Parabens are in EVERYTHING!… Avoiding parabens is nearly impossible these days…
Knowing what parabens are, how they impact your body, and what you can do to avoid them; can help you decide for yourself if you want to begin reducing your paraben intake. If you are looking to become pregnant, are pregnant, or have a young child, reducing exposure to parabens is important. If you want to learn more about parabens and prevent them from harming your fertility, pregnancy or child, our fertility course lays out everything you need to know to be safe. Long-term paraben exposure and exposure during critical periods of development (think pregnancy, childhood, and puberty) can have an impact on your endocrine (hormonal) system (8,11).
What Are Parabens?
In a scientific review by the Endocrine Society, they classified parabens as potential endocrine-disrupting compounds (2). Meaning parabens may alter hormone levels in the body, lead to hormonal imbalances; mainly in the reproductive and nervous systems.
Parabens affect cells by mimicking the sex hormone estrogen. The ability of parabens to bind to estrogen receptors in the body ranges from 10,000 to 100,000 fold lower than estrogen (5). Women are going to be more at risk of developing hormonal disruptions from long-term paraben use compared to men, due to estrogen playing a more complex role in the female body.
An important group of parabens are polyphenols and phenols. We have a dedicated article to these compounds, where we give you 5 practical tips to reduce your exposure to them and explain their role fertility. You can read more here.
Why Do We Use Parabens?
There are a few different types of paraben compounds; ethyl-paraben, propyl-, isopropyl-, isobutyl-, butyl- and benzyl-. Each paraben is unique and possesses slightly different properties. The primary function of parabens is to increase the shelf life of products (A list of paraben-containing products can be found later in this article).
We use parabens for the following four reasons (1, 5, 7):
- They are antibacterial and antifungal
- Parabens are stable at a diverse range of pH and temperatures
- Parabens are not likely to react with other compounds: they are relatively inert molecules (unreactive)
- The cost of manufacturing parabens is very low
What Are The Concerns Surrounding Parabens?
What are the potential consequences of consuming parabens long term? The first disruptions are going to be on a hormonal level. Parabens interfere with your estrogen receptors, leading to functional problems with systems relying on estrogen for signaling. Think about how more estrogen may alter the menstrual cycle, make you gain weight or worsen PMS.
Consuming parabens may contribute to the following problems (2,8):
- Immune dysfunction
- Reproductive disorders
- Birth defects
- Developmental disorders
- Behavioral disorders
Parabens have been linked to breast cancer. This is due to parabens having the ability to concentrate in specific tissues once they are in the body. Researchers found a link between using lotion based cosmetics around the chest or breast area and armpit area is increasing the occurrence of breast cancer in women (4). Using paraben containing creams or lotions in these areas causes parabens to accumulate in breast tissue and disrupt cellular function, leading to breast cancer.
Where Can You Find Parabens?
Parabens are common additives in many products. They are in frequent contact with skin, mouth, lips, hair, nails, eyes and the digestive system. You are mainly absorbing parabens into your body through your skin. Parabens are common ingredients in food products making consuming parabens the second most common source of paraben exposure. They are used in food products to inhibit microbial growth and extend product shelf life (5). These two routes of paraben absorption combined with parabens being such a common additive to such a wide variety of products, make completely avoiding parabens virtually impossible.
The individual paraben containing product list would be endless but we have summed up paraben-containing products into broad categories below:
- Cosmetic products
- Lip glosses
- Nail polishes
- Personal care products (PCPs)
- Hair care products
- Soft drinks
- Processed vegetables
- Frozen dairy products
- Syrup flavouring
- Water used for agricultural purposes
What Ingredients Should You Watch Out For And Avoid?
In an attempt to make a list of ingredients to avoid, we have managed to narrow a list down to a general list of hormone-disrupting chemicals that are added to common cosmetic products. Try to avoid the following ingredients when possible:
- Boric Acid
- Sodium Borate
- Scented products (try and buy fragrance-free when possible)
- Retinyl acetate
- Retinyl Palmitate
If you are worried about which products to buy and not to buy, a good resource to check out is the user guide for EWG’s Skin Deep Cosmetics Database and EWG’s top tip. It will go over how you can use their extensive database to find out more information about almost every cosmetic product on the market. You simply type the product you want into the search bar, and you will get a list of products that are rated on a 1-10 scale. You can search by ingredient, brand or product category depending on the information you are seeking.
