Nasty chemical of the month: parabens
Huia Iti is the scientist heading up research and development at ecostore. I caught up with him to talk about a class of chemicals called parabens which includes Methylparaben, Butylparaben and Propylparaben and why we should steer clear of them in everyday products.
‘Just imagine that you have a moisturiser to lather on your skin top to bottom after a nice hot shower. Within a few hours of the topical application of a moisturiser containing parabens you can detect those parabens in the bloodstream - so its ability to be absorbed is incredible. This stuff shouldn’t come anywhere near a child let alone an unborn child’. - Huia Iti
What are parabens?
Huia: They’re a class of chemical that are commonly used in skin care products to preserve them and extend their shelf life. They’re used in a lot of moisturisers, conditioners and other hair and body care products.
What are they used for?
Huia: In our natural environment we’re surrounded by a lot of bacteria, yeasts and moulds. If we didn’t use preservatives these organisms would treat surfactants, specialty additives and oils as a food source by breaking them down. Pretty soon you’d have a layer of black mould on your moisturiser or face cream. Without preservatives, the natural shelf life of products would only be a matter of days which is a problem when you’re manufacturing products, because it could be 6 months before they’re even opened. Preservatives help slow down the normal activity of these micro-organisms, but there are safer alternatives to parabens.
Studies have shown parabens in breast tissue – why is that a concern?
Huia: The chemical structure of some of the parabens found in breast tissue indicates that they’ve come through the skin, so that’s a concern when they’re being used in products that are in direct contact with the skin. One of the big issues with parabens is that they’re endocrine disrupters (EDC’S) and a recent report released by the UN has highlighted many health concerns relating to EDC’s and how they impact health.
Do pregnant women particularly need to take care?
Huia: Yes, any exposure they have to parabens is more likely to impact their unborn child because there are so many important processes going on prior to birth that are incredibly sensitive to external influences. People are now understanding that later-in-life issues such as breast cancer, prostate cancer, endometriosis, infertility, early puberty, obesity and problems with immune and nervous systems are a result of early influences they’ve had from pre birth to adolescence and puberty. Clinical studies are showing how sensitive the pre birth stage of life is which is why it’s so important for pregnant women to be aware that parabens are used in many products which are designed to be left on the skin. Just imagine that you have a moisturiser to lather on your skin top to bottom after a nice hot shower. Within a few hours of the topical application of a moisturiser containing parabens you can detect those parabens in the bloodstream - so its ability to be absorbed is incredible. This stuff shouldn’t come anywhere near a child let alone an unborn child.
If parabens are unsafe then why are they used in so many products?
Parabens are a class of preservative that have been around for the last 20-30 years. They work really well and are produced on such a scale that they’re also very cheap and they have a wide application area - they’re not just specialised for one range of pH or one type of product, they’re used in lots of different classes so from a manufacturers point of view, they are very versatile and it’s difficult to change behaviour.
Is it fair to say that the testing for endocrine disruption has developed relatively recently as well?
Huia: Yes, over time we’ve gathered enough information to know that what we put on our bodies can have a detrimental effect to ourselves and to future generations. In the past all they were concerned about is getting products to market that didn’t go off. An increased focus on health has really highlighted the need to understand the effects these synthetic chemicals are having on ourselves and our children so I think it’s just the way society is moving.
The FDA regulates how much of an ingredient can be used in products and they’re reasoning is that parabens are used in such low concentrations that they can’t have an effect, what’s your answer to that?
Huia: Chemicals can accumulate. That process is still poorly understood but scientists know that even though the skin can metabolise chemicals, it takes a long time and there’s an accumulative effect as you apply more product. Another problem is that while you’ve got many individual chemicals that are applied to the body, you also have the interactions between the chemicals that are sitting at any one time on your skin.
Are there safer alternatives to parabens?
Huia: Paraben-free products will still need to contain a preservative of some description to stop the product from going off, and two alternatives that I would consider to be much safer are - sodium hydroxymethyl glycinate and phenoxyethanol which both have low hazard ratings for health and environmental impacts from the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) cosmetic database.
Reason enough to steer clear of products containing parabens? Why not check the labels of your skin care products and see how many you find - if you have quite a few, don’t worry - just use them up and replace as needed with products that are paraben-free. We’d love to know what you think of our blog and how you get on with finding, (and hopefully getting rid of) products containing parabens in the comments section below.