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Dangers of Parabens: What They Are and Where They’re Lurking

woman washing face

What do conventional sunscreen, drugstore lipstick, and big brand snack cakes have in common…other than that hopefully they’re not in your house? 😉

They all have parabens. You better believe I don’t allow parabens in my top recommended natural mineral (reef-safe) sunscreens!

But what are parabens? Are they totally safe, or are they going to kill us??

Answers range from: “parabens cause cancer,” to “they’re naturally found in blueberries.” Today I’m going to break down what parabens are, the dangers of parabens, and how to avoid them.

Although most people think of parabens as a personal product problem, it’s not as simple as switching out your makeup!

What are Parabens?

Parabens are commonly found in makeup, lotion, hair care, sunscreen, and shaving products to name a few. Parabens aren’t just relegated to the cosmetics shelf though. You can also find them in food, drinks, and medications. Ick!

Parabens are a class of chemicals used to preserve cosmetics, skincare, food, and drinks. They help prevent microbes like bacteria and mold from taking over. 

While preventing spoiled food and lotion may sound fine on the surface, there’s more to the story. Not every good end justifies the means…

Parabens: are they safe and where they're lurking

Dangers of Parabens

Let’s walk through some research on parabens and possible dangers, and you can decide if you think “the dose makes the poison” or they’re going on your “X” list like they did when I first learned about them when my oldest was a baby lathered up in Johnson&Johnson bath wash…until I read those ingredients!

This is one case of not quite understanding “how much” is needed to cause a dangerous effect. Many scientists even call the paraben breast cancer link a debunked myth. However, a study in Environmental Health Perspectives challenges that idea.

In this study researchers used heregulin, which is naturally made in breast cells, to activate receptors in breast cancer cells. When the heregulin was combined with parabens, it triggered the estrogen receptors and caused significant cell growth. Not something you want in a cancer cell! In fact, parabens amplified the growth effects or heregulin primed cells by 100 times!

The researchers did point out that studies that look at parabens alone, in animals, or a petri dish aren’t able to fully understand what effect it has on the human body in a real-life situation (source). But why take the chance if these results could translate to humans? 

Woman using face moisturizer

Not Breaking Down

A 2004 study from the Journal of Applied Toxicology examined 20 breast tumors and found they contained completely intact parabens. Methylparaben was the worst offender. 99% of the samples taken had intact parabens in them, with the highest concentration near the armpit (where paraben-containing deodorants are used).

Shockingly, even women who had never used deodorant before still had parabens in the breast tissue, although in much lower amounts. Our lymph nodes reside right under the armpit, so parabens from other sources could still accumulate in fatty breast tissue.

It’s highly concerning to me that we can’t rest easy thinking, “My body will take care of these for me,” since they’re not broken down at all in these examples (nor excreted, obviously).

Estrogen Mimicking Parabens

How do parabens mimic estrogen in the body?

Humans have estrogen receptors that use the hormone to affect different processes in the body. Estrogen plays a critical role in many areas:

  • fertility and menstruation
  • cervical mucus production and consistency
  • increases insulin sensitivity
  • helps prevent vaginal bacterial infections
  • helps maintain body temperature
  • improves skin and collagen (use the coupon KS10 for 10% off!) to slow signs of aging
  • prevents bone loss
  • regulates cholesterol production in the liver
  • improves hair growth
  • reduces acne in women

When that estrogen receptor gets a paraben attached to it instead of the estrogen it needs, we have a problem. The body thinks it has more estrogen than it has, and processes may be kicked off or interfered with, causing illness or dysfunction in the body.

The parabens would also block the body’s actual estrogen from hitting those receptors, which could potentially cause an excess of free estrogen in the system.

Woman considering two deodorants

Paraben Dangers for the Thyroid

A 2013 study found that the higher the level of parabens in urine, the worse the thyroid will function, especially in women. Thyroid dysfunction can cause unhealthy weight, hair loss, and other significant health problems for women. However, it also affects children.

“Thyroid hormones play a critical role in fetal and child growth and neurodevelopment, are essential in regulating metabolism and maintaining energy balance, and carry out a range of functions in the nervous, cardiovascular, skeletal, pulmonary, and reproductive systems.”

