These nuisance ingredients could be lurking in your skin care and beauty collections – and your pantry! It’s also possible that you’ve seen this claim on product labels, but are unsure what it really means: “paraben–free”.
There is a deep rabbit hole of controversy discussing whether or not parabens are dangerous – but some facts are undeniable. Today we’re covering what parabens can mean for your health, in which everyday products they’re hiding, and confirm why you should be seeking out paraben-free products.
What are Parabens?
Parabens are synthetic chemicals that are used as preservatives in personal care products, foods, beverages, and pharmaceuticals. As preservatives, parabens increase a product’s shelf life by preventing harmful bacteria, fungus, and yeast from growing. While there has been more buzz about parabens the past few years, these sneaky culprits have actually been around since the 1950s!
Parabens are no strangers to the cosmetics and skin care industries. According to the American Chemical Society, most parabens are in 85% of health, beauty, and personal care products. They are commonly listed under methyl-, ethyl-, propyl-, isopropyl-, butyl-, or isobutyl parabens.
While it seems these little superheroes may be saving the life of your products, turns out they could be moonlighting as your skin’s – and body’s – arch-nemesis.
5 Side Effects That Make Parabens Unsafe
As the adage goes, too much of something can be bad for you – and parabens are no exception! With the majority of parabens being found in conventional beauty products, daily use of these products over time can cause a buildup of parabens and do more harm than good. This occurs when these products and their pesky parabens are absorbed through the skin and into the body.
Just like makeup and skin care products, foods and beverages also need preservatives to prevent harmful bacteria and microbes from growing and harming us. When parabens are ingested over time through food or food additives, the health risks and effects can be potentially worse. Follow along to find out the risks and facts about these stranger-dangers and why you should avoid them.
#1: They’re Endocrine Disruptors
The chemical structure of parabens is similar to the hormone estrogen. Research shows this estrogen-mimicking has marked them as endocrine disruptors, and parabens have even been recently linked to cases of early puberty in girls.
Over time, endocrine disruption can lead to a variety of problems including male breast growth, developmental and neurological disorders, and various cancers. Other studies have shown that parabens can also alter thyroid hormone levels, causing possible adverse health effects.
#2: Links to Breast Cancer
While some research has revealed that parabens can mimic the activity of the hormone estrogen in the body’s cells, this estrogenic activity is associated with certain forms of breast cancer. Estrogen is a female hormone that has been known to cause both normal and cancerous breast cells to grow and divide. Parabens have also been found present in breast tumours.
In 2004, British scientist Philippa Darbre published a research paper that appeared to find traces of parabens in breast cancer tissue samples. This study testing for parabens in human breast cancer tumours found traces of 5 different parabens in 19 of 20 tumours. Darbre found that not only can parabens enter your body through the skin, they fuel the growth of existing cancer cells.
#3: Links to Reproductive Problems
There has been research into parabens being linked to an increased risk of reproductive problems. These changes may contribute to adverse health effects in both mothers and their children, potentially leading to reproductive complications and a heightened risk of cancer in adults, as well as developmental issues in children.
#4: Can Cause Allergic Reactions
Parabens can trigger irritation and allergic reactions in the skin, especially to sensitive, damaged, or broken skin. Studies show that parabens can be especially inflammatory to those with pre-existing conditions of psoriasis, eczema, or a pattern of contact dermatitis. This is why parabens are not often used to preserve topical hydrocortisone creams or antibiotic ointments.
#5: Absorbed Quickly by Skin
Just how quickly and easily can parabens get absorbed into the skin? According to EWG, parabens are absorbed rapidly through intact (unbroken) skin. In 2006, the Centers for Disease Control detected parabens in nearly all of the 100 urine samples tested, indicating widespread exposure in Americans. This proved that these widely used chemicals get absorbed quickly and easily into the skin, which over time could cause harm.
Where Parabens are Hiding
Since it appears there’s widespread exposure to parabens in many things, it’s especially important to get skilled at reading product labels. Any personal care product that has an ingredient ending in -paraben should be on your list of products to avoid.
Here are some common mainstream products to steer clear from:
- Shampoo and conditioner
- Facial scrub and cleansers
- Shower gel
PRO TIP: You may also want to opt for fragrance-free products. Labels that don’t list parabens may still have them under Fragrance/Parfum.
Researchers have also found that some 90% of typical grocery items contain measurable amounts of parabens. This is why being cautious of what we’re applying to our skin is just as important as what we’re putting inside our bodies.
Parabens are another example of a food preservative, although they’re not called parabens when used in food – they’re identified as “E” numbers instead. Examples include: methylparaben (E218), heptylparaben (E209), and ethylparaben (E214).
Typical products which contain parabens for preservation include:
- Alcoholic beverages
- Dairy products
- Fats and oils
- Processed vegetables
- Canned food
- Frozen meals
- Processed meat and fish
- Soft drinks
- Flavoured syrups
What You Can Do About Parabens
There are many skin care and beauty manufacturers responding to consumers’ concerns about parabens. This has spurred conception of new preservation methods, which are just as effective at maintaining product freshness and quality. In fact, the amount of conventional products being manufactured with parabens has gone down, in what researchers believe to be consumer pressure or complete avoidance of parabens altogether.
While other manufacturers may not quite be on board, you always have the option to go completely paraben-free, and to steer clear of these pesky culprits. For those who can manage it, growing your own food or buying exclusively from organic farmers can help achieve a preservative-free diet.
If you enjoy using cosmetics and personal care products without the worry and health effects of parabens, opt for toxin-free makeup and products that are just as effective.
Still curious about the case against parabens? Read more about the facts and harsh effects on parabens, plus what you can do to avoid them.