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Parabens: Risky business

Updated: Jan 12



Parabens: Risky business

Parabens have been used as artificial preservatives in various products, including cosmetics and food, since the 1920s. They prevent the growth of harmful bacteria and mold, extending the shelf life of products. However, synthetic parabens derived from petrochemicals are absorbed through the skin and enter the bloodstream, bypassing metabolic processes. As a result, continuous exposure to these products can increase urinary paraben levels in people of all demographics. Parabens can mimic estrogen and disrupt hormone systems, affecting male and female reproductive functioning, development, fertility, and birth outcomes. The branched structure of some parabens can increase their estrogenic activity and sensitization potency. Concerns have been raised about the link between environmental estrogens and cancer risk, particularly breast cancer in women. While the risk may be small, it is understandable that women with a history of breast cancer may want to limit their exposure to parabens. Propylparaben has been found to alter gene expression, including in breast cancer cells, and accelerate their growth. In addition to their potential health effects, parabens can cause skin irritation, with the level of irritation varying based on the paraben's side-chain length. Studies have also shown that methylparaben applied to the skin reacts with UVB, leading to increased skin aging and DNA damage. Parabens can accumulate in fat tissue over time, potentially exposing people to them throughout their lives. Parabens have been detected in surface waters, fish, and sediments, and their combination with chlorinated tap water can produce chlorinated paraben by-products. Furthermore, low levels of butylparaben have been found to harm coral in laboratory tests. While Canada currently has no restrictions on the use of parabens in cosmetics, international regulations are more stringent.

However, it is important to note that parabens are not the only potential endocrine disruptors in products. There are many other chemicals that may also have hormone-disrupting effects, and more research is needed to understand their long-term effects on human health. Women with a history of breast cancer should talk to their healthcare provider about their concerns and work together to identify strategies to reduce their exposure to potential endocrine disruptors.


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