Parabens are synthetic chemicals that are used as preservatives in a variety of products, including cosmetics, pharmaceuticals and food. As preservatives, parabens give products a longer shelf-life and prevent harmful bacteria and mold from growing in the products, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Parabens are derived from a chemical known as para-hydroxybenzoic acid (PHBA) that occurs naturally in many fruits and vegetables, like blueberries and carrots. PHBA is also naturally formed in the human body by the breakdown of some amino acids.
The parabens that are manufactured for consumables and personal care products are identical to those found in nature. The most common types of parabens are methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben, isopropylparaben and isobutylparaben.
Exposure to Parabens
Because the preservative is found in a wide variety of foods, beverages, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics and other personal care products, paraben exposure occurs when these products are swallowed or absorbed through the skin.
Are Parabens Dangerous?
90 percent of common items found in grocery stores contain parabens and the concentration in our bloodstream starts to add up. As most people regularly come into contact with parabens, consumers quite rightly want to know if there are any health risks involved with using products that contain these chemicals.
The answer is unclear and contentious - do parabens cause cancer or not and if so, what amounts of parabens lead to cancer?
Parabens are thought to be endocrine-disrupting chemicals, also known as hormone-mimicking chemicals. That means the body may treat the paraben like a hormone. For example, parabens have been found in breast cancer cells, which indicates that parabens may act like estrogen.
While some studies have concluded there is no evidence to suggest that using paraben-containing products leads to an increased risk of cancer, other studies have reported concerns about the potential cumulative effects of using paraben-containing products. When consumed in food, the body rapidly breaks down and excretes these compounds. Parabens applied to the skin in leave-on products, (e.g. cosmetics) are most likely to contribute to any build-up of these chemicals within our bodies.
With the rates of some types of cancer increasing, additives in food and personal products are increasingly under scrutiny. It's generally agreed that a large number of untested chemicals are available in a variety of products and that more cost-effective and high-throughput screening methods are needed for testing potentially carcinogenic ingredients, such as parabens. Studies are also needed to assess the possible long-term effects of exposure on people.
Some individuals may be more sensitive to parabens than others. As with many potentially hazardous chemicals, different people will have different susceptibilities and sensitivities based on their own genetic backgrounds.
If consumers are worried about using paraben-containing products, perhaps using paraben-containing products in moderation is the key to avoiding unforeseeable health issues. Alternatively, using products with no parabens is not going to interfere with the body's hormone system!
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