When chemicals like parabens interrupt thyroid hormones, especially in growing children, it can cause severe health effects. The evidence is showing they even interrupt the normal development of the brain.

Fertility Issues in Men

Parabens don’t just affect women’s hormones though.

In one animal study testosterone levels and sperm counts were lower in male rats fed parabens. Research like this is one of the reasons why the European Union has banned certain parabens from their food supply.

Parabens’ Effect On Our Children (and Beyond)

Paraben exposure happens before we’re even born. In an animal study, pregnant rats fed isobutyl-paraben, a common food additive, passed some of the hormone-disrupting effects on to their offspring.

“Maternal exposure of IBP (paraben) decreased the plasma corticosterone concentration and increased the uterus weight in dams and increased uterine sensitivity to estrogen in adult female offspring.” – source

The damage doesn’t stop there. Pregnant moms with high levels of butylparaben in their urine were significantly more likely to have children that were overweight later in life. Animal studies indicate that girls whose mothers were exposed to the paraben are more likely to want to eat more and end up gaining more weight (source).

mother nursing baby

In this Canadian study, over 50% of breastmilk samples tested positive for parabens. Not only are babies exposed in utero, but it’s in their milk, food, and slathered on their skin via baby skincare products.

I remember feeling soooo guilty when I first learned about parabens, went on a little “paraben-hunt” around my house and found them in products I was putting on my tiny babies!!! But truly…we can only do the best with what we know, so toss those products today and find a better way, starting now. It still counts and your intentions are not awry, Mama!

How Much is too Much?

Scientists at the CDC and FDA are adamant parabens pose no risk, citing a long period of use in both skincare and food, and the fact that almost everyone has parabens in their body.

Cough, cough…do you feel comfortable with that as proof of safety?? We could also say, “Almost everyone will get cancer in their lifetime,” or, “It seems like everyone I know has fertility problems,” or even, “Over 70% of American adults are obese or overweight,” and those would all be true, but I’m not happy about them!

CDC scientists measured the amount of parabens eliminated in urine over different age groups, ethnicities, and genders. They found that women had seven times the amount of parabens in their urine than men, likely because of all the beauty products we use. Certain ethnicities, like Hispanics, also had higher levels than whites.

Scientists still don’t know what level of parabens in urine (or that hang around in the body), will tip the scales and cause health issues. Doctors and public health officials are told only to worry if levels become higher than what’s normally found in humans.

A Widespread Problem

However, what if even “normal” levels are actually harmful? What if we’re just dumping so many parabens into personal care products, food, and the environment we’ve become saturated with the stuff? Unfortunately, almost all of us have.

Nearly 93% of Americans have parabens in their urine. They’ve also been found in blood samples and breast milk.

Since parabens are absorbed through the skin, touching a product with parabens in it (like lotion, makeup, etc.) causes parabens to enter the body.

According to the CDC, they’re quickly excreted in urine, however, they can also be found hanging around in other bodily fluids.

The question is how much damage are they doing before they take the exit? And are you hydrating enough to detox properly? And what about the intact parabens that take up residence in body tissue?

Personally, I know what choice I’m making for myself and my family, and that’s NOT to be the guinea pigs in the, “Let’s see how much it takes to be proven toxic,” experiment. How about you? 

Environmental Impact of Parabens

The effects aren’t just seen in ourselves and children, but parabens also impact animals and the environment.

Researchers found synthetic parabens in sea animals from all over the US, including dolphins, polar bears, and sea otters. Evidence of paraben exposure was in all of the tested samples, meaning it’s become a widespread problem for the entire planet. Like humans, marine animals exposed to parabens have fertility problems.

coral reef

If dolphins aren’t slathering up with paraben preserved lotion, then where are they getting them from? When we use shampoo, soap, and other paraben containing products they’re washed down the drain, into the sewer, and out into the environment.

Research published in the national institute of environmental health sciences found that even at low levels parabens are detrimental to coral reefs. This is just one reason our family opts for coral reef safe sunscreens!

