If you’re reading this, then it’s likely you already know a little about parabens and have concerns over what they’re doing to us and the wider ecosystem we inhabit. If not, we’ll give you a quick recap first. But then we’ll focus on some scientific studies that we really should all take notice of.
The good news
Parabens have been around since the 1950s and they’re basically a preservative. This means they help creams and lotions last much longer (often years) without mould and bacteria forming. In fact, their usage is a lot wider than just personal care – they’re present in one form or another in 90% of groceries, including food stuffs.
We shouldn’t write off those 1950s creators of parabens as evil wrongdoers. Parabens derive from para-hydroxybenzoic acid (PHBA), a substance found naturally in various fruit and vegetables, including carrots and blueberries. Plus, we from PHBA naturally when our bodies breakdown amino acids. There was certainly justification for using them.
So, if they mimic what occurs naturally in nature, why do they receive such a bad press?
The not so good news
First, we need to understand a little of what parabens do. Research has indicated that parabens disrupt hormones by mimicking oestrogen. And too much oestrogen can trigger an increase in cell division and the development of tumours. In a study in 2004, they were found in breast tissue of 19 out of 20 human participants.
Then we need to think about levels. If we’re coming into contact with parabens in 90% of regular groceries, that’s a significant cumulative effect. The ‘everything in moderation’ adage goes out of the window if we’re being exposed to it across practically all our purchases.
Of course, it’s not just affecting us. By getting into the sewage system, studies have shown they are entering into the bodies of marine animals too. Remember – these chemicals are all about preserving – they don’t break down easily!
Just how much do we consume?
Basically – a lot. A recent study of 183 adults and children in California found parabens in 70% to 100% of their urine samples. Adults tended to have more of these chemicals in their urine than children, probably because they used about twice the number of personal care products.
The same study found that the more personal care products a person used, the higher their paraben levels. Women tend to have higher levels than men, probably because they use more.
This is where it gets really interesting
Unfortunately, that’s not the end of the story. In 2015, a scientific study took breast cancer cells that were grown in a lab. These cells were then treated with low levels of parabens and heregulin, a natural chemical found in breast tissue.
The scientists then investigated the level of paraben needed to cause growth in the cancer cells. When combined with heregulin, they found that the level of paraben needed was 100 times lower than parabens on their own!
This breakthrough is significant. It suggests that evaluating the impact of parabens in isolation, doesn’t accurately reflect what they do on entering the complex arena of our own bodies and those of our animal friends.
It’s clear that the scientific community are fairly uncertain on just how much of a danger parabens pose. Importantly, very few of them are dismissing their risk altogether.
Waiting for confirmatory evidence that parabens are as harmful as many of us now believe them to be is a little like playing Russian roulette, in our view. There are steps we can take as consumers to reduce our contact with parabens. Removing all personal care items that contain parabens is a great start. Consuming less processed food and eating more natural foods is another.
Raising awareness is a third step. Do you know someone that is sceptical to the dangers of chemicals? Gently tell them about the heregulin study. As consumers, we all ultimately make up our own minds. But decisions should be made out of personal choice, not ignorance. The brutal truth is that parabens are cheap and easy for mass production firms to use. It’s the easy option. And as we all know, the easy option isn’t always the right option.
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