What are Parabens and Should we Avoid Them?

paraben-chemical-structure.jpgParabens are a class of chemicals preservatives found in many commercial products used primarily for their bactericidal and fungicidal properties. They are found in shampoos, skin care products, cosmetics, body lotions and soaps, food, toothpaste, and deodorant, just to name a few.

The reason parabens are so widely used by the commercial industry is their low cost and ability to increase shelf-life in products. Parabens have the ability to mimic the hormone estrogen and have raised the controversy of whether or not they can be linked to breast cancer and early puberty in young girls.

Naturally occurring parabens are found in plant sources such as blueberries where nature has designed them for use as antimicrobial agents. All commercially found parabens, however, are man-made or synthetic and were developed with an identical structure to those found in nature. So why are we told not to use them?

The main argument appears to be that no scientific studies have proven the health risks of parabens in commercially available products, therefore, parabens are considered safe by regulatory agencies in America. A 2005 study done by the the Burdock Group called “Safety Assessment of Esters of p-hydroxybenzoic acid (parabens), states that,

“Acute, subchronic, and chronic studies in rodents indicate that parabens are practically non-toxic. Parabens are rapidly absorbed, metabolized, and excreted. In individuals with normal skin, parabens are, for the most part, non-irritating and non-sensitizing. However, application of compounds containing parabens to damaged or broken skin has resulted in sensitization. Genotoxicity testing of parabens in a variety of in vitro and in vivo studies primarily gave negative results. The paraben structure is not indicative of carcinogenic potential, and experimental studies support these observations.”

While this study has given insight to the behavior of parabens from the angle of one independent company hired to prove the safety of parabens by the companies producing the paraben products, why is it that non-definitive, not-so-scientific terms such as “practically non-toxic” and “for the most part” utilized if parabens are in fact, safe?

Parabens, in their many forms, are widely used in food items, cosmetics and pharmaceutical products. If you were to check the ingredients list on your traditional face cream, body wash, toothpaste, shaving cream or body lotion, you are likely to find one of the following forms of parabens: para-hydroxybenzoic acid, methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben, and butylparaben. 













All commercially used parabens are produced by the esterification of para-hydroxybenzoic acid with the associated alcohol, such as methanol, ethanol or n-propanol. This industrial process is a modification of the Kolbe-Schmitt reaction using potassium phenoxide and carbon dioxide instead of phenol and sodium. When heated in the presence of carbon at atmospheric pressure, the two elements react to produce p-hydroxybenzoic. (An interesting theoretical study on this reaction is found here).

Man has regularly tried to recreate nature through scientific processes and synthetic developments, but have they been able to truly harness the power of nature or do they hinder the body’s natural ability to balance itself?

One key aspect of the controversy over parabens is their ability to mimic the hormone estrogen which has been known to play an important part in breast cancer development and early puberty in young girls. Whether ingested or as one study from the UK has stated, from underarm deodorant and shaving cream, their analysis of 20 breast tumor samples found that 18 of the 20 had high concentrations of parabens. The research to determine the correlation between topical parabens, as found in deodorant and shaving creams, and breast cancer was led by molecular biologist Philippa Darbre.

"One would expect tumors to occur evenly, with 20 per cent arising in each of the five areas of the breast, but these results help explain why up to 60 per cent of all breast tumours are found in just one-fifth of the breast - the upper-outer quadrant, nearest the underarm."

Says Dabre in reaction to a study showing the location of tumors found on the breast. Why are the majority of breast tumors found nearest to the area that receives the highest exposure to parabens and other chemicals found in deodorant, shaving creams and other body lotions.

A possible reason for this could be determined using the previous statements from the above referenced statement by the Burdock Group, "application of compounds containing parabens to damaged or broken skin has resulted in sensitization". Is it then safe to make the correlation that because the underarm is regularly shaven as is the norm in American culture, that the small open sores from shaving are creating a direct route for parabens to enter into our bloodstream very near the the same location that 60% of breast tumors are found and creating a reaction at that source directly. 

Yet, according to researchers, parabens are still ok because they mimic the hormone estrogen and are just as non-harmful to the body as the natural form of estrogen. So what about men and boys exposure? Is anyone doing research to see if this synthetic hormone is creating adverse effects on our men and boys even if research suggests that it is ok for women's bodies? Does anyone care!? How much do we really know about this chemical?


What we do know about parabens is this: they directly affect our endocrine system when rubbed onto the body or ingested.

The endocrine system is the system of glands which excretes different types of hormones directly into the bloodstream in order to regulate the body. If parabens produce the synthetic hormone estrogen, they are in turn, sending signals to the body that would otherwise, not be sent. Therefore, one can make the correlation that parabens are affecting our endocrine system which includes the hypothalamus, ovaries, thyroid, pineal glands, pituitary glands and more. Because the body is a holistic mechanism, when the endocrine system is disrupted, every other system in the body is as well.

As for me, I do not need scientific research to prove whether or not man-made hormones are safe, effective or harmful. I will continue to use my best judgment, my common sense, and my holistic notion that gifts from nature are always the better choice.


paraben-free.jpgMy family and I are slowly making the switch towards paraben-free cosmetics, bath and body products, and household supplies and encourage our customers do try the same. By purchasing the natural alternatives for the supplies you use the most, you start to reduce your exposure to parabens and other synthetic chemicals in a progressive way that becomes a life change rather than just a great idea while walking through your health food store.

I’m sure we can all name a time that after reading an article, such as this one, that we have ran to our nearest health food store and grabbed a slew of products to start using, only to have them sit on the back of our pantry shelf until we find a use for them. Why? Let’s make this switch together.

In order to break the cycle of using chemically-laden products, we must become prepared. Just as our ancestors, we have to forward think to what life will be like in 2 months, 1 year or in 20 years, all without getting caught up in future plans. We must be flexible and prepared all at the same time.

If we make the conscience effort to stock up on the natural alternative of items we normally use prior to needing them (like laundry detergent and toothpaste), we are more likely to make the switch a habit. By thinking ahead about what products you will need and when, and then making or purchasing them prior to needing them, you will tend to stay on track towards the switch to all natural and/or more self-sustaining.

At Nefertem Naturals™, we wish you the best of luck on your journey.