Most of us know that parabens have been canceled. We know this because so many of the product packaging we use tell us so. We know they are bad because more and more companies are taking the time and space to let us know their products do not contain parabens. [rather watch than read?😬 check out this story on our YouTube Channel, Tres Keikis]
Akin to when the ‘gluten-free’ craze that hit the food packaging industry; have you wondered what the hell parabens are, why are they canceled, and why do you care?
Take a deep breath and let us plunge into the rise and fall of parabens.
Like so many of the carefree good times in American history, the rise of parabens coincided with the end of World War One. As young Americans returned home from war, the economy was picking up and people were consuming more of everything. Our country was struggling to supply the aforementioned ‘everything’s’ to the people and lucky for them science was there to the rescue.
Our nation’s brilliant minds switched from war time inventors to entrepreneurs. They were busy discovering numerous synthetic chemicals to enhance the convenience of modern life. Laboratories created nitrogen in in swimming pool size quantities, which is one main ingredient of spray-on fertilizer. This gave way to modern farming and allowed our country to feed the world (Lorch, 2015).
Next was the invention of polythene, which is the base of almost all plastics (Lorch, 2015). Polythene revolutionized the world, it reaches every corner of our lives today, from packaging, to cars and airplanes; consuming almost everything became easier and cheaper. The people rejoiced over magical plastic!
Then throw into the mix the wonderful chemical-class that has the ability to stop time: parabens.
Parabens were added to just about everything that otherwise had a tendency to spoil. They are preservatives. They stop bacteria, mold, and yeast from devouring fats and oils that would otherwise have a short shelf life. Before parabens, our only option was canning these products. Parabens made it possible to cheaply mass produce cosmetics, deodorants, shampoos, beer, jams, jellies, frozen food, and the list goes on, and of course packed most in plastic!
If parabens were a band they would have been in more places than BTS, The Beatles, and The Rolling Stones, combined. They certainly had their time in the sun for many decades.
Of course, now that we are a hundred years removed from these renowned inventions of the past, we see that many of these phenomenal additions to our lives have a pretty dark side. Nitrogen runoff and commercial farming has been outright devastating to our environment. Excess nitrogen in our rivers not only kills the marine life, it can make humans and other animals consuming the fish very sick (Nutrient Pollution, 2021). Additionally, nitrogen seeps into the ground water which is especially dangerous to infants (Nutrient Pollution, 2021). Those negative facts are just scratching the surface of the harms of synthetic fertilizer and the commercial farming industry.
Don’t get me started on plastics. They’ve been found in ice of the north pole for heavens sakes! Disgusting. The evil invention of plastics is right up there with the atom bomb. Some may say both of those did more good than harm, yet I hold my opinion on wishing they were never invented. That slides us back to the topic of parabens, the gatekeeper of safe food and make up.
Aside from being a revolutionary preservative, parabens are esters of 4-Hydroxybenzoic acid, also known as p-hydroxybenzoic acid (PHBA). While PHBA is a naturally occurring chemical in our body and that of many fruits and vegetables. PHBA is widely used in nature as a crucial part of many cellular chemical reactions. However, it is the esterification of this chemical in a lab creates the broad term, ‘parabens’ used as preservatives.
The argument for safety is that our body can safely break down these synthetic parabens into ‘natural’ parabens (PHBA), and eliminate them without harm (Stoiber, 2019). In truth, multiple authors have tried to find scientific resources that show the parabens in preservatives are the same as found in fruits and vegetables (Cameron, 2013). Well, they are not the same. They are different because of the ‘add-on’ molecules of the esterification process. The longer the add on molecules, the more dangerous they become to our body (Blair, 2000).
For example, I said to my child “eat your broccoli,” and then she took her broccoli, dipped it in chocolate sauce and covered it in sprinkles. Then she opened her mouth a big as she could, slowly cramming it in, while looking at me dead in the eye, I think I even caught a bit of a wink at me, she didn’t even miss a morsel of sprinkle. Yes she ate the broccoli, but was it still healthy with all the add-ons? Can her body really ‘turn it back to natural broccoli’ like PHBA?
The conclusion that most scientists draw from the available literature is that, yes, some parabens that are similar to the ones used in preservatives do rarely exist in nature such as unique bacteria that make them (Peng, 2006), but it is not common and they are not similar to those found in fruits and vegetables.
Synthetic parabens are not the same as the ones our body makes. Period. When our bodies break down the synthetic parabens, what happens? This is how the topic has now become a slippery slope that ends in a pool of possible nasty health related effects located at the bottom of the preverbal hill. Parabens mess with our body’s chemical communication system.
The most common health effect discussed in research is the idea that these chemicals disrupt our hormonal processes. This is a gigantic claim that would have an avalanche of effects if it were true. Next we shall explore the proposed mechanism by which this could occur.
