- A Journalist on A Mission
- What are Parabens?
- How Parabens May Affect The Body
- Be Careful To Understand The Source
- Exposure: How We Come in Contact with Parabens
- Why Preservatives are Necessary
- What We Can Do
- Choosing A Side
- A Final Word
A Journalist on A Mission
Alright y’all. I am embarking on a controversial journey before you! One that seems to get both naturalists and scientists riled up a bit. As I sail into the sea of conflicting research, I aim to give you both sides of the story.
As I have been researching more and more about different chemicals to avoid in everyday products, I keep coming back to parabens. I hear one thing from someone on a blog and then someone else tells me the opposite in a forum. I was fed up hearing from everybody else and decided to research the truth, or at least what I could distinguish as truth between the scare tactics of environmental organizations and uninformed bloggers and the money hungry big organizations.
Honestly, I try to trust science and the claims different scientists and organizations make, but you can’t blame me for having a difficult time doing so. We hear one thing is great from us one minute, a year later it is awful for us, and ten years later it is better than ever! No wonder we are having a difficult time getting our facts straight! Therefore, I take some scientific claims with a grain of salt, but I ultimately want to find out the truth, and science has some of the best ways of coming to the truth.
Instead of siding with the naturalists who believe parabens will give us all cancer, or fully agreeing with scientific claims, since even those at times seem vague, I will view it from both sides of the argument. At the end, you make your own decision. You are the consumer after all. Do what you feel is best for your body, your home, and the environment.
What are Parabens?
Parabens are synthetic chemicals found in food, drugs, and cosmetics, among other things, that preserve the products by protecting against the formation of bacteria and other microorganisms. They are extremely effective in extending the shelf life of food and beauty products alike. It is no wonder they are such a common preservative.
Parabens have been used in the preservation of products for several decades, and are considered to be safe. In fact, there are over 65 independent studies showing no adverse effects to the human body as a result of the use of parabens. As well, the FDA has reviewed over 100 studies and still considers them safe for use as a preservative.
According to the FDA, there is no “information showing that parabens as they are used in cosmetics have an effect on human health.” The FDA does not regulate preservatives in cosmetics unless there is definitive proof they are hazardous to human health.
How Parabens May Affect The Body
Studies show parabens may be able to mimic estrogen by binding to estrogen receptors². However, WebMD states that “although parabens have estrogen-like qualities, they are much weaker than the natural estrogens found in the body.” In fact, parabens are several thousand times weaker than human estrogen and therefore should be unable to bind to receptors.
That being said, a study done by Darbre and Harvey in 2008 stated that parabens do have a weaker binding ability than natural hormones, yet they are able to bind to estrogen receptors and disrupt natural hormone function in high concentrations. If the body is not being exposed to many parabens and other synthetic chemicals that act as estrogen stimulants, then yes, due to their weak binding ability, the body should not be impacted. Yet according to their study, as the body accumulates these chemicals over time, the higher concentrations are able to saturate estrogen receptors and impact hormonal functions.
Proponents of paraben use in cosmetics, food, and drugs state when parabens are absorbed or ingested the body is able to quickly eliminate the chemical by breaking it down into PHBA(para-hydroxybenzoic acid), a natural chemical found in small doses in some vascular plants. The human body also creates PHBA during the breakdown of certain amino acids according to ChemicalSafetyFacts.org.
Another study conducted by the Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety, explained how para-hydroxybenzoic acid “does not seem to exhibit endocrine modifying effects.” It goes on to clarify there are studies that have found intact parabens in urine, showing not all parabens are broken down in the body. This does correlate with findings by Darbre and Harvey in 2008, where intact parabens were found in human breast tissue and breast milk. Another small study of 20 women with breast tumors, found 19 of the women had intact parabens in the tumor tissue. This study did not prove the causal effect of parabens in breast cancer, but it did show parabens were not broken down by the body and are capable of accumulating. As of late, there is no research that has yet to prove that parabens directly cause any type of cancer.
Since some of the studies that support the use of parabens have also found intact parabens in human urine and tissue, I like to err on the side of caution when it comes to synthetic preservative use, parabens included. If our bodies were capable of fully eliminating parabens by breaking them down into PHBA and expelling them, then I would be 100% for parabens as long as there is no negative environmental impact. However, due to the studies that have found parabens in tissue, I personally choose to limit products containing them.
