What are Parabens?
Parabens are a group of chemical compounds produced in the laboratory and used as preservatives. They possess very powerful antimicrobial properties, their manufacturing cost is very low and they are degraded / decomposed very quickly by the human body. For these reasons we find them written on the labels of most personal hygiene products, such as deodorants, shampoos, shaving creams, hair conditioners, emulsions, face and body cleansers and of course in cosmetic creams, serums, exfoliants, etc. They are also used as preservatives in medicines and in certain foods. The second component of their names is always the word paraben (methyl paraben, butyl paraben, propyl paraben, isopropyl paraben, isobutyl paraben, ethyl paraben, poly paraben, etc.).
Who are Exposed to Parabens?
Just everyone. The reason is that we all use products containing parabens. According to a study (1), the urine of 100 individuals was examined for the presence of parabens. Methyl and propyl parabens were detected in almost all of the samples (99% and 96%, respectively). Two other parabens were detected in more than half of the samples (ethyl, 58%; butyl, 69%); benzyl paraben was detected less frequently (39%). Adults’ urine contained more of these chemicals than children, most probably because adults use more paraben filled products.
The good thing about parabens is that our body has the ability to excrete / eliminate parabens in just a few days. However, parabens may accumulate in the body as a result of the daily application of several different paraben-containing products. This accumulation will potentially cause damage over time.
Parabens and Breast Cancer
The parabens issue emerged in 2004, when Dr Philippa Darbre rocked the boat with her study (2), where she put emphasis on the following:
- Parabens can be absorbed rapidly through intact skin.
- The absorption speed can be influenced by the presence of penetration enhancers found in cosmetic preparations.
- Parabens are not mutagenic, but there are reports that they can cause chromosomal aberrations.
- At a cellular level, parabens have been shown capable of disrupting cellular function through inhibiting secretion of lysosomal enzymes and causing mitochondrial dysfunction.
- Parabens are used as preservatives in a range of cosmetics and they are applied to the underarm and breast area. It has been suggested that regular application of such estrogenic chemicals could influence breast cancer development.
Since then, several studies have introduced evidence and expressed some concerns about the role of parabens on the human body. In the conclusions, however, they all suggested that more studies should be conducted to prove whether parabens are harmful or not.
It is proven by medical studies that parabens mimic the function of human endogenous estrogens by binding to and activating estrogen receptors. This is the reason they are called xenoestrogens. A 2016 study (3) exacerbated consumer concerns as it reported that exposure to estrogens and to some xenoestrogens has been associated with cell proliferation and an increased risk of breast cancer. And the study concluded that Human Epidermal Growth Factor Receptor (HER) ligands enhance the potency of butyl paraben to stimulate oncogene expression and breast cancer cell proliferation.
Parabens and Human Endocrine System
Our body produces hormones, which act in very small amounts and at precise moments in time to regulate complex processes, such as growth, reproduction, metabolism, immunity and body behavior. In other words, hormones are the means by which the body instructs its various organs to perform vital tasks.
Any substance not produced by the body that behaves like a hormone is called “endocrine disruptor”. It intervenes dynamically in our hormone system, because it mimics the action of the hormones and tricks the body. Endocrine disruptors’ interference can create health effects that will be felt long after the exposure has stopped. Exposure to endocrine disruptors can have life-long effects and can even have consequences for the next generation (4).
Another study (5) concludes that parabens exhibit an estrogen-like activity which of course has negative effects on the human body. And it ends up by saying: “These findings represent important data that should be considered when using parabens as preservatives in food, cosmetics, and pharmaceutical products”.
Parabens and Fecundity
All the above scientific findings create serious concerns to all of us. However, the results of another study (6) most probably creates fear and urge us to read carefully the ingredients of all products we buy. This study examined the relationship of parabens to the fecundity of humans. Preconception urinary chemical concentrations of parabens of 501 trying for pregnancy couples were examined in relation to “time to pregnancy”. Female but not male partners’ preconception urinary concentration of Methyl and Ethyl parabens were associated with a 37% and 33% reduction in couple fecundity, as measured by a longer “time to pregnancy”.
On the same topic, another study (7) provides evidence suggesting that exposure to propyl paraben may lead to diminished ovarian reserve and contribute to ovarian aging among women at an infertility clinic. Ovarian reserve is a term that is used to determine the capacity of the ovary to provide egg cells that are capable of fertilization resulting in a healthy and successful pregnancy.
Parabens and Men’s Genital System
In another study (8) it was demonstrated that exposure of mammals to butyl paraben adversely affects the secretion of testosterone and the function of the male reproductive system. In a subsequent study (8), it was shown that propyl paraben also adversely affects the hormonal secretion and the male reproductive functions. Daily sperm production and its efficiency were significantly decreased.
But what is amazing is the fact that the exposure level at which the above effects were observed is the same as the upper-limit acceptable daily intake (10 mg/kg body weight/day) of parabens in the European Community and Japan. This most probably means that butyl and propyl parabens could affect humans in the same way they affected the animals of the study.
Other Health Issues Related to Parabens
A 2008 study (9) revealed that Methyl Paraben might cause skin damage involving carcinogenesis through the combined activation of sunlight irradiation and skin esterases.
And What Do we Do Now?
So far, there are only indications that parabens are harmful to human health. However, we realize that over time these indications tend to be more frequent. Most importantly, they associate parabens with human hormonal disorders, cancer, especially breast cancer and with problems of the male and female reproductive system. Even if there is no study adequately proving that parabens could be harmful to our health we should keep our concerns alive. Should we, as consumers, wait for the indications to transform into evidence? The answer is, of course, that we should continuously make every effort not to charge our body with chemicals. Unnecessary exposure to chemicals affects vital human functions; the effects are compounding and most often cannot be reversed. By removing these potentially harmful chemicals from our daily beauty regimen, we can dramatically reduce our exposure and negative effects. We should carefully read the label on products we purchase to make sure that the item does not contain parabens. Do not forget that lots of products get misleadingly labeled “all-natural” or “100% natural”. As no one really knows how certain chemicals affect us over time, or how they react in our bodies in combination, we should avoid them at all costs.