Parabens. It may mean congratulations in Portuguese, but it can mean some pretty nasty things for your health. Parabens are a type of preservative, used to increase the shelf-life of a whole range of personal care products; from skincare, to makeup to shampoo and moisturizers. In fact, it’s estimated that 75 -90% of cosmetics contain parabens (normally at very low levels). They are chosen for their ability to inhibit the growth of mould and bacteria. But in doing so, create a whole host of problems.
Parabens have proven to mimic the hormone estrogen and in doing so are endocrine known disruptors – meaning they interfere with our natural regulation of hormones. At its worst, this can lead to fertility issues, heightened risk of cancer in adults and developmental issues in children. The evidence has been particularly strong in animal studies; effecting both the male and female reproductive systems in rats.
What’s more, parabens can also pass the skin barrier and stay within our bodies. One 2004 paper, published by scientist Phillipa Darbre, found traces of parabens in women with breast cancer. While the paper couldn’t conclusively prove causation between parabens and breast cancer; it did prove that something we put on our skin can end up living in our bodies.
Now for the last bit of bad news, Parabens are also affecting the environment. The chemical has been found in marine mammals, amphibians and fish; and even low levels have the power to kill coral. They’re thought to be released from personal care products, into the sewage system and then into our environment. We’re yet to fully understand what this means and how it impacts wildlife; but most scientists believe the effects to be damaging.
Not all parabens are created equal. On the whole, the longer chain parabens do more damage (isopropylparaben, isobutylparaben, phenylparaben, benzylparaben, and pentylparaben), while the shorter chain ones are less damaging (ethylparaben, propylparaben, methylparaben, butylparaben, and heptylparaben). However, as there are more and more effective natural preservatives coming to light, it seems a silly thing to roll the dice on. We’ve found Glycerin to be as effective as any paraben, so have chosen to use that natural alternative instead in our toothpastes instead.