in human cells and could lead to increasing breast cell division and the growth of tumors.

Legally the European Union have acted and regulations limiting concentrations of butylparaben and propylparaben in cosmetics products have taken effect from April 2015. The new requirements set a maximum concentration of 0.14 percent for the two in addition to banning their use in certain infant creams. This legislation illustrates the problems that the chemical industry face – is it being driven by hard science or by public opinion ? Looks like in the meantime it’s the cosmetics and toiletries companies who are winning as they sell us ‘paraben free’ goods which tend to be more costly.  And by the way ‘chemical free’ there’s a world I’d like to live in – oh but that would be a vacuum then !


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