More and more we see brands boast their “paraben-free” ingredients on their labels and in their branding. It’s apparently the new “cool” thing to buy products without parabens - but do we really know why we should stop using them? Is it really necessary or are we just following along with the latest trend? Let’s dive into what they are and how they may be affecting us.
Down to a Science
If you’re anything like me, you check-out when people start explaining anything ending in -thyl, -oxide or something else remotely close to sounding like a chemical compound. So let me explain in the most basic way possible, so that even a science-language-averter like myself can understand.
Parabens are man-made chemical compounds, introduced in the 1950s, that act as preservatives. They stop the growth of bacteria, mold, fungi, and other unwanted microorganisms to help keep products on the shelves longer. Anything ending in “paraben”, for example, “methylparaben” or “propylparaben” (the list goes on for miles), is considered part of this group. They are found in a multitude of beauty, health and personal care products, including shampoos, conditioners, toothpastes, deodorants, shaving products, body lotions, make-up, and even many food items.
While the European Union has already banned parabens from products since 2012, the U.S. still allows them in what the FDA deems to be within “safe” limits. However, even if one product includes a “safe” amount of them, it’s the cumulative amount between all the different products we use that worry health advocates. The FDA does not have specific rules that apply to preservatives in cosmetics and in general, cosmetic products and their ingredients (with the exception of color additives) don’t need FDA approval before going on the market. Essentially, we are far behind Europe in the regulation of parabens, along with thousands of other chemicals used in cosmetics.
Among the biggest concern about our coming into contact with these chemicals is its effects on our hormones. Parabens act like estrogen in the body by binding onto estrogen receptors on cells. Your body then responds as if there is a lot more estrogen in the body than there actually is, which can trigger increased breast cell division and even the growth of breast tumors. In addition, parabens are linked with increased risk of breast cancer, reproductive problems, immunological and neurological issues, and skin irritation. Further studies also show that parabens are beginning to affect more than just humans, as these chemicals are now being found in marine mammals, likely from waste being discarded into our waters.
Fortunately, there are safer alternatives to prevent microbial growth in products we use on our skin and in our bodies. These natural and organic options may have a shorter shelf life (six months to a year), but still provide plenty of time to use before the expiration date.
All in all, we are still in the early stages of knowing the full effects of paraben usage on our health. However, we can definitively say that there are safer, natural alternatives which are becoming more available on the market. Although the FDA does not regulate certain chemicals, such as parabens, at the level they should be at this point, it’s up to us as consumers to educate ourselves and make informed decisions about the products we purchase and use.
Photo by: Linda Prebreza