Be Careful To Understand The Source
Many of the studies performed that are against the use of parabens, use animal studies to prove parabens are unsafe for human use. These studies exposed the animal test subjects to much higher concentrations of parabens and PHBA than humans would be exposed to through cosmetics and other products. For example, a study performed in 2002 by Kang, examined the reproductive disorders found in baby rodents when the mother was exposed to butylparaben during pregnancy and lactation³. Although I believe many of these studies have useful information to glean from them, it is important to understand the dosage the animals are receiving compared to the levels of parabens humans are exposed to.
Exposure: How We Come in Contact with Parabens
As products become more and more chemically complex, we are being exposed to many more types of synthetic compounds and preservatives. Unfortunately, they may be easily absorbed through the skin with as little as one application. When these synthetic preservatives interact with other chemicals in our beauty products, it results in “higher skin and body burdens.” One study in 1997 found the presence of ethanol, or alcohol, which is common in many cosmetics, increases skin penetration in guinea pig skin³.
Why Preservatives are Necessary
Something I have learned while creating my own products, is there is a need to have preservatives in products if they are being sold to the general public. I may create a sugar scrub with no preservatives and have something on the label that instructs consumers to use it with clean and dry hands, but if someone uses it in the shower with wet hands and mold starts to grow, then I am responsible if they become sick. Any product that has water in it, or is likely to come in contact with water needs a preservative to last more than a few days.
The idea of a preservative-free life is great if you make everything yourself, store it in the fridge for up to 1-2 weeks, and never allow bacteria into your products. But the truth is it isn’t as simple as that. We like to have others make products for us so we have more time to enjoy doing what we love to do. In order for companies to sell to you, their products need something to preserve against the growth of bacteria, mold, and yeast.
Two quick notes:
- natural bar soaps are naturally self preserving due to their higher PH of 9-10. This alkalinity keeps bacteria at bay and is fully safe to use without a synthetic preservative.
- Oil based products such as lip balms and body butters do not need a preservative since bacteria does not tend to grow in environments where there is no water. Therefore, the general rule of thumb is water-based products need preservatives, whereas oil-based products (with no water) are more shelf stable and don’t always need to be preserved.
What We Can Do
Due to the large range of products containing synthetic preservatives, such as parabens, and the relatively short amount of time some of them have been around, I believe there should be concern about bringing them into our homes and bodies (especially those that release formaldehyde). Therefore, if you do want to limit your exposure to synthetic preservatives, stay away from packaged, processed foods and eat organic whole foods and use beauty products and cosmetics that are as naturally-based as possible. Due to our environment, it is difficult to fully eliminate all toxic chemicals and ingredients. Yet, being proactive and knowing what you are ingesting and putting on your body can greatly reduce exposure to questionable ingredients.
Choosing A Side
If you still are unsure if you want to use products containing parabens, there are some great resources to help find products that do not contain them. Breast Cancer Action has a list of cosmetics and personal products that do not contain parabens and the Environmental Working Group has a database where you can see if your favorite products contain parabens or other questionable ingredients. As well, Safe Cosmetics has a list of ingredients to look for and avoid in your favorite beauty products.
If you are still fine using products containing parabens, by all means keep using them. I always suggest looking into other chemicals that may be in some of your favorite products. The parabens may not be concerning to you, but other ingredients may be a different story.
A Final Word
I hope this has helped clear the air for some of you regarding the presence of parabens in beauty products. If you craft your own products to sell or give to others and are considering different types of preservatives please make sure to research which ones are the best for your product type, as not all preservatives are created equal. This post gives brief information about a couple popular preservatives, which may help you decide which one(s) you would prefer to use.
Resources Against Parabens:
- Scientific American
- Breast Cancer Action
- Journal of Applied Toxicology
- Environmental Working Group
- Safe Cosmetics
Resources Supporting Parabens:
- Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety
- American Cancer Society
- The Cosmetics Cop
- Cosmetics Info
- Just About Skin
For additional reading on another hot topic, check out Baby Center for detailed information about Phthalates, chemical plasticizers found in personal care products, household products, toys and much more.