Whether you are new to the natural hair community or a veteran of natural haircare, I am sure you have heard a bit about parabens and their somewhat taboo role in hair and beauty. Many products now include “paraben-free” or “no parabens” on their labels to attract the conscious consumer and enhance marketability, but have you ever wondered why this is the case? What are parabens? Are parabens harmful or safe? Should they be avoided at all cost or is it a bunch of hoopla over nothing? Well, today we will dive deeper into this topic and hopefully shed a bit of light on a popular debate.
What are parabens?
Parabens are chemical compounds which are commonly used in beauty and hair products as preservatives to prevent the growth of harmful bacteria and mold. They have seen increased use over the years due to their inexpensive cost, excellent stability, and effectiveness. Methylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben, and ethylparaben are most commonly used in cosmetic products. They are rather easy to identify as the listed common name will end with “-paraben”.
Why is there concern regarding paraben use?
Parabens can enter the bloodstream when ingested by mouth and when crossing the skin barrier which is otherwise known as transdermal penetration. They have been associated with hormonal disturbances – mainly disturbances associated with the hormone estrogen. Clinical studies have shown that parabens can exhibit estrogenic activity and disrupt endocrine and reproductive function. They may also increase tumor growth and proliferation and alter cancer genes. This became of increased concern following the detection of these compounds in female breast tumors. Additionally, parabens have been linked to some harm of the environment.
Does the exposure to such small amounts used for preservation really matter?
This is the million dollar question. No one knows. Parabens are used at very low concentrations in many consumer products so the biggest concern surrounds the bioaccumulation of these agents over time and with repeated exposure. Many hair products and other cosmetics are applied multiple times daily and frequency of exposure may pose a risk. The additive effect of repeated exposure can also lead to an additive estrogenic effect which varies based on structure and size of the paraben molecule. The fact that these compounds can accumulate in bodily tissues and have a greater impact when used repeatedly led the European Commission to ban the use of five paraben compounds in cosmetic products in 2014 – isopropylparaben, isobutylparaben, phenylparaben, benzylparaben and pentylparaben. However, they also labeled other parabens such as methylparaben and ethylparaben as safe for consumption and similarly labeled propylparaben and butylparaben as safe when used within concentration limits. Of note, these are the parabens most commonly used in cosmetics sold with the United States.
Whether or not to use products which contain parabens is the decision of the consumer. The FDA does not require approval of cosmetic product ingredients and additives before they are sold and currently states that they “do not have information showing that parabens as they are used in cosmetics have an effect on human health”. The impact of these compounds on the body surely varies from person to person. The question becomes, how much of a risk are you willing to take and would the avoidance of some of this exposure negatively impact your quality of life? It is a personal decision and one that only you can make.
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