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Question Everything

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When I was younger, I thought I knew everything, but as I got older, I realized there is more and more I didn’t know and I became more apt to readily admit this—but I do think the ability to recognize incongruities improves.

Consumers (and people in general) often take reports published in the media as fact, often trusting their gut over the brain and not questioning what’s behind those findings. This blind trust, in our industry’s case, has led to the omission of many cosmetic ingredients from products deemed unsafe by questionable scientific sources. We create paradoxes for ourselves, and it impacts what and how we sell and purchase. To that end, I’d simply like to share an excerpt of an Aug. 8, 2014, NPR blog post (What Are Those Parabens Doing In My Tortilla?) written by Neda Ulaby.

Parabens are chemical preservatives, and I’ve spent years trying to avoid them in beauty products and sunscreen. But to be honest, I’m not even sure why. Probably, I read someplace it was a good idea, and when you’re living in a world so awash in mysterious chemicals and antibiotics, it just seemed like an easy thing to control.

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But I discovered that parabens are in all kinds of food. Scientists in Albany, N.Y., found them in 90 percent of the food they bought in local markets — they wrote about it in a 2013 study published by the journal Environmental Science & Technology.

So how much should we worry about parabens? I called Dr. Mokoto Mukai, who studies food safety at Cornell University, to find out. She told me that most of the concerns about parabens in food arose from a 2004 study published in the Journal of Applied Toxicology. But she wasn’t all that impressed with the findings, which claimed a link between breast tumors and the concentration of parabens in the tissues.

“You see a lot of shampoos and beauty products advertising now as paraben-free because of the media attention that study received, not because of the science itself,” she said.

The problem with the study, Mukai said, is that it didn’t compare the tumorous tissue to normal breast tissue, to see if similar concentrations of parabens could be found there, too. And she said the researchers only examined tissues in one part of the breast — the part nearest to the armpit. “So their suggestion was that deodorant was causing breast tumors,” she said. “Because they didn’t have a patient without a breast tumor, they didn’t have a control group. So that [research] doesn’t really tell us anything.” Mukai said some parabens are naturally occurring. They act as antimicrobial agents in some fruits, wine and other edible plants.

When I asked her why we need to add synthetic ones to our food, Mukai said, well, parabens are cheap. As a preservative, they get lots of food to lots of people who need it.

“Parabens have been used for more than 50 years ... and they are safe,” she said. She said no direct link has ever been found between parabens and cancer. But more research needs to be done, she said, to understand whether they have any effect on health.

I think we should question everything, and in the case of parabens, the questions have been valid. What do we do when the most vocal conclusions aren’t valid? I’m not entirely sure, but I believe reinforcing those conclusions have limited benefits.

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