And let’s think this through…if parabens are in the water supply, do we know that they’re being filtered out at the city water plant? Could we be consuming them? I remember finding parabens in food coloring and realizing that it’s just one more reason we shouldn’t consume artificial colors (but they’re so hard to avoid 100%!). 🙁

Where are Parabens Found?

Since most of us are saturated with parabens, where are they all coming from?

The two main sources are personal care products and food.

Where Parabens Hide Out in Personal Care Products

Many personal care products and cosmetics have parabens lurking in the ingredients list. Here are some common culprits:

  • Facial moisturizer
  • Anti-aging creams
  • Makeup (foundation, eye makeup, primer, lipstick, etc.)
  • Sunscreen
  • Body lotion
  • Deodorant and antiperspirant
  • Cleansers
  • Toner
  • Lip balm
  • Hair permanent kits
  • Shampoo and other hair products
  • Anything with “fragrance” in it

RELATED: Find some of the natural products we use here and start making safer choices. 

Fake Fragrances

Fragrances deserve a bit more explanation.

When you see fragrance listed on the label we’re not talking about flower essences and pretty scents. Fragrances are trademarked, secret, chemical concoctions that don’t legally have to be disclosed on the label. Unfortunately over 3,000 chemicals, including parabens, hideout under the term fragrances.

Parabens aside, it’s best to avoid anything with fragrance on the label, which is linked with things like headaches, skin irritation, and central nervous system damage to name just a few.

perfume bottles

Be a savvy label reader!

On ingredients labels, parabens are found under any of these names and more: butylparaben, methylparaben, and propylparaben. And of course, personal care products aren’t mandated to disclose ingredients, so sometimes you don’t even get the opportunity to dig in. (Hint: No ingredients listed, no purchase made!) 

RELATED: More on what to avoid in personal care products in this interview with Lara Adler.

How are Parabens Regulated in Cosmetics?

In simple terms, they aren’t… at least in cosmetics.

“Under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FD&C Act), cosmetic products and ingredients, other than color additives, do not need FDA approval before they go on the market.” – FDA

Government health agencies, i.e. the CDC and FDA, take an innocent until proven guilty approach when it comes to chemicals and preservatives. There isn’t enough safety data to prove parabens are safe, which also means there isn’t enough data to prove they’re definitively harmful either.

“Human health effects from environmental exposure to low levels of parabens are unknown.” – CDC
makeup

FDA vs EU on Parabens

You probably already know who’s going to win on this one. The European Union has restricted paraben use in cosmetics for infants, and the Dutch have banned their use in products for anyone under age 3. The EU commission also notes there isn’t enough information about certain parabens to determine if they’re safe or not so the best approach is to avoid these ones.

Armed with the same information, the FDA has decided since there’s not enough info to show they’re harmful, they must be safe. We’re left with virtually non-existent paraben regulation in the US.

Demanding Change

Even though the FDA has dropped the ball, more and more consumers are waking up and demanding healthier skincare products. As a result, more companies are removing parabens from their personal care products, even some of the conventional brands. However, that doesn’t mean there still aren’t plenty of other nasty things hiding out in conventional products!

My friend Wardee over at Traditional Cooking School is offering a new resource for women’s health that you can claim for FREE.

Natural Remedies to Common Female Infections

You’ll get lots of info about the superfoods, essential oils, and simple, natural remedies that can heal urinary tract infections, bacterial vaginosis, and yeast infections… naturally!

The Use of Parabens in Food

The FDA approved parabens for use as preservatives in both food and food packaging.

Even if parabens aren’t listed in the ingredients, they could still be on your food because they’re packaged in it. Basically, anything that’s pre-packaged or processed is at risk for containing parabensOne more reason to cook from scratch as much as possible, if you ask me…

Need More Baby Steps?

Monday Missions Baby Steps Back to Basics

Here at Kitchen Stewardship, we’ve always been all about the baby steps. But if you’re just starting your real food and natural living journey, sifting through all that we’ve shared here over the years can be totally overwhelming.

That’s why we took the best 10 rookie “Monday Missions” that used to post once a week and got them all spruced up to send to your inbox – once a week on Mondays, so you can learn to be a kitchen steward one baby step at a time, in a doable sequence.

