Parabens refer to a group of chemicals that are widely used in the cosmetic and food industry as preservatives.
Synthetic parabens are derivatives of naturally occurring para-hydroxybenzoic acid, which is found in wine and some produce to prevent the growth of harmful mold and bacteria.
These synthetic parabens are cheap to manufacture and exist in tons of cosmetic and food items, typically listed as methylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben, isobutylparaben and ethylparaben. In fact, you’ll find that 90% of your grocery items likely have parabens.
What’s the Big Deal?
The debate around parabens largely circulates around the idea that, while individual items may have low levels of parabens, repeated and continuous exposure from a variety of sources can impact the body’s reproductive system.
Imagine your morning routine: stepping into the shower to shampoo and condition, using toothpaste, face wash, moisturizer, maybe even taking a prescription with parabens to increase its shelf stability. This is not one exposure, and it is not limited to a unique circumstance. This is daily life.
Potential Bodily Harm
Parabens that enter the body dermally or orally are quickly metabolized and excreted in a lesser volume through urine. According to a 2010 study, “little intact paraben can be recovered in blood and urine.” While the CDC openly states that “Finding a measurable amount of one or more parabens in urine does not imply that the levels cause an adverse health effect”, multiple studies have found correlations between parabens and decreased fertility as displayed by decreased length of menstrual cycle.
In a 2017 study, butylparaben levels in a mother’s cord blood and urine were linked with a higher chance of premature birth and lower birth weight. A 2016 study conducted on rats showed parabens to negatively impact both male and female reproductive systems.
For males, a lower sperm count and testosterone are indicative of hormone disruption. There is still a gap in research on human male reproductive harm due to paraben exposure.
The U.N. Environment Programme has grouped parabens as endocrine-disrupting chemicals, and there is mounting concern over their estrogenic properties. In addition to fertility issues, endocrine-disrupting chemicals can mimic estrogen in the body, potentially increasing the risk of breast cancer.
Philippa Darbre’s 2004 study is famously referenced for noting the presence of parabens in breast tissue and making a loose association between underarm deodorant and this sensitive area, although that correlation was not their primary intention.
Naturally, this study and Darbre’s continuous work on the subject sparked some panic in the public. Critics emerged to counter the 2004 study, including an opinion piece published by the European Commission of Health & Consumer Protection.
The authors argued that the study did not explore carcinogenic properties of parabens and therefore can not assume that presence of parabens in cancerous breast tissue is related. The study was also very small and focused only on women with breast cancer, therefore omitting a critical control group.
Robb-Nicholson of the Harvard Medical School agreed that the 2004 study didn’t prove that parabens cause breast cancer. He also argued that the authors didn’t look for parabens in other tissues of the body, so we can’t assume that parabens are only present in cancerous tissues.
More recent studies have elaborated on the known presence of parabens in breast cancer tissue by illustrating that lower levels of exposure can be more harmful than previously explored. Even these studies call for more research to take place on the potential effects of parabens in the body, as their full impact on the intricacies of hormonal health is still unknown.
Parabens in the Environment
A 2015 study discovered a staggering level of parabens in the livers of bottlenose dolphins off the Florida coast. Polar bears and sea otters also contained parabens in their tissues, all off the coasts of Alaska, California and Washington. Low levels of butylparaben have been proven to kill coral in laboratory tests and parabens have been detected in sediment and water in the wild.
Another 2015 study explored the persistent nature of chlorinated parabens, which appear to be more stable and have been found in swimming pools and wastewater. While parabens may display in low levels, their constant use and influx into the environment is something that has been largely unregulated.
Aren’t Chemicals Regulated?
The European Union has reduced the allowable concentration of propylparaben and butylparaben when used individually and in tandem with other preservatives. The EU also banned over 1,300 questionable chemicals, including other variations of parabens, while the United States has banned only 11.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not have regulations that apply solely to preservatives in cosmetics, and cosmetics do not need to be approved by the FDA prior to launching. However, all cosmetic products on the market are required to list ingredients truthfully on their labels.
Many brands tout being paraben-free, along with a list of other potentially harmful chemicals. While the science can be contentious and the regulations slim, any product with questionable chemicals is likely better to avoid.
The Environmental Working Group has a database to vet beauty products for consumers. It’s free to use and gives a rating to thousands of items based on their transparency and chemical composition. While the FDA continues to rule parabens as “safe,” they are constantly monitoring new publications indicating their potential harm.
If you’re trying to avoid unnecessary chemicals in your daily products, check your labels and opt for a more natural, preservative-free option. These items might have a shorter shelf-life, but you can take comfort in knowing that these products are fresh and paraben-free
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