Hi friends! As promised, a follow up to my post a couple of weeks ago on the chemical ingredient, fragrance, here's what I learned about another member of the dirty dozen: parabens (butylparaben, specifically). Most of my references came from the David Suzuki Foundation, as well as EWG's Skin Deep Database, Good Guide, and as a few abstracts or research reports published on PubMed.
Butylparaben is a class of parabens commonly used in water-based formulas in shampoos, conditioners and lotions. Parabens are found in 75 to 90 percent (typically at low levels) of cosmetics, making them the most widely used cosmetic preservative. Synthetic parabens are absorbed by the body and have been found to interfere with hormone function, and accumulate in breast cancer tissue. The concern over parabens has been and continues to be widely debated. There is little information available on any hazardous effects of parabens on the environment. While the European Union treats these synthetic compounds as cause for concern, there are currently no restrictions on parabens in Canada.
According to the David Suzuki Foundation, low levels of parabens occur naturally in certain foods, including barley, strawberries, currents, vanilla, carrots, and onions, and are metabolized when eaten, making them less likely to affect estrogen levels. In contrast, when the synthetic petrochemical preparation used in cosmetics is applied to the skin, it is easily absorbed by the body, circumventing the metabolic process and entering the blood stream and organs intact.
Some studies have shown that parabens can imitate estrogen and may also interfere with male reproductive functions. Parabens are also suspected to interfere with the enzyme found in the skin that flushes estrogen from the body, resulting in elevated levels of estrogen. This bodes well for the argument that parabens are absorbed into the body enough to be a concern. Parabens have also been detected in breast cancer tissues, inferring a possible association between parabens in cosmetics and cancer.
Based on the evidence that parabens interfere with hormone function, the European Commission on Endocrine Disruption has prioritized them as a Category 1 substance. While international regulations on parabens are strong, there are no restrictions on the use of parabens in cosmetics in Canada. The David Suzuki Foundation suggests that more research is needed regarding levels of parabens in people. Human exposure has been indicated in studies conducted by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which found four different parabens in urine samples.
EWG rates the overall hazard of butylparaben slightly above moderate (7 out of 10), with a high concern for endocrine disruption. It gives a slightly below moderate rating for allergies and immunotoxicity and developmental and reproductive toxicity, and an in between low and no rating for cancer. Good Guide rates butylparaben of high regulatory concern given that it meets the criteria used to identify “Substance of Very High Concern” in the European Union’s REACH program and is being prioritized for replacement by safer alternatives.
There does not seem to be a lot of available information on the effects of parabens on the environment. I was able to find two studies conducted in 2007 by the University of Tokushima in Japan: one acutely testing the removal efficiency of butylparaben (and benzylparaben) from a wastewater treatment plant and one on the persistence of paraben compounds in aquatic environments. The results from the study on the efficiency of waste removal suggested the necessity of further study such as “more detailed large-scale monitoring and chronic toxicity tests.” The second test conducted river water biodegradation tests and found that butylparaben (and benzylparaben) were relatively biodegradable; however, the level of degradability was dependent on the site and time in which the sample was taken. Experiments were also conducted to determine the absorption levels in river sediments and a soil sample. The concentration level of butylparaben was similar to that of natural estrogen.
Even though the research, albeit limited, indicates that butylparaben is relatively biodegradable and its absorption levels are similar to that of natural estrogen, it is my opinion that care should be taken in both the manufacturing and disposal of the compound to protect the degradation of waterways and to prevent an increase in concentration levels of estrogen. Given the potential for these environmental effects, as well as the health concerns described above, I believe that best efforts should be made to avoid this ingredient.
Finding products that do not contain parabens has been easier than I anticipated. Thankfully, concern has been growing over the years about manufacturer’s use of toxic chemicals, resulting in an increased amount of studies and forcing many companies to find alternatives in order to make their products safer. Many companies now boast ‘paraben free’ products, no doubt improving their marketability to concerned consumers. Aveda is one such company who has recently stopped manufacturing products with parabens. However, as I said in my last post, it's important to stay critical: their products still contain other toxic ingredients, nor can we be sure that the 'alternatives' to parabens are safe, if they've not been tested.
It is ultimately up to us, the individual consumer, to decide; we are lucky enough to live in a first world country where we have access to so much information and are able to exercise our right to choose. It’s a right we ought not to take for granted. And, if we’re not ready to give up a beloved product, we can consider making a change elsewhere in our house to offset that product. For example, I don’t feel ready to give up my Aveda products yet; so, we’ve recently started changing some of our household cleaning products. This feels easier for me, probably because I feel less of an attachment to cleaning products, than I do to my hygiene products. Making adjustments that we are excited about are far more likely to result in lasting changes.