Ubiquity. It’s a word I was not entirely familiar with, but needed to know. Why? Because it is what has become the primary issue about parabens.
If you don’t know what parabens are, you have probably used them unknowingly in your lotion, soaps, hair shampoos, toothpaste and many more items you likely use everyday. They are the various short and long chained esters of 4-hydroxybenzoic acid– chemical components used as preservatives to extend shelf life throughout the food, pharmaceutical, toiletry and cosmetic industries. If you’re the mother of an infant or a grandmother or grandfather, probability is that the whole family, on some level or at some time, has experienced using parabens. Women, have the highest exposure given their wide use of cosmetics but infants are also widely exposed to parabens given the prevalent use of them in baby products.
Back to “ubiquity.” The Dictionary definition is: “the state or capacity of being everywhere, especially at the same time; omnipresence.” When the word is changed to “ubiquitous,” a more specific search for its meaning, we find that something that is ubiquitous is: “existing or being everywhere, especially at the same time.” Definitions aside, however giving the onus of “ominpresence” less awe than it might imply, why is there still such concern about this group of chemicals that have been in use for over 50 years in the U.S.? Are they being used by almost everyone, knowingly or not, since they are prevalent in innumerable commercially manufactured personal care items? Could it be that in 2006, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention found the presence of parabens in 90% of people tested? Earlier, a 2004 study published in the Journal of Applied Toxicology reported that parabens are a cause for concern. British researchers found traces of paraben compounds in breast cancer tumor tissue of 20 women. Another study of 40 women undergoing mastectomies in the UK during 2005-2008, led by Dr. Philippa Darbre from the University of Reading studied tissue samples similarly. Four samples were collected from each woman for a total of 160 samples, in which 99 per cent of the tissue samples contained at least one paraben and 60 per cent of the samples had five. Parabens were also detected in the urine of 56 out of 66 pregnant women in Minneapolis during 2009-2010. Is it possible that infants exposure to parabens occurs before birth? The U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention again looked at parabens and released a June 2010 report of a study of four types of parabens, showing that methylparaben was present in 99.1% of the 2,548 urine samples of adults and children age 6 or older, while propylparaben appeared in 92.7% of those same samples. Ethyl (42.4%) and butyl (47%) parabens were found less frequently and at lower concentrations than the others. The studies were starting to pile up as was the concern in other countries besides the U.S.
A Times Magazine article from December, 2010 features Denmark as having been the first European country to ban parabens (specifically, prophyl- and butyl- effective March 2011) from products used by children under age 3. In addition, the Times article cited studies indicating that “methylparaben applied on the skin reacts with UVB leading to increased skin aging and DNA damage.” Citing environmental health groups advocating the removal of parabens from consumer goods “because of some animal evidence that they can act like estrogen in the body, causing health problems and that they may also interfere with male reproductive functions,” there is growing support to limit or ban endocrine disruptor chemicals (EDC), of which parabens are directly connected. Among them, is the International Chemical Secretriat (ChemSec) that has taken the position that parabens are also anti-androgenic, decreasing sperm function and altering levels of metabolic hormones. There are new roll-on products on the market for men that are drawn from the class of drugs known as “androgens.” Could there be a link between men’s decreasing testosterone and parabens in personal care items, particularly in aging men when testosterone levels might begin to decrease but are decreasing in high enough numbers, it seems, that commercially offered products discuss this issue as it being a “number?” Of the four parabens discussed here, ChemSec indicates that propyl-paraben and butyl-paraben are the most hazardous. In a publication titled: Parabens – Everyday Endocrine Disruptors – To Be Phased Out (http://www.chemsec.org/images/stories/2013/Parabens_fact_sheet_May_2013.pdf) the organization conveys that endocrine disruptors are everywhere around us and affect people on a daily basis and that the widespread use of parabens in personal care items is not safe.
It is apparent from the studies and concerns mentioned above that parabens are existent within the human body while being eliminated through excretion but also sticking around. Rightfully defined, they are “ubiquitous.” Studies have confirmed they act like the female hormone oestrogen. It is widely held that high amounts of oestrogen may be a contributing factor for some women to develop breast cancer. Almost everyone in my small workplace knows someone who has or has had breast cancer. Three of my close colleagues have very changed lifestyles as they don’t want a reoccurrence of it. However, the repeated response is that a “direct link” does not exist between parabens and any negative result in humans. Without certifiable proof, parabens are still in a “state or capacity of being everywhere, especially at the same time” and especially for those who are most unaware of the potential for harm.
