Dr. Philippa Darbre was the scientist who set off the paraben controversy in 2004. Parabens are preservatives that are used in cosmetics and personal care products, and the research implied that they were associated with cancer. Many women stopped buying products with parabens, while the big beauty companies denounced the validity of the research. I have often wondered what happened to Darbre and whether she had even followed up her controversial theories. It turns out that she has -- several times -- and her findings are sobering.
Last weekend, I opened a review copy of Toxin Toxout, the new book by Bruce Lourie and Rick Smith, the authors of Slow Death by Rubber Duck. Here, in the very first chapter, was Philippa Darbre. Far from being a discredited recluse (as some in the beauty industry would have us believe) she is a cheerful interviewee for Toxin Toxout's authors and is still conducting and peer review publishing work on parabens (and aluminum for that matter) and cancer. Would her new studies turn out to be as problematic as her first? I couldn't wait to get online and find out.
But first a reminder of her 2004 study and why it caused such a kerfuffle. Well, first it had the misfortune to follow a 2003 study that was flawed by having no control group. The 2004 study found traces of parabens in breast cancer tissues, but the American Cancer Society remains unconvinced to this day, saying: "The researchers looked only for the presence of parabens in breast cancer samples. The study did not show that parabens caused or contributed to breast cancer development in these cases -- it only showed that they were there. What this meant is not yet clear." Interestingly the cancer.org website has not updated to include Darbre's subsequent research.
In 2012, Darbre researched a larger sample and claims that she not only repeated her 2004 results but found that paraben levels in the samples were now four times higher. She also took on the beauty industry's response that some parabens are benign and that anyway they are used in quantities too small to matter. Darbre took a variety of different parabens and in a 2013 study looked at the effect of the cocktail.
Darbre has also looked at the relationship between aluminum and breast cysts and found that aluminum is higher in the fluid of breast cysts than other parts of the body. Aluminum is also found in many deodorants. (Source).
The paraben debate will doubtless continue. In the meantime, it is possible to rid yourself of parabens if you have concerns about them. The authors of Toxin Toxout found two willing guinea pigs in Ray Civello of Alveda and Jessa Blades, a makeup artist, and put them through an ingenious test. First they had to be cosmetic free for 24 hours. Then they had to give up their "green" and clean products and use drug store staples that contained phthalates (another toxic ingredient) and parabens. Urine tests showed that their phthalates and paraben levels increased dramatically in only eight days (detailed results are in Toxin Toxout). The good news is as soon as they stopped using the products, the amounts declined rapidly.