Parabens – What’s The Fuss?

If you’ve ever gone shopping for cosmetics, I’m guessing you’ve come across tons of products that are labelled as “paraben-free”. You’ve also likely encountered several products that still contain parabens. 

But why are some companies opting to leave out parabens? And what purpose do they serve in the first place?

To help you make a more informed decision about your cosmetics, I answer those questions and more in today’s article!

What are parabens?

Parabens are chemical compounds that have been used as a cosmetic preservative since the 1920s. Typically, you’ll find them in shampoos, body washes, and other water based products. The six most commonly used types of parabens are methyl-, ethyl-, propyl-, isopropyl-, butyl- and isobutylparaben. These can be used alone or in tandem. 

They’re effective at reducing or preventing the growth of mold or harmful bacteria, which helps keep products shelf stable for much longer. Moisturizers, face and skin cleaners, sunscreens, deodorants, shaving gels, toothpastes, makeup, and many other products can contain parabens. 

How does the body react to parabens?

Your skin absorbs parabens and then the body metabolizes them. From there, your body should excrete them. However, researchers are finding that this is not the case. Those who use products containing parabens tend to have them in their body at all times.

One study compared adolescent girls who wore makeup daily with girls who rarely or never wore makeup. Those who wore makeup every day had 20 times more parabens in their sample than the other group. Other studies have found similar results – an increased use of sunscreens, hair products, lotions, and makeup having a correlation to huge paraben counts within the body. [1, 2, 3, 4

Now, this may seem harmless if parabens were harmless. But the research is saying otherwise…

What are the health effects of parabens?

Surely, the occasional encounter with parabens would be harmless, and that’s the stance of many scientists in the field. But these are products you want to be using every day and without any health concerns. And this buildup of parabens in the body is reportedly causing some issues…

Reproductive harm – Certain parabens can act like the hormone estrogen in the body which can affect reproductive system functioning, reproductive development, fertility, and birth outcomes. 

Institutions such as The U.N. Environment Programme and The Danish Centre on Endocrine Disruptors have identified certain types of parabens as endocrine disruptors. [5, 6]

Studies have demonstrated parabens’ effects on estrogen. In animal studies, parabens harmed female reproductive development, male reproduction, and fertility. In humans, an increased paraben count in the body has been linked with reproductive issues and birth issues. [7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12]  

Increase risk of cancer – Parabens have been found to alter the expression of genes and accelerate the growth of certain cancer cells. A 2016 study found that even small amounts of butylparaben may increase the growth of cancer cells. [13, 14, 15]

Skin irritation – On top of the internal issues, parabens have been found to irritate the skin over time. [16]

What can we do?

Parabens have been detected in infants, children, and adults. Parabens may also accumulate in fat tissue over time. [17, 18, 10, 19]

If you’ve been using products containing parabens, don’t stress. There are plenty of products out there without parabens that are ready to replace your paraben-filled cosmetics.

Remember the aforementioned study where the adolescent girls who used makeup every day had high amounts of parabens in their body? Well, after just three days of switching to paraben-free cosmetics, their paraben levels dropped by nearly 45%! [20]

Thankfully, parabens are easy to identify on product labels. Though there are many different types, they all end with “paraben”. When looking for cosmetics, do a check of the ingredient list. Make sure you’re getting products that are paraben-free and don’t contain any other harmful ingredients. 

After all, you’re going to be using these products routinely, and you don’t want them to be slowly harming you over time!

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References and Resources

  1. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29317738/ 
  2. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29524920/ 
  3. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28886595/ 
  4. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24149971/ 
  5. https://wedocs.unep.org/bitstream/handle/20.500.11822/25633/EDC_report1.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y 
  6. https://cend.dk/files/DK_ED-list-final_2018.pdf 
  7. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20132880/ 
  8. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24607685/ 
  9. https://academic.oup.com/toxsci/article/152/1/244/2579219 
  10. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3855500/ 
  11. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27189314/ 
  12. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27156397/ 
  13. https://www.academia.edu/11169160/Actions_of_methyl-_propyl-and_butylparaben_on_estrogen_receptor-a_and_-b_and_the_progesterone_receptor_in_MCF-7_cancer_cells_and_non-cancerous_MCF-10A_cells 
  14. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/11696396/ 
  15. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4858398/ 
  16. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25395006/ 
  17. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20056562/ 
  18. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19440505/ 
  19. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25749637/ 
  20. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26947464/ 

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