Sign up to get weekly challenges and teaching on key topics like meal planning, homemade foods that save the budget (and don’t take too much time), what to cut out of your pantry, and more.

In this study, over 90% of the food samples tested positive for parabens. Even things like lettuce, radishes, bananas, meat, and milk had parabens because of how they were packaged. Here were some of the offenders according to researchers:

  • Drinks (milk, formula, beer, juice, bottled water, etc.)
  • Sauces
  • Pre-packaged foods
  • Processed fruits and vegetables
  • Flavoring syrups (like for coffee and ice cream)
  • Jam
  • Pickles
  • Dairy products
  • Meats and fish wrapped in plastic
  • Vegetable oil
  • Grains (wheat, rice, pasta, bread, etc.)
  • Certain fruits and vegetables

Are Parabens Natural?

A common argument from chemical companies is that parabens are found naturally in foods like blueberries, so therefore synthetic parabens must be completely safe.

This couldn’t be further from the truth.

blueberries

Scientific research showing natural parabens in food is extremely limited. There are molecules similar to parabens in blueberries and a few other plants (though not exactly the same), and cloudberries do have trace amounts of parabens in them. (But when was the last time you ate a cloudberry??)

And this study did find trace amounts of parabens in certain types of vanilla extract. However, it’s unclear if the parabens are naturally found in the vanilla pod itself, or a byproduct of how the extract was made.

Paraben compounds are very rarely found in nature and they are negligible to non-existent in a natural diet. 

Government Regulation on Parabens in Food

packaged tomatoes

The FDA considers parabens GRAS, or generally recognized as safe, for use as preservatives in food.

However, the European Union points to studies showing propylparaben disrupts hormones and lowers fertility. Propylparaben is banned from food in the EU, but an analysis from the EWG showed it’s hiding in many US pre-packaged foods.

Nearly 93% of Americans have propylparaben in their urine, which means most of us are exposed to it on a daily basis. Even if we avoid processed foods with parabens on the ingredients label, it’s important to minimize the amount of packaging on food to avoid hidden parabens.

Food marketed to infants has the highest levels of parabens, followed by toddler food.

Parabens in Drinking Water

Parabens have contaminated both ocean and drinking water supplies.

Another important step in limiting paraben exposure is to drink filtered water. This doesn’t mean bottled water stored in plastic though, which leaches harmful chemicals into the water.

Certain water filters will do the job. You can read my review of Berkey filters here (which gets 99% of junk out of drinking water).

The Bottom Line: Our Perspective on the Dangers of Parabens

If you don’t have time to read and digest the whole post, here are your skim notes:

  1. Parabens are preservatives, which means they’ll only be used in something trying to stick around longer than perhaps it ought, anyway. If everyone made everything from scratch, they wouldn’t even be needed. 
  2. Are they dangerous? It’s possible they’re related to breast cancer, mimic estrogen, impact the thyroid, and cause fertility problems in both men and women. 
  3. It’s definite that they don’t break down well in our bodies or the environment. 
  4. Parabens are so pervasive that they’re in the urine of 93% of Americans as well as infants and breast milk. They’re affecting sea life.
  5. The EU has banned some parabens in products for babies, but the US doesn’t think it’s a problem. The dose makes the poison, they believe. 
  6. Parabens are in both personal care products and food, particularly food packaging, and even drinking water, and they’re NOT natural in the environment. The FDA has deemed parabens GRAS. 

So the real bottom line is this: 

How will YOU react to this knowledge? Will you eradicate parabens from your house as much as you are able by switching to more natural personal care products and ditching any processed food that admits to parabens in the ingredients?
RELATED: From back when I was first making the switch, here are some tips to avoid parabens at home.

We honestly can’t escape them all since they’re so ubiquitous in the environment and products and don’t have to be on the label, but if we can cut down on processed food and make some important swaps in the body care and cleaning products we buy, we can put our family on the safer side of the numbers. 

Speak with your purchasing power, good kitchen stewards!

Are you ready to remove parabens from your house?
Unless otherwise credited, photos are owned by the author or used with a license from Canva or Deposit Photos.

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