Every day we are constantly bombarded with with headlines, articles and people giving us advice on what we should and shouldn’t be doing for our health. Often one article seems to directly contradict the one you read last week. It’s a struggle to keep up with whats good and whats not. If you’re like me a lot of it goes in one ear and out the other. Sometimes you will see “paraben free” written on a cosmetic bottle. I never went to too much trouble to avoid them though – mostly because I never bothered to educate myself about why they were something one should steer clear of. I recently took the time to educate myself on this matter. Here is what I learned.
What is a paraben anyway?
Parabens are a preservative found in cosmetics, pharmaceuticals and also many food products. They have bacterial and fungicidal properties. Without some sort of preservative your cosmetics would become overloaded with bacteria, fungus and mould which would firstly be gross and also potentially cause infections. The mode of action of parabens is actually not fully understood- it is thought to be disrupting membrane transport processes in cells or inhibiting cells from making DNA and RNA (which cells need to do in order to divide and multiply). There are many different forms of parabens but look out for these ones in particular on your lotion, shampoo, antiperspirant/deodorant, suncream, perfume and baby products etc.- methylparaben or E218, ethylparaben or E214, propylparaben E216, butylparaben, heptylparaben or E209.
Where would I find parabens?
Parabens are everywhere. Recent studies show that parabens are found in 99% of leave on cosmetic products and 74% of wash off ones. Estimates vary but certainly the vast majority of cosmetics (75-90%) contain some parabens. Staggeringly, cosmetics and the chemicals they contain are less regulated and under less stringent testing than other chemicals we are exposed to. This is particularly alarming because cosmetics represent the most common form of chemical exposure for most of us. Adverse reactions to chemicals in cosmetics are surprisingly high at 17.4% for men and 26.5% for women according to one study.
Should I worry about parabens? Why?
Another place to find parabens? In you! It is well established that parabens are present in human urine and serum. They are so prevalent that they have even been found in household dust. When ingested, parabens are broken down into metabolites. However even this route can cause health problems which I will discuss later in this article. Scientists have also recently been able to prove that parabens can enter the body through the skin. When they are absorbed topically through this route from your cosmetics parabens are not broken down by the digestive system and enter the bloodstream, and thus the rest of your body, whole. They have been detected in serum after just one application of cream and in urine within 8-12 hours. They have also been found in breast milk. A 2004 study found the 5 most commonly used parabens were present in human breast cancer cells. This is really what began the whole debate about parabens. There are no studies at this time to directly implicate parabens as a factor in breast cancer and as always more research is needed to prove or disprove this theory. However, there are some things we do know for sure about parabens and their action within the body which would indicate that we should think twice before using a product that contains them.
Parabens have estrogenic properties. Estrogenic means promoting or producing estrogen (female sex hormones). These chemicals mimic estrogen in the body. As previously mentioned there are many different types of parabens and they each have varying effects but all widely used parabens have been shown to possess estrogenic activity. Estrogen is integral to sexual and reproductive health. It also affects many other tissues in the body including skin, bones and cardiovascular system. It has been shown to have a central role in breast cancer.
The presence of alcohol in cosmetics alongside parabens inhibits their breakdown further and ethanol changes methylparaben to butylparaben which is even more estrogenic.
Parabens bind to human androgen (male sex hormone) receptors and antagonize the action of testosterone on gene expression. Studies on rats show that parabens when taken orally caused alterations in male reproductive function. This may be due to their affect on testosterone or the estrogenic effect. There is a confirmed link between male exposure to parabens through the digestive route either during gestation or very early life (remember they can enter the breast milk) and reproductive disorders.In the last 50 years there has been in increase in male reproductive problems including reduced sperm quality and testicular cancer. There is no hard evidence to directly link this to topical absorption of parabens but this certainly warrants further research. Especially considering the ubiquitous use of baby products containing parabens by unsuspecting mothers. Many of these creams and lotions are used on and around the areas where male reproductive hormones are. If topical absorption of parabens is a potential problem then they are being absorbed in the worst possible part of the body.
There is also some discussion around the possibility of parabens’ estrogenic activity in the skin being linked to increasing rates of melanoma. Estrogen activity in the body is linked to cancer and some hypothesize that parabens in cosmetics and particularly those exposed to sunlight which can cause oxidative stress in the skin and could cause cancer. The increasing rate of melanoma in young people and inverse relationship with social deprivation could correlate with greater use of paraben containing products. Remember there are parabens in most sunscreen products so the very product you use to be safe in the sun may in fact be causing cell mutations which can lead to cancer.
It is possible to buy products in the mainstream stores that are paraben free. Some of the alternative preservatives include organic acids such as benzoic acid, dehyroactetic acid, potassium sorbet, sorbic acid, sodium benzoate. Their use is limited and they are not as effective as parabens at killing bacteria. However organic acids are comparable in terms of their anti fungal and mould effects. Other alternatives include plant/herbal extracts, enzyme/substrate systems and antimicrobial peptides. The best way to avoid paragons and other harmful chemicals is to make your own cosmetics, which is easier than you might think and there are lots of websites with easy recipes.
Some would argue that the long history of safe use of parabens by the cosmetic industry surely proves that there are no negative effects on our health. This may of course be true. However it goes against my personal instincts that a chemical which has been proven to enter our bodies and mimic important hormones that affect multiple biological systems cannot cause some sort of changes. These may prove to be negligible changes but the fact remains that these effects simply have not been examined by the scientific community so there is no way for us to know. There are no studies to examine the prolonged use of multiple paraben containing products over time which, lets face it, is what the majority of us have been doing all our lives. The steady rise of breast cancer in the upper quadrant of the breast (close to where you apply your antiperspirant) is disproportionate to other areas of the breast. Reproductive health issues and skin cancer are also on the rise. These chemicals are everywhere and we should ensure that they are safe before people are exposed to them. The good news is that once parabens are withdrawn they do eventually leave the body. So if, after reading this article (and maybe more like it) and you do decide to discard all your paraben containing cosmetics you could potentially make a real difference to your health.
- Paraben esters: review of recent studies of endocrine toxicity, absorption, esterase and human exposure, and discussion of potential human health risks. Darbre, P. and Harvey, W. 2008. Journal of applied toxicology.
- New Alternatives to paraben-based blends. Weber, K. 2005. Cosmetic and Toiletries120
- Effects of butyl paragon on the male reproductive system in mice. IOC, S. 2002. Arch Toxicol.
- Natural Alternatives for Cosmetic Preservation. Schmit, E. and Norris, K. Active concepts Feb 2015.