Cosmetics companies since the 1920s have been using a specific group of chemicals as artificial preservatives in body care and cosmetic products to reduce the growth of harmful bacteria and mould in these products, thereby increasing their shelf lives.
This specific group of chemicals are called parabens.
Unfortunately, the use of parabens also has very terrible repercussions. Scientific research has established that they disrupt hormones in the body, harm reproductive organs, negatively impact fertility, increase the risk of cancer, and affect birth outcomes. They also cause skin irritation for some people.
It, therefore, makes sense that the use of parabens in the production of cosmetics and personal care products be outlawed, especially long-chain parabens such as propylparaben, isopropyl-, butyl-, and isobutyl-.
However, this is not the case. Parabens are, till today, used in a wide variety of rinse-off and leave-on products, especially those that have high water content, such as conditioners and shampoos, which most of us use every day.
Yes, the antimicrobial properties of parabens are most effective against gram positive bacteria and fungi. In fact, most toothpastes, makeup, shaving gels, sunscreens, deodorants, skin and face cleaners, and moisturisers contain parabens. Once we use these products, parabens are absorbed into our bodies through our skins, and then metabolised and excreted in bile and urine. If you use these products only once or perhaps twice in your lifetime, no worries. However, daily use of a paraben-containing product(s) results in continuous, direct exposure, with long-term effects.
The greatest contributors
Studies comparing paraben levels in the bodies of children, adolescents, men, and women who use cosmetics regularly and those who do not show that personal care products are the greatest contributors to paraben exposure.
Makeup-wearing adolescent girls who wear makeup every day had twenty times the levels of propylparaben in their urine when this was compared to those who rarely or never wore makeup.
Also, the use of sunscreens, hair products, face and body lotions, are all predictors of and correlated with remarkably increased levels of urinary parabens.
Exposure to parabens can also be through beverages and foods preserved with parabens. In the 1970s, propylparaben was deemed as “generally recognised as safe” for addition to food up to 0.1 per cent (CDC 2016). However, given the recent studies that point to health effects associated with parabens, this safety label is out-dated.
Types of parabens
The most commonly used six types of parabens in cosmetics are isobutylparaben, isopropyl-, butyl-, propyl-, ethyl-, and methyl-. Whereas butylparaben is often used alone, the so-called shorter-chain parabens, ethyl- and methyl- are usually used in combination. The longer-chain parabens, butyl- and propyl-, are linked to higher estrogenic activity.
Health effects of parabens
Increased risk of cancer: Scientists say that exposure to oestrogens increases the risk of cancer, especially breast cancer in women. Propylparaben accelerates the growth of breast cancer cells and also alters the expression of genes, including those in breast cancer cells. More recently, a study from the University of California-Berkeley found that low doses of butylparaben worked hand in hand with other cell receptors to switch cancer genes on and increased the growth of breast cancer cells. It is important to note that butylparaben was previously not considered harmful.
Harm to the reproductive system: Parabens have a way of acting like the oestrogen hormone in the body and disrupting the normal function of hormone systems. This in turn affects the functioning of male and female reproductive systems, fertility, reproductive development, and birth outcomes. Parabens can also interfere with the production of hormones.
Skin irritation: The skin can become sensitised to products containing parabens, resulting in irritation.
Effects of parabens on hair and scalp
This is the focus of this article.
Perhaps the biggest reason you want to avoid parabens is because they are absorbed easily through the scalp and skin, getting into your blood stream to cause all the health problems highlighted above. Recent research found that parabens were often in the blood stream and urine of people who use products containing parabens. This simply means that what you put on your scalp and hair often gets into your blood and pores.
Some other problems that parabens cause are scalp irritation, colour fade, hair loss, and dry hair. I am very sure that the damage caused by parabens to hair and scalp counteracts the reason why you bought those hair products in the first place.
Alternatives to parabens
Well, the good news is that there are an abundance of organic, natural, paraben-free hair products on the market today. Therefore, the best way to avoid parabens is to very carefully read the label of any product you intend to buy,
Make sure this product contains natural ingredients. If you want the very best, buy the preservative-free versions. While you may have to store these in the refrigerator, the extra effort is definitely worth it.
So get yourself educated and since there is such a widespread exposure to parabens in many things these days, get skilled at reading product labels. If the personal care product (shampoo, lotions, conditioner, shower gel and others) that you intend to buy has an ingredient ending in –paraben, by all means avoid it.
Your hair and scalp will thank you. And so will your body.