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The Problem with Parabens

Posted on Sep 12, 2016

We are a society of informed consumers. You take notice when controversy arises, especially when that controversy involves products that you and your family use on a regular basis. One such controversial issue is the use of parabens in your cosmetic and skin care products. Parabens can be found in about eighty five percent of personal care products and are most often added to shampoos, conditioners, body cleansers, facial cleansers and facial moisturizers.  While parabens are one of the most widely used preservatives in skin care, their use does not come without a degree of concern. There is a growing trend toward paraben-free products, which is good news for consumers, but what you really need to know is the truth about why parabens are potentially dangerous for your skin and your overall health.

To begin, it is important to understand what parabens are why they are used in so many skin care products. In a nutshell, parabens are a group of chemicals with preservative qualities. They are added to skin care and cosmetics to discourage microbial growth, and are listed as butylparaben, ethylparaben, isobutylparaben, methylparaben or propylparaben. Many companies that manufacture products that contain parabens produce on such a large scale that it becomes important to add the protective quality of a preservative to keep their products fresh and extend the shelf life. Additionally, antimicrobials are beneficial in products such as eye cream or mascara, where fresh bacteria might be introduced into the container with each use.

An antimicrobial that keeps your skin care fresh doesn’t sound so bad, so what is it about parabens that has caused so much speculation? The answer to this question is the way that parabens react on the skin’s surface and the way that they are metabolized by the body. The Food and Drug Administration has looked at parabens and has determined them safe to use in cosmetics at levels up to twenty five percent. The typical amount found in most cosmetics is actually much lower.  You might think that this alone is enough security to trust the use of parabens in your products, but there are a few other things that you should consider. It is important to know that parabens are found in a wide array of products that you use on a daily basis, many of which are not cosmetics. For example, parabens can be found in eye drops, adhesive bandages, sunscreen, soft drinks and even salad dressings. Part of the issue with parabens is overexposure. Parabens have been approved for use in products in small amounts, but what happens when we are constantly coming in contact with them from various sources?

The first issue to develop is may be a sensitivity or allergic reaction in the form of contact dermatitis. There are five different parabens esters, each having their own characteristics that might make them the more favorable choice for a certain product. Many times more than one ester is used because it not only adds additional preservative qualities, but it is often more cost efficient to use a parabens mix. A person might not have a sensitivity to just one paraben ester, but with each additional one added, the chance of a cross reaction between the multiple esters is greatly increased. The risk increases even more when parabens come into contact with individuals with already compromised skin conditions, such as sunburn, acne or abrasions. Babies, young children, the elderly and people with sensitive skin are also at a greater risk of developing allergic contact dermatitis from paraben exposure. Allergic contact dermatitis is a term that refers to a condition in which your skin becomes red and inflamed with possible itching and burning sensations. It is also common to experience some degree of blistering with contact dermatitis. Contact dermatitis is different from uticaria, or hives, in the fact that dermatitis is caused by contact with something that has actually stripped away the defensive oils that are normally present on the skin’s surface. It can often be difficult to pinpoint the cause of allergic contact dermatitis, especially if it might be coming from exposure to a mix of parabens. For some people, the reaction can become chronic and lead to emotional distress as well. One way to avoid this is by eliminating or reducing your exposure to parabens as much as possible.

Contact dermatitis is no joke, but there are even more serious concerns about the use of parabens in cosmetic and skin care products. One such concern is the potential connection between parabens and certain cancers. A study in 2004 looked at twenty samples of breast cancer tumors and discovered that eighteen of them contained some amount of parabens. There is no evidence to prove causation between paraben use and cancer, but those studies alone are enough to give us pause and encourage us to take a closer look. Parabens are xenoestrogens, which mean they mimic the action of estrogen in the body. Certain types of cancer such as breast cancer, ovarian cancer and possibly prostate cancer can develop in forms that are referred to as estrogen sensitive or estrogen dependent. In simpler terms, sometimes these cancers develop due to exposure to estrogen, which may be increased with the use of products that contain xenoestrogens, such as parabens. The fact that parabens can be absorbed through the skin and then be so easily detected in cancerous tumors is quite startling and scary. Even without evidence of a direct link between parabens and cancer, this discovery was the beginning of the paraben free movement in cosmetics and skin care.

