If you’ve looked at product marketing ads lately, you may/may not have noticed those claims: parabens free, sulfate free, phthalates free. If you are intrigued about what parabens are and what the fuss is about, read on!
What are parabens?
Parabens are a family of chemicals commonly used as antimicrobial preservatives in personal care products, pharmaceuticals, and foods. Exposure to these chemicals can occur through ingestion, inhalation, or dermal absorption. Although parabens are quickly eliminated from the body through urination (Janjua et al. 2008), they have been detected in the general U.S. population from infants to adults.
The commonly used ones in cosmetics are: methylparaben and propylparaben. Others sometimes used include butylparaben, ethylparaben, isopropylparaben, isobutylparaben and benzylparaben.
Why are parabens a concern?
Parabens are suspected endocrine disruptors; they behave like the female estrogen hormone. In other words, they can interfere with the hormone activity in the body. A study published in 2004 (Darbre, in the Journal of Applied Toxicology) detected these chemicals in breast tumors of several patients. There were many questions left unanswered from the study itself, such as whether the parabens had a role in the tumor formation.
Several other studies seemed to indicate that parabens have an overall negative impact on females: changes in the ovary, early puberty etc… Yet these studies are not sufficient or complete.
Therefore, on the basis of available toxicologic data, Methylparaben and Propylparaben were classified as generally regarded as safe in 1972 by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. In 2008, the Cosmetic Ingredient Review Panel concluded that parabens used in cosmetics, including Butylparaben, do not pose a safety risk based on the available data within a certain safety margin. This explains why they are still in use nowadays in the U.S.
Infertility and parabens
A recent study suggests that there might actually be a link between infertility and the intake of parabens. Typically, as a woman’s age increases, her ovarian reserve (of eggs) diminishes (“ovarian aging”), associated with reduced fertility. The study analyzed urine samples from 192 women seeking help at a fertility clinic for conception. They found evidence to suggest that exposure to propylparaben might have a contribution to ovarian aging. Evidently more test subjects are needed for a more thorough study. But the study does point out that out of the millions of women seeking help to become pregnant, many may be especially sensitive to endocrine-disrupting chemicals such as parabens.
The amounts of parabens used in cosmetics are quite low. However, since data does seem to point towards their negative impacts on women’s health, other preservatives should be considered instead.