This is part of our ongoing series helping consumers better understand chemicals, chemistry, and product formulations. We translate the science, bust the myths, and give you an honest assessment, so you can make informed choices for your family!
Parabens (Includes methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben, heptylparaben, isobutylparaben, isopropylparaben, and benzylparaben.)
What they are:
Parabens found in consumer products are made synthetically by reacting an alcohol with an acid. While the form of alcohol varies depending on the specific paraben, the acid is always p-hydroxybenzoic acid – a synthetic reproduction of a natural compound found in some mushrooms, coconuts, Acai oil, and more.
What they do:
Since the 1950s, parabens have been used in vast array of products to prevent bacteria growth and they are currently the most widely used cosmetic preservative on the market. They are also sometimes used as a preservative in pharmaceuticals and food.
Why we’re featuring them today:
Parabens are included in our Honestly Free Guarantee because they can potentially affect natural hormone production or other aspects of the hormone (endocrine) system. Their health risks are hotly debated, so here’s a snapshot of the research and controversy.
In 2004, a small study led by Dr. Philippa Darbre in the UK found parabens in samples of breast tumors leading to widespread concerns over parabens’ potential role in breast cancer. Critics pointed out that noncancerous tissue from healthy breasts weren’t tested for the presence of parabens and that the presence of parabens in tumors doesn’t prove that they caused the cancer. Both are legitimate points, but follow-up studies have continued to identify reasons for concern.
- In 2008, Darbre and her associates reviewed all of the research that had been conducted in the 4 years since their original findings and the body of evidence showed the following:
- Intact parabens were present in human urine (meaning the human body was not fully capable of metabolizing – or breaking down – the chemicals)
- Parabens penetrate human skin intact without breakdown and are absorbed systemically
- Parabens were repeatedly shown to have estrogen disruption impacts
- Parabens were also found to possess androgen disruption activity
- Parabens were genotoxic (which means they can damage the genetic information in cells causing mutations and potentially leading to cancer)
On top of that, a study published in the European Journal of Cancer Prevention found that an earlier age of breast cancer diagnosis correlated to more frequent use of underarm products and underarm shaving. Two other studies found that when methylparaben was exposed to UV light on the skin, it could cause DNA damage and skin aging. Another study (animal), found that exposure to polyparabens at currently acceptable levels resulted in reduced sperm production.
Need we go on?
While it’s been pointed out that parabens may have far lower estrogenic potential than some natural estrogens we’re exposed to on a regular basis, the concern we have is regarding cumulative exposures (i.e. how many times a person is exposed to these hormones each day) and uniquely vulnerable populations like pregnant women and children. During critical windows of development, an extra “dose” of hormones can lead to irreversible impacts. With all this in mind, they’re definitely something worth avoiding during pregnancy and childhood – especially since safer alternatives exist.
Want your home to be Honestly Free of parabens?
Just remember these two words: read labels. Look for anything that ends in “paraben” and, if you see it, put the product down and look for another option. As mentioned, parabens are widely used in cosmetics and personal care products. They can also be found in some pharmaceuticals and food products like baked goods, soft drinks, jams & jellies, dressings, and more.
Still have questions about parabens? Let us know in the comments!
- Byford JR, Shaw LE, Drew MGB, Pope GS, Sauer MJ, Darbre PD (2002). Oestrogenic activity of parabens in MCF7 human breast cancer cells. Journal of Steroid Biochemistry & Molecular Biology 80:49-60.
- Darbre PD, Aljarrah A, Miller WR, Coldham NG, Sauer MJ, Pope GS (2004). Concentrations of parabens in human breast tumours. Journal of Applied Toxicology 24:5-13.
- Darbre, P. D., & Harvey, P. W. (2008). Paraben esters: review of recent studies of endocrine toxicity, absorption, esterase and human exposure, and discussion of potential human health risks. Journal of applied toxicology, 28(5), 561-578.
- Marques-Pinto, A., & Carvalho, D. (2013). Human infertility: are endocrine disruptors to blame?. Endocrine connections, 2(3), R15-R29.
- McGrath, Kris (December 2003). “An earlier age of breast cancer diagnosis related to more frequent use of antiperspirants/deodorants and underarm shaving”. European Journal of Cancer Prevention 12 (6): 479–85.
- Oishi, S. (2002). Effects of propyl paraben on the male reproductive system.Food and Chemical Toxicology, 40(12), 1807-1813.
- Osamu Handa, Satoko Adachi, Tomohisa Takagi et al. (3 October 2006). “Methylparaben potentiates UV-induced damage of skin keratinocytes”. Toxicology 227 (1-2): 62–72.
- Poongothai, S., Ravikrishnan, R., & Murthy, P. B. (2008). Endocrine disruption and perspective human health implications: a review. Internet Journal of Toxicology, 4(2).
- Yoshinori Okamoto, Tomohiro Hayashi, Shinpei Matsunami, Koji Ueda, Nakao Kojima (July 26, 2008). “Combined activation of methyl paraben by light irradiation and esterase metabolism toward oxidative DNA damage”. Chemical Research in Toxicology 21 (8): 1594–9.