‘Paraben-free’ is the latest cosmetics and personal care buzzword. But why? What are parabens? What are they used for, and are they harmful, or is it just the latest fad to go paraben-free? Can you avoid parabens altogether?
Parabens as Artificial Preservatives
Since the 1920s, a family of compounds known as parabens have been used extensively as an artificial preservative in cosmetic and personal care products.
Parabens are derived from para-hydroxybenzoic acid (PHBA), which occurs naturally in many fruits and vegetables, such as cucumbers, cherries, carrots, blueberries, and onions. PHBA is produced in the human body due to the degradation of different amino acids. The human body quickly converts synthetic parabens into natural PHBA and eliminates them. The parabens found in cosmetics are the same as those found in nature.
Most “leave-on” and “rinse-off” products, particularly those with a high water content like shampoos and conditioners people use daily, include parabens. Parabens are also used in other products, including moisturisers, face and skin cleansers, sunscreen, deodorants, shaving gels, toothpaste, and makeup.
Types of Parabens
Cosmetics typically contain mixtures of different types of parabens. The six most frequently used are methyl-, ethyl-, propyl-, isopropyl-, butyl-, and isobutylparaben.
Advantages of Parabens
- Parabens are a less expensive preservative than alternatives.
- Since cosmetics contain substances that break down naturally, these compounds are included to stop and lessen the development of dangerous bacteria and mould. Their antibacterial capabilities work best against gram-positive bacteria and fungi.
- Avoiding the development of dangerous germs extends a product’s shelf life, often up to years after production.
The Problem with Parabens
It begins with the fact that it is easily metabolised and readily absorbed into the body through the skin. The issue with these chemicals, despite the fact that the body excretes them, is that research suggests parabens can interfere with hormones in the body, impair fertility and reproductive organs, impact birth outcomes, and raise the risk of cancer.
They may also irritate the skin. A study discovered that the use of ethylparaben as an antifungal agent on human skin at a rate of 5% led to contact dermatitis.
The practically universal identification of parabens in biomonitoring surveys suggests that daily use of a product or many products containing them leads to direct and continuous exposure.
Because the metabolites of parabens found in fat tissue were connected with ageing (according to Aracho-Cordón and Wang), parabens may also bioaccumulate in the body over time in fat tissue.
Studies comparing paraben levels in the bodies of women, men, adolescents, and children who regularly use cosmetics and those who do not, show that personal care items are the main source of paraben exposure. Berger’s studies found that teenage girls who regularly wore makeup had 20 times more propylparaben in their urine than those who wore it infrequently or never.
Various scientists have also noted that hair products, sunscreens, makeup, body and face lotions, and other beauty products have all been linked to and predicted noticeably higher levels of urinary parabens.
Parabens and Your Health
The Environmental Working Group in the US has stated the following based on research done on a global level.
Endocrine Disruption and Reproductive Harm
The functioning of the male and female reproductive systems, the development of the reproductive organs, fertility, and the quality of births can all be negatively impacted by parabens since they mimic the effects of the hormone oestrogen in the body.
Additionally, parabens may hinder the hormone-producing process. Propyl- and butylparaben are two parabens that the U.N. Environment Programme has classified as endocrine disruptors or, at least, possible endocrine disruptors. Butyl- and isobutylparaben have also been classified as endocrine disruptors by the Danish Centre for Endocrine Disruptors.
Scientists from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health discovered a link between urine propylparaben and lower fertility. Another human investigation by Nishihama found a connection between butylparaben and total urine paraben levels and lower fertility, as seen by shorter menstrual cycles. According to Geer, Butylparaben levels in the mother’s urine and cord blood were associated with increased chances of preterm birth and decreased birth weight.
Endocrine Disruption and Cancer
The risk of cancer, especially breast cancer in women, may be increased by exposure to environmental oestrogens, which worries scientists. Breast cancer cells’ ability to express certain genes and proliferate more quickly are both affected by propylparaben, according to Wróbel. In a recent University of California-Berkeley study, butylparaben, which was previously not thought to be dangerous, activated cancer genes in concert with other cell receptors and promoted the growth of breast cancer cells at low levels.
The Margin for Safety
Many cosmetic and skincare companies switched to “paraben-free” products as a result of these concerns. Subsequently, the amount of parabens in goods is also regulated by numerous regulatory organisations in various countries.
International regulatory organisations looked at the paraben concentration and regulated it to a level that would be safe for consumers to use (within the Margin of Safety).
For instance, the European Scientific Committee on Consumer Items (SCCP) recommended that the total concentration of parabens (a mixture of numerous parabens) should be 0.8% and that individual parabens can be used in cosmetic products at a concentration of 0.4%.
The Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) opted for the same recommendations as the SCCP for products sold in the USA. Due to the SCCP’s conclusion that “sufficient evidence has not been presented for the safe use of propyl- or butylparaben in cosmetics,” the EU has banned isopropyl- and isobutylparaben in all personal care products since 2015. According to the intergovernmental Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), these parabens are likewise prohibited in personal care goods in 10 Southeast Asian nations.
In the EU, ASEAN, and Japan, propyl- and butylparaben use is also restricted. Parabens are prohibited in cosmetic and personal care products for children under three in Denmark.
You can avoid parabens, but just up to a point. It is essentially difficult to stop using all paraben-containing products because parabens are so cheap and effective and therefore widely used.
It’s important to remember that a “paraben-free” label does not suggest that a product is intrinsically safe. Products with long shelf lives still contain some preservatives, usually in the form of alcohol, grapefruit seed extracts, or sorbate. All preservatives are essentially poisonous to bacteria and as such may be harmful. The key to safe preservative use is the trade off in shelf life to potential for harm. So, the key is moderation.
To be safe, study the ingredients listed on labels, examine the number and types of parabens in the products you use, and try to keep using them as low as possible. You should also purchase from known brands or manufacturers to ensure that if products contain parabens, their levels are below the recommended levels in terms of the guidelines as stated above.
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