A diagram of a paraben

Xenoestrogens in Parabens: Are they worth worrying about?

Parabens are esters, which are chemical compounds formed from an organic acid and an alcohol. There are many kinds of parabens, like butylparaben or methylparaben. Unfortunately, not all of them have paraben in the name making them so easy to identify, like parahydroxybenzoate. You’ll find parabens in all kinds of hygiene products, like shampoo or toothpaste. They are also used in most cosmetics and makeup. And it’s sometimes used as a food additive. It’s not hard to figure out why parabens are used in all these things – they are cheap and effective preservatives. Parabens prevent the growth of a number of bacteria and other microorganisms, and they do of a good job of that. Unfortunately though, there are xenoestrogens in parabens. Their use may soon be limited to products with minimal human contact as new research is uncovering that not only do they function as a xenoestrogen, but they may play a role in a number of other health issues.

WHAT ARE THE EFFECTS OF XENOESTROGENS IN PARABENS

First let’s look at the xenoestrogens in parabens. Xenoestrogens (XEs) are chemicals that mimic the effect of estrogen in the body, and parabens are an XE. Research shows that parabens do indeed have a xenoestrogenic effect on the body 1 but that it is relatively weak compared to some other XEs 2, so that’s a plus.

But like many XEs, there is a concern that even though we may only be exposed to trace amounts of them day-to-day, they likely accumulate in the body 3 and can build up to more dangerous levels over time, while also exerting a constant low-level effect. A constant weak dose of estrogen would and could cause a number of effects, most if not all negative, especially for developing bodies and xenoestrogens are no different. And like many others, xenoestrogens in parabens may increase the risk of breast cancer 4, as estrogen plays a large role in its development.

NON-ESTROGENIC EFFECTS

The other potential effects of parabens are relatively minor, but still worth consideration especially given their widespread use in products intended for regular and endured use on the skin. The first is not surprising – for people with paraben allergies, the use of products on the skin containing them could cause dermatitis or rosacea 5. However, this is not a common allergy. The more troubling potential effect of these parabens is that they may make the skin more sensitive to sun damage 6, accelerating the aging process and increasing the risk of sun cancer 7. So keep that in mind when using moisturizers or makeup containing parabens before going out under the Sun.


WHERE ARE PARABENS FOUND

You can find parabens in a wide variety of household products. They’re most commonly in hygiene products and cosmetics, but that’s not all. Some examples:

  • Hygiene Products – shampoo, toothpaste, soap
  • Cosmetics – Lipstick, moisturizer, foundation, makeup remover
  • Medical Supplies – Bandages, eye drops, ointments
  • Food – Soft drinks, salad dressing, mayonnaise, mustard
  • Misc – Textiles, glue

HOW TO AVOID XENOESTROGENS IN PARABENS

To start with, decide what products containing parabens are the real problems. While parabens do have some concerns with regular and long-term usage, not all products containing them are used regularly which means not enough for a dangerous amount to accumulate. The microorganisms that parabens prevent from growing on some products will likely be more dangerous than the parabens themselves in some products, for example bandages or eye drops. The last thing you want is a colony of bacteria moving into your eye drops and getting a free ride into your eyes. But it may be a wise move to avoid parabens in things that you’re exposed to daily and are left on the skin for some time, like shampoo or foundation makeup. Just remember that products like eye drops aren’t really a concern in this case, so don’t immediately assume that anything with parabens should be thrown out.

So going with that understanding of the actual threat level parabens pose, the sources that are worth avoiding are ones that have the most potential to be absorbed by the body, and the most often. This means it may be wise to avoid paraben-containing products like moisturizer, shampoo, makeup foundation, and things like that. These products provide ample time for the xenoestrogens in parabens to be absorbed into the body. These will be spread across a large amount of skin and may be there for some time, maximizing their potential to be absorbed. You can find a list of paraben and otherwise XE free products in the “XEs in Hygiene Products” article. For makeup, you’d do well looking at a site like RealSimple or Bellatory. Both have good lists of paraben free cosmetics. Otherwise, one easy way to avoid most products with parabens is to have a look at the ingredients list and avoid anything with “paraben” in the name. That won’t catch all of them, but it’ll do in a pinch.

(Header image credit to Edgar181 at Wikimedia)

Notes:

  1. Byford JR, Shaw LE, Drew MG, Pope GS, Sauer MJ, Darbre PD (January 2002). “Oestrogenic activity of parabens in MCF7 human breast cancer cells”. J Steroid Biochem Mol Biol. 80 (1): 49–60.
  2. Cashman AL, Warshaw EM (2005). “Parabens: a review of epidemiology, structure, allergenicity, and hormonal properties”. Dermatitis. 16 (2): 57–66; quiz 55–6. 8. They might also be entirely ineffective when consumed orally 9 Edwin J. Routledge; et al. (1998). “Some alkyl hydroxy benzoate preservatives (parabens) are estrogenic”.
  3. Edwin J. Routledge; et al. (1998). “Some alkyl hydroxy benzoate preservatives (parabens) are estrogenic”.
  4. Wiley-Blackwell “Parabens in Breast Tissue not Limited to Women who Have Used Underarm Products” Journal of Applied Toxicology
  5. Nagel JE, Fuscaldo JT, Fireman P (1977). “Paraben allergy”. JAMA. 237 (15): 1594–5
  6. Okamoto Y, Hayashi T, Matsunami S, Ueda K, Kojima N (2008). “Combined activation of methyl paraben by light irradiation and esterase metabolism toward oxidative DNA damage”. Chemical Research in Toxicology. 21 (8): 1594–9.
  7. Handa O, Kokura S, Adachi S, Takagi T, Naito Y, Tanigawa T, Yoshida N, Yoshikawa T (2006). “Methylparaben potentiates UV-induced damage of skin keratinocytes”. Toxicology. 227 (1-2): 62–72.

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