Future Research And Regulation Of Parabens
More research surrounding parabens is needed to draw more concrete conclusions regarding the effects of long-term paraben exposure. The majority of scientific studies looking at parabens are short-term and single exposure studies. The research will continue to look at paraben exposure from multiple routes of exposure at once, and the effects of long-term paraben exposure. Some think it is too early to draw any concrete conclusions about potentially harmful parabens but countries like Germany, Denmark, Italy, Switzerland, and France; have taken measures to prevent their citizens from parabens (5). These countries will not certify paraben-containing products.
There are no studies suggesting that parabens are great for human health; only research suggesting negative health consequences. It is possible to live in a world with fewer parabens. One day we most likely will be living in that world but right now parabens are being used in a wide variety of products due to their convenient physical properties (minus their endocrine disrupting properties).
For now, it is best to limit exposure to parabens by reducing a number of paraben-containing products you use on a daily basis. If you are a woman, take care to limit paraben exposure around your breast area and make the extra effort to limit paraben exposure if you are looking to become pregnant or are pregnant. If you have young children try to limit their exposure to parabens; they are growing rapidly and need to have their hormonal system functioning properly during development.
You and others around you can feel safer knowing that limiting parabens exposure and its consequences are manageable. A new 2016 study on how to reduce paraben, phthalate and phenol exposure suggests consumers can reduce exposure to these chemicals through purchasing products that are free of these chemicals or have low levels (3). Parabens make economic sense in the short term , but in the long run, their endocrine disrupting properties far outweigh the short-term gains. If you want to learn more about parabens and the role they play in fertility, parabens our covered in our premier online fertility course.
https://www.ewg.org/skindeep/top-tips-for-safer-products/#.WbKlrdN96cw (ingredient list)
- Błędzka, D., Gromadzińska, J., & Wąsowicz, W. (2014). Parabens. From environmental studies to human health. Environment international, 67, 27-42
- Diamanti-Kandarakis, E., Bourguignon, J. P., Giudice, L. C., Hauser, R., Prins, G. S., Soto, A. M., … & Gore, A. C. (2009). Endocrine-disrupting chemicals: an Endocrine Society scientific statement. Endocrine reviews, 30(4), 293-342.
- Harley, K. G., Kogut, K., Madrigal, D. S., Cardenas, M., Vera, I. A., Meza-Alfaro, G., … & Eskenazi, B. (2016). Reducing phthalate, paraben, and phenol exposure from personal care products in adolescent girls: findings from the hermosa intervention study. Environmental health perspectives, 124(10), 1600.
- Harvey, P. W., & Darbre, P. (2004). Endocrine disrupters and human health: could oestrogenic chemicals in body care cosmetics adversely affect breast cancer incidence in women?. Journal of Applied Toxicology, 24(3), 167-176.
- Karpuzoglu, E., Holladay, S. D., & Gogal Jr, R. M. (2013). Parabens: potential impact of low-affinity estrogen receptor binding chemicals on human health. Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health, Part B, 16(5), 321-335.
- Larsson, K., Björklund, K. L., Palm, B., Wennberg, M., Kaj, L., Lindh, C. H., … & Berglund, M. (2014). Exposure determinants of phthalates, parabens, bisphenol A and triclosan in Swedish mothers and their children. Environment international, 73, 323-333.
- Liao, C., Liu, F., & Kannan, K. (2013). Occurrence of and dietary exposure to parabens in foodstuffs from the United States. Environmental science & technology, 47(8), 3918-3925.
- Skakkebaek, N. E., Toppari, J., Söder, O., Gordon, C. M., Divall, S., & Draznin, M. (2011). The exposure of fetuses and children to endocrine disrupting chemicals: a European Society for Paediatric Endocrinology (ESPE) and Pediatric Endocrine Society (PES) call to action statement. The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, 96(10), 3056-3058.
- Smith, K. W., Braun, J. M., Williams, P. L., Ehrlich, S., Correla, K. F., Calafat, A. M., … & Hauser, R. (2012). Predictors and variability of urinary paraben concentrations in men and women, including before and during pregnancy. Environmental health perspectives, 120(11), 1538.
- Vo, T. T., Yoo, Y. M., Choi, K. C., & Jeung, E. B. (2010). Potential estrogenic effects of parabens at the prepubertal stage of a postnatal female rat model. Reproductive toxicology, 29(3), 306-316.
- Watkins, D. J., Ferguson, K. K., Del Toro, L. V. A., Alshawabkeh, A. N., Cordero, J. F., & Meeker, J. D. (2015). Associations between urinary phenol and paraben concentrations and markers of oxidative stress and inflammation among pregnant women in Puerto Rico. International journal of hygiene and environmental health, 218(2), 212-219.