What are parabens and what are they used for?
Parabens are a group of chemicals that are used as preservatives. Parabens are esters of para-hydroxybenzoic acid, which is how they got their name.
They’re very effective as antibacterial and antifungal preservatives, and they’re incredibly cheap, which is why they’re found in so many products. Preventing bacteria and fungal growth means that they give products a much longer shelf life. Parabens are found in personal care products like shampoos, moisturisers, makeup, toothpaste, and shaving gels. They’re also found in food products, like mayonnaise, salad dressings, sauces, syrups, processed vegetables, jelly, soft drinks and even beer.
One study found parabens in 90% of food. Although this study mentions meat, fruit and vegetables as sources of naturally occurring parabens, it seems that it’s actually rare for parabens to occur naturally.
An EWG analysis of almost 50 types of American snack foods found propylparaben (a commonly used paraben) in all of them. Propylparaben is an allowed additive in Australia, yet it is not allowed in the EU.
What’s the problem with parabens?
The Cancer Prevention and Education Society has this to say about parabens:
Methyl-, ethyl-, propyl- and butylparaben are all used in cosmetics. Methyl- and propylparaben are the most commonly detected in tissue and urine samples.
All four of these parabens are characterised as Category 1 endocrine disruptors by the European Commission in its database of potential endocrine disruptors (meaning there is evidence of ED activity in at least one species using intact animals).
They have been found in very low concentrations in breast cancer tumours, although no direct link between parabens and cancer has been found.
Parabens have also been shown to mimic oestrogen, and there is a concern that this oestrogen-mimicking may play a role in the increasing incidences of early puberty in girls.
In large quantities, parabens have been shown to lower the sperm counts of mice in laboratory tests.
There is also concern that some parabens used in sunscreens may react with UVB and lead to DNA damage and increased skin aging.
How to recognise parabens
Common parabens found in skincare and personal products are:
Not as common are:
Look for benzoic acid as well as hydroxyl benzoic acid, and hydroxybenzoate.
In foods, however, they’re listed as E numbers:
- E210: Benzoic acid
- E211: Sodium benzoate
- E212: Potassium benzoate
- E213: Calcium benzoate
- E214: Ethyl 4-hydroxybenzoate (not allowed in Australia) (European Food Safety Authority set an Acceptable Daily Intake of 0-10mg per kilogram of bodyweight per day)
- E215: Sodium ethyl 4-hydroxybenzoate (not allowed in Australia)
- E216: Propylparaben or Propyl-p-hydroxy-benzoate
- E218: Methylparaben or Methyl-p-hydroxy-benzoate (European Food Safety Authority set an Acceptable Daily Intake of 0-10mg per kilogram of bodyweight per day)
- E219: Sodium methyl 4-hydroxybenzoate (this is not allowed in Australia)
How to avoid parabens
Get to know the E-numbers, and read the labels before you buy processed foods. Of course, sticking with unprocessed foods is the best way to avoid added parabens and preservatives in your diet.
In skincare and personal care products, always read the labels, and look for products and companies that are paraben free.
All products at Hello Charlie are paraben free.
Do you avoid parabens? What other chemicals do you avoid?
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