With all of this information, you might be wondering what the chances are that parabens are detectable in your own body at this very moment. The answer is that it is almost a guaranteed certainty. Parabens are absorbed through the skin, metabolized by the body and then excreted. In 2006, the Center for Disease Control looked at one hundred random urine samples and detected parabens in nearly all of them. With such widespread paraben use, it is difficult to eliminate contact with them entirely. However, the best place to start reducing your paraben exposure is by being selective with the skin care and cosmetic products that you choose. You can do this by first looking for the words “paraben-free” on the label. Secondly, you can make note of the names of the five parabens esters and check each product for them. And finally, you can choose to support companies that strive to produce naturally preserved, paraben free products and spread the word to everyone that you know.

Now that we see the negative side of parabens, the next natural question is what can be used instead? There are actually several options for natural preservatives in skin care and cosmetics. One option is the use of organic acids such as diazolidinyl urea, sodium benzoate, and potassium sorbate. These acids naturally preserve the products and protect against microbial invasion but do not pose the same potential side effects as parabens. Another option is phenoxyethanol, which is a chemical that can be synthetically produced or found naturally in green tea. It works as an antibacterial and is safe at levels that more than double what is needed for maximum effectiveness. Phenoxyethanol is also shown to pose little risk and have very few associated side effects. Some companies also take advantage of the antimicrobial properties of essential oils such as those found in rosemary and citrus essential oils.

Presented with this knowledge, it is now up to you to take action to reduce your daily exposure to parabens. Here are a few simple steps to get you started.

  • Take a look at all of your skin care and cosmetics and look for parabens on the ingredients list. To recap, parabens can be found under the names of the five different paraben esters; butylparaben, ethylparaben, isobutylparaben, methylparaben or propylparaben If you are unable to find the list of ingredients, you should be able to obtain one by searching online or contacting the company directly.
  • If you do not have the finances to replace all of your paraben containing products, it is a good idea to begin with the products that might give you the most exposure. Begin with body lotions or creams that you use over the entire surface of your body. Next, concentrate on products that are applied to delicate skin, such as the under eye area, or on damaged skin.
  • If you have children in your home, take a close look at everything that you put on their bodies. The smaller body of a child is even more vulnerable to the amounts of parabens in typical products. Always choose paraben free for your children whenever possible.
  • Take some time and really research the companies that you choose to support with your money and your purchases. When you find a company that makes your health and beauty a priority by spending the time and money to research the best natural alternatives to potential dangerous chemicals, make sure that you support them with your purchase, but also spread the word of their integrity and commitment to others.
  • Stick to a minimum amount of products. You really do not need a fifteen step cleansing and moisturizing routine every night. Understand your skin type, your skin health issues and choose the minimum amount of products to address them and to keep your skin in the best possible health.
  • Go natural some days. Take a day every now and then to go make up free and let your skin breathe. This is even more important if your products are not completely paraben free. The less you use, the less exposure you have.
  • Be mindful of how you apply paraben free products. There are some excellent antimicrobial alternatives to parabens, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t do a little extra to keep unwanted bacterial out of your products. Always wash your hands before and after applying any cream or lotion that requires you to touch the product in the container. The same applies to creams that are squeezed out through a tube opening. The small hole at the end of the tube can become a breeding ground for bacteria. Better yet, use a small clean sponge or cloth to transfer the cream from the container to your skin. Always follow the directions for storage, such as keeping in a cool dry place or away from sunlight. Do not share cosmetics with other people and follow basic cosmetic care guidelines such as not pumping your mascara wand and discarding lipstick after suffering from a cold sore.

It seems like every time you turn around there is something else to be avoided, something else that is bad for you or that causes cancer. It can be overwhelming, and it can also make it tempting to push aside those things that don’t seem so bad, such as small amounts of parabens. This, of course, is your choice and the addition of parabens in skin care and cosmetics is considered safe in the United States. However, we do not know everything there is to know about parabens, and given what we do know there is certainly enough information available to fuel a legitimate concern. The elimination of parabens from your skin care and beauty routine really isn’t as daunting as it sounds, and you can begin with small steps. The small steps that you take today toward reducing your parabens exposure can reap huge rewards in the future. Your health now, and your future health, is well worth the little bit of effort required to rid your beauty routine of potentially dangerous parabens.


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