A New York Times article, yesterday, stated in a section called “The Well”:
Although no real link to the cancer was established, research has also found that parabens are weak estrogen mimics, capable of altering cell growth in culture, and may also act as endocrine disruptors, which can disrupt the normal function of hormones and interfere with development. The F.D.A.’s position is that parabens are too weak in this regard to cause any real concern.
Next to skin cancer, the American Cancer Society says that breast cancer is the most common cancer among American women. Although, the number of incidences and death have been declining since 2000 due to the decrease in use of hormone therapy for menopausal symptoms by women and treatment improvements, 40,000 women may die from breast cancer in 2014. Yet, the American Cancer Society also states that research does not show a clear link between breast cancer risk and exposure to substances that possess estrogen-like properties. Getting back to “ubiquity” and “ubiquitous” the question now granted concern may need to be about the amount of exposure one has to these substances? If exposure starts in infancy with the use of baby lotions and shampoos and all throughout life one uses products that are preserved with methyl-, propyl-, butyl- and ethyl- parabens, the most common types of paraben preservatives used in products in the United States– overtime and especially with the lack of serious regulation that governs production of cosmetics, who would not choose to limit or avoid the use of something that is no less related, directly or not, to serious illness? Think about it: parabens that go down the drain end up in other water supplies and are turning male fish into females. What is happening to men with all of this exposure to additional estrogen from the use of their personal care items?
It is fairly simple to tell if there are parabens in products you use. Read all labels. You’ll see “paraben” in the end of the listed ingredient. In some instances, you’ll see propyl paraben listed as “propyl p-hydroxybenzoate” or “propyl parahydroxybenzoate,” especially on food or beverage labels in which it is used as a preservative. Even when the product states that it is “natural,” take nothing for granted. In cosmetics or personal care items, look instead for Grapefruit Seed (Citrus Grandis) Extract usually in a base of vegetable glycerin as an effective antimicrobial. There are some essential oils used in skin care items that provide anti-microbial support like cinnamon, clove, cumin, eucalyptus, lavender, lemon, rose, rosemary, sage, sandalwood and thyme but they are not used in quantities deemed safe, for this specific purpose, to offer product protection from microbial growth. The growth of bacteria in a cream or lotion, for example, can occur overtime if the product is introduced to bacteria that can arrive in some instances from something as simple as dipping fingers into it. Any product that contains any water or water-based ingredient needs to have defenses against microbial growth. Organic anti-oxidants are effective in extending shelf life for safe use because they reduce the rate of oxidation of the oils used in many, many products. Oxidized oils can become skin irritants. One of the most effective is Rosmarinus Officinalis (Rosemary) Leaf Extract. Products developed without the use of parabens, but instead with organically safe botanical ingredients are the way to go when determining what products to use for children and all adults.
There are very good products on the market without parabens. These companies are either certified organic, eco-cert or describe themselves as eco-friendly using wildcrafted or unsprayed plant material and being conscientious– therefore not adding potentially harmful chemical additives, preservatives or artificial colorants to their products. The 1984 Cosmetic Ingredients Review established that parabens were safe in concentrations up to 25%. The average amount of parabens in a cosmetic is 0.01 to 0.03 percent [Source: Food and Drug Administration]. In December 2010 the Scientific Committee on Consumer Products (SCCP) of the European Union published an updated opinion on parabens. They concluded that there is not enough data to perform risk assessments for propylparaben and butylparaben in humans, and meanwhile the maximum concentration of these parabens in consumer products should be lowered from 0.8% to 0.19%. Here is where “ubiquitous” becomes really important: how many items and how many times are these items being used and consumed on a regular basis? Is anybody counting? If parabens stick around and can be stored in fatty tissue, albeit we know some go down the toilet, but are also being found in drinking water from sewage and as they are washed down the drain from body washes and shampoos, what is the cut-off? If young children’s health may be threatened by their use, along with aging individuals whose skin is thinner and more fragile in some cases, how should one gauge about how much paraben exposure one is at risk for?
It seems the only way to be sure one is safe from potential harm, at least from parabens in all its forms, is to avoid them all in those matters in which there is a reasonable choice of using something with parabens, or not. As time tells, the impact of potentially harmful substances can go undetected and generally not surface until many years later. Which might be one of the reasons that parabens cannot be pinned down directly and linked to being a threat to health. A Catch-22 one can live without.
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