The main hormone in question is estrogen. Estrogen is found in both men and women. Aside from sex hormones, this group of estrogen hormones also plays an important role in bone formation, blood clotting, skin thickness, water retention and the list goes on (Mandal, 2019). However, on a more life and death scale, one of the most deadly forms of breast cancer are estrogenic cancers.
Parabens in cosmetics do penetrate the skin and potentially turn on or turn up estrogen cancer cells (Exposure to Chemicals in Cosmetics, 2020). To make it more suspect, parabens have been found in the tissues of breast cancer cells (Exposure to Chemicals in Cosmetics, 2020) (Darbre, 2004).
Of course, nobody knows if the parabens were just benignly hanging out or if they had a more sinister motive with the breast tissue. I can see why this is such a hot topic to find out ‘for sure’ if parabens can be messing with our endocrine system.
The most recent and most alarming of the seriousness in the paraben research field is that in 2017, the United Nations Environment Program group, identified parabens as both endocrine disrupting chemicals and potentially endocrine disrupting chemicals (UNEP, 2017). Following this, various countries in Europe also added parabens to their banned ingredient lists because of the potential to disrupt hormones (UNEP, 2017). They don’t want to take chances they don’t have to.
What does the U.S. argument for safety have to say about these relatively recent findings in 2017? To summarize it into a well known tactic of arguing: they deflected the evidence.
According to ChemicalSafetyFacts.org their claim is that even though these parabens could behave similarly to estrogen in our bodies, so do many other foods such as soy beans, and dried fruits that humans consume in much greater quantities than the standard 0.01-0.05% of parabens found in a single typical product (Parabens, 2021). So, not only are they acknowledging that they do behave like estrogens (in high quantities) they completely avoid addressing this fact and counter with the argument that humans simply could not consume enough parabens that would negatively affect our bodies.
The Cosmetic Ingredient Review Board (in the United States) first determined all this cutting edge safety back in 1984 (Stoiber, 2019). A credit to their defense, back in the 80’s humans were starting to get serious about safety; I guess you have to start somewhere. In fact the following year car seats were finally required by law for your little ones (McDonough, 2015).
Jeeze, it took scientists and regulators until the 1980’s to see children obviously being brutalized in car accidents, In.Real.Time., before they would take children in cars’ safety seriously. I wonder how regulators would have felt about the heroic tiny little parabens in our food products products and their hearsay links to cancer, that would need to wait decades to observe in order to prove? It turns out they were not concerned in the 80’s or beyond. It simply is not obvious enough to them.
One the argument side of safety, there is a well designed study that is often sited by scientists to refute the link between parabens and breast cancer. I have read this study, and I agree it is well designed and the authors found that out that of a whopping 793 people, deodorant use did not increase the chances of causing breast cancer (Mirick, 2002). Okay, good for them and me, as I enjoy my pits being smell free!
However this review in 2002 did not address which types of deodorants the people used. Were the scientists looking for aluminum based antiperspirant (which some also worry could cause cancer) or did they measure the amount of parabens in their selected brands? No, they did not. They did not address which types of deodorant they used or if they even contained parabens.
I guess that’s not really a relevant argument for the ‘pro-parabens’ side. They really should stop citing that study, the scientist who conducted it were not looking at parabens.
Other arguments for ‘pro-parabens’ scientists is that there are no well designed controlled studies in HUMANS (only multiple animal studies have shown these links (Blair, 2000) (Byford, 2002). I would argue back that for ethical reasons and for general humanity, purposely giving humans (even ones we don’t like) large amounts of parabens and then waiting for cancer to show up would be more than a little shady.
On the other hand, we have been observing humans who have consumed small amounts of parabens in almost all their food and then slathered them on their bodies, for years and years, and now we can see a pattern. A pattern of unexplained estrogenic effects (Byford, 2002). In fact, there was a study that found all persons in their test group has tested positive for synthetic parabens in their urine.
I think that is pretty good evidence that humans do not break synthetic parabens back down to ‘natural’ parabens and yet we are certainly still consuming enough quantities to be detected in a urine test (14). Additionally, it is now known that paraben metabolite accumulate in the body, and the number found in fat cells correlated with the persons age (Artacho-Cordón F, 2018). The older the person, the more paraben metabolite were in their fat cells.
Yes, I do believe that there is enough evidence that synthetic parabens are affecting our sensitive hormonal communication system; the endocrine system. The effects may be small in most people but cancer causing in others. The most important point, is that in this year, 2021, parabens in food and cosmetics can be avoided.
There are safer plant based alternatives. We can still have safe food and cosmetics without parabens. So, why not look for the labels that exclude parabens and support stores like Walgreens, Rite Aid, Whole Foods, and many more who also exclude them from their shelves. When you know better, you can do better.
Written by Dr. Chantelle Davidson, Parm. D
Learn more about Chantelle in her Author Profile.
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