Although we generally focus on ingredients that our products do contain, today we’ll discuss one that we avoid using: parabens. We’ve asked our consultant, family physician Cynthia J. Koelker, MD, to discuss the use of parabens in skin care products.
Parabens are commonly added to skin care products and cosmetics to act as preservatives.
Skin care products that contain water require preservatives to prevent the growth of bacteria. Parabens help combat the growth of these microorganisms, although exactly how they do so is not well understood. They may work by disrupting the cell membrane, causing the cell to leak and die.
Although some parabens occur in small amounts in nature, those that are used commercially are produced synthetically. These include methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben, and butylparaben. Products that contain these chemicals must list them as ingredients.
Although uncommon, some people are allergic to parabens, or may develop skin problems such as contact dermatitis or rosacea when using paraben-containing products
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not regulate the use of parabens in cosmetics and skin care products, and considers them generally safe. However, the FDA continues to review studies regarding possible hazards and risks of both using them and not using them.
Recent research has examined the negative effects of parabens on the fetus, children, and even obesity.
Parabens are known to be endocrine disrupting compounds (EDCs), which is a concern in pregnant women, since parabens have been shown to cross the placenta and to reach the developing fetus. For this reason a 2018 study examined certain effects of maternal exposure to parabens during pregnancy. The results showed that parabens were present in the babies’ blood (taken from umbilical cord blood), and also that the higher the paraben level, the lower the testosterone level at birth. This raises questions regarding possible risks for the developing male child. A 2017 study also confirmed that parabens can be detected in breast milk of women using paraben-containing products.
Another recent study of 3-year-olds showed exposure to parabens may adversely affect growth in boys.
Parabens also have some effect on fat cells (adipocytes), and at least one study raises the question of a role in the obesity epidemic.
Is there a link to infertility? A 2009 study suggests parabens may not be as safe as previously thought, and may be a contributing factor in male infertility.
The disruptive effect on female hormones is less clear, and questions regarding breast cancer and reproductive health require further investigation.
In summary, although parabens have demonstrated certain benefits as preservatives, and have been considered generally safe, their role in many areas of health has not been thoroughly investigated. Individuals with sensitive skin, pregnant women, nursing mothers, young boys, (and perhaps all men), might find it advisable to limit needless exposure to parabens.
Because our skin care products do not contain water, no preservatives are required, and we happily remain preservative-free.
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Paraben Concentrations in Maternal Urine and Breast Milk and Its Association with Personal Care Product Use. Fisher M, MacPherson S, Braun JM, Hauser R, Walker M, Feeley M, Mallick R, Bérubé R, Arbuckle TE. Environ Sci Technol. 2017 Apr 4;51(7):4009-4017. doi: 10.1021/acs.est.6b04302. Epub 2017 Mar 20.
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Parabens in male infertility-is there a mitochondrial connection? Tavares RS, Martins FC, Oliveira PJ, Ramalho-Santos J, Peixoto FP. Reprod Toxicol. 2009 Jan;27(1):1-7. doi: 10.1016/j.reprotox.2008.10.002. Epub 2008 Oct 21. Review.