Kale chips. Essential oils. Infrared light therapy. Clean and green trends pop up all the time. Some are transient, but some are more serious. If you’ve been seeing labels that say Paraben Free, you’re looking at a health trend that deserves your attention.
What Are Parabens?
Parabens are a group of manmade chemicals that are used as preservatives in cosmetics, personal care products (skincare, lotion, shampoos, deodorant, perfumes, etc.), pharmaceuticals, food, and food packaging.
Parabens are used to increase the shelf-life of these products by limiting the growth of bacteria, yeast, fungus, and mold. Sounds like a good thing, right? But the major downside to parabens is that they are estrogenic - artificial substances that act like estrogen in your body (other examples of artificial estrogens are phytoestrogens, phthalates, red dye no. 40, and BPA).
Parabens are a group of manmade chemicals that are used as preservatives.
How do parabens get in your body? They can be absorbed topically through the skin, digested, or inhaled. Think about your body lotion - you’re rubbing a daily dose of parabens into your largest organ. Ever read the label on a cheap package of corn tortillas? You’ll likely see a couple of parabens listed as ingredients. Do you wear perfume? Parabens are used in the majority of perfumes because they are a cheap way to carry the fragrance farther in the air. (You won’t see parabens listed on the ingredients list, though, because they’re considered part of the proprietary recipe.)
Now, the CDC asserts that parabens are safe and that any “parabens that enter the body are quickly excreted.” And yes, parabens that are eaten in food are metabolized and their estrogenic impact is reduced. But when parabens are absorbed through the skin (from cosmetics or shampoo or lotion), they “bypass the metabolic process and enter the blood stream and body organs intact.”
Estrogen and Estrogenics
We’re going to get into a little biology here, so grab your lab coat. As women, our dominant sex hormone is estrogen, and our natural estrogen level (what a woman's body naturally produces) is about 400 nanograms per liter. To give you a reference point, a man’s natural estrogen level (yup, even men have a little estrogen) is about 20 nanograms per liter.
Now, a woman has estrogen receptors in cells throughout her entire body - in her brain cells, muscle cells, fat cells, etc. Estrogen travels throughout the whole body via the bloodstream and binds to these receptors. Estrogenics - chemicals not produced by the woman’s body that bind with an estrogen receptor - can also travel throughout the whole body - and affect the whole body. These estrogenic chemicals, like parabens, have levels of artificial estrogen in the 1,000s to 100,000s nanograms per liter - and we’re putting them on our skin and eating them in our food and expecting that we won’t be impacted.
Because parabens act like estrogen in your body, they can cause weight gain and can “bioaccumulate in the body over time in fat tissue.”
Ready for some more science? Let’s talk about the estrogen paradox. Estrogen increases fat storage. (Consider pregnancy, when both estrogen and progesterone levels are high. Historically, our bodies protected ourselves and our unborn children by storing some extra food, which is a good thing.) The paradoxical part is that fat cells store estrogen. Because parabens act like estrogen in your body, they can cause weight gain and can “bioaccumulate in the body over time in fat tissue.” Now, the average lifespan of a fat cell is 1.5 years, but they can survive up to 10 years! This means detoxing excess estrogen can be a lengthy process.
Why Are People Avoiding Parabens?
So if parabens are interpreted as estrogen, and estrogen is natural and good for women - what’s the big deal? Well, there are a number of reasons to avoid parabens. Firstly, parabens are just one kind of estrogenic we encounter on a daily basis, so all that extra estrogen can really add up. Another big reason is that parabens can interfere with normal, healthy hormone function, negatively affecting both “male and female reproductive system functioning, reproductive development, fertility, and birth outcomes” (like pre-term birth or decreased birth weight). Parabens are also thought to be linked to other health concerns, such as allergies and thyroid issues.
Additionally, recent research suggests that parabens may play a role in breast cancer. One 2014 study showed that “Propylparaben can alter the expression of genes, including those in breast cancer cells,” and a 2001 study showed propylparaben could “accelerate the growth of breast cancer cells.” WebMD describes a 2015 study in which “scientists grew breast cancer cells in a lab. They treated the cancer cells with low doses of parabens along with heregulin, a growth-promoting substance that’s normally found in breast tissue...When the two chemicals were combined, the dose of parabens needed to stimulate growth was 100 times lower. That suggests parabens may be exerting effects at levels people are being exposed to in real life.” Consequently, if a woman were to develop breast cancer, the presence of parabens in her body would only cause the cancer to grow!
Parabens can interfere with normal, healthy hormone function, negatively affecting both male and female reproductive system functioning and fertility.
These examples impact us personally, in the present. But parabens can also change your epigenetics, which means you can pass down new (but necessarily better) traits to your children. Epigenetics are marks on our DNA. Things like how you exercise, sleep, and eat can get encoded in epigenetics and passed on to your children. And artificial estrogens - like parabens - can cause changes in epigenetics.
What about the environmental impact of parabens? Parabens have been found in wastewater, swimming pools, rivers, and even drinking water. Parabens are getting into the ocean currents and working their way up the food chains. There was a study done on parabens in which 11 polar bears from northern Alaska tested positive for high levels of parabens! Parabens have also been found in whale blubber (remember fat cells store estrogen).
The Use of Parabens in America
If parabens seem to be bad for pretty much everyone - us, our kids, our planet - then why are parabens still legal in America? Why doesn’t the FDA have any restrictions on using parabens in cosmetics, while the European Union and 10 Southeast Asian nations forbid 2 specific kinds of parabens from being used in cosmetics? In fact, five different parabens are either restricted or have been completely banned from personal care products in the EU.
Parabens are still legal in America because they’re cheap.
Parabens are still legal in America because they’re cheap. American business runs on the cheap and the convenient. For example, some companies have removed BPA from their plastic products to satisfy consumers, but they have replaced that ingredient with BPA’s cousin BPS, which is just as bad (but just as cheap).
How Can I Reduce My Exposure to Parabens?
Limiting your exposure to parabens will have to be taken into your own hands. Fortunately, there are many things you can do to reduce artificial estrogens in your environment!
Buy paraben-free personal care products. Luckily, there are many, many brands out there selling paraben-free products! And many of them also exclude another major estrogenic called phthalates. If you want a shortcut, check out this comprehensive list of clean products, compiled by estrogenic expert, scientist, and researcher Dr. Anthony Jay.
Spray perfume on your clothing, not your skin. This will prevent your skin from absorbing the majority of the perfume and its parabens. For a paraben-free brand of perfume, check out Phlur.
Use an activated charcoal water filter. The benefit of this kind of water filter is that it will remove estrogenics and pharmaceuticals from your drinking water. (Who wants leftover birth control chemicals in your glass? Not me.) You can find personal to family-sized water filters at Berkey Filters.
Read food labels. When buying packaged food, check the label to make sure you’re getting something made without parabens. The most common types of parabens are methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben, isopropylparaben, and isobutylparaben.
While parabens on their own may not be all that bad for the average person, they are not the only estrogenic we are exposed to. The average American is also exposed to phytoestrogens (lavender, flax, and soy), BPA and its under-the-radar cousin BPS (sandwich bags and tin food cans), phthalates (many, many plastics), red dye No. 40 (looking at you, Motrin), and herbicides (big bad Round-Up), just to name a few.
Given that so many paraben-free products are now available, simple lifestyle changes can start decreasing your exposure, which can have positive health benefits for you and your future generations.