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Are Parabens Natural?

A reader wrote this statement on my entry of parabens:

Plants which produce significant amounts of parabens include carrots, olive, cucumber, honeysuckle and ylang ylang (Bach M et al, Plant Physiol, 103(2), 1993); (Aziz N et al, Microbios 93(374), 1998); Smith-Becker J et al, Plant Physiol, 116(1), 1998); (Dweck A, “Natural Preservatives”, Cosmet Toilet, Aug 2003).

Plants known to synthesise Methylparaben include Guan pepper (Piper guanacastensis) (Pereda-Miranda R et al, J Nat Prod, 60(3), 1997); Thale cress (Arabidopsis thaliana) (Walker T et al, J Agric Food Chem, 51, 2548, 2003) and Oca (Oxalis tuberosa) (Pal Bais H et al, Plant Physiol Biochem, 41(4), 2003).

Mangoes produce Propylparaben as a self defense mechanism (Mangifera indica) (Chirawut B, Sangchote S, 15 th Australasian Plant Pathology Society Conference, Deakin University, Geelong, 26-29 September, 2005).

In fact, parabens have been used as preservatives in foods and beverages and exhibit little or no toxicity in the concentrations used. The cancerous breast tissues that had parabens were probably caused by preserved food rather than underarm deodorants!

Is this true?  Do parabens occur naturally in foods?  Do they pose a risk to our health?  If parabens occur in nature, does that mean that parabens in personal care items are safe?

These studies do appear to be true and credible.  P-hydroxybenzoic acid and its esters (aka, parabens) do occur naturally in foods and plants.  So, does this mean that we shouldn't eat cucumbers, carrots, olives, or mangoes?  No, not at all. 

Parabens that are present in foods act very differently than those applied in personal care products.  First of all, in a food, other compounds are present in nature's perfect balance. We're talking antioxidants and enzymes that work together to create an overall healthful effect on the body.  Second, when parabens enter the body through foods, they have a much better chance to be metabolized because they're going through the digestive system.  Stomach acids and other enzymes help to break them down to metabolites that are easily flushed out of the body.  Third, parabens behave much differently when applied to skin than when ingested in a food.  

A recent study found that parabens, when applied to skin, react with an enzyme called SULT.  In simplified terms, SULT is the enzyme that helps the body flush out estrogen.  So, when SULT enzymes are deactivated, estrogen levels increase.  Parabens were found to deactivate these important enzymes.  The study states "...these results suggest chronic topical application of parabens may lead to prolonged estrogenic effects in skin as a result of inhibition of estrogen sulfotransferase activity."  Supporters of parabens are always talking about how little parabens are absorbed and how weak their estrogenic activity is--but with this study in mind, absorption and estrogen receptor activity really are moot points.  It's a reaction with parabens in the skin that increases overall estrogen levels in the body.  Many reproductive cancers are estrogen-dependent and tumor growth is fueled by an excess of estrogen.  Uterine fibroids, endometriosis, adenomyosis, irregular menstruation--all of these reproductive problems are caused by an excess of estrogen.  So why would you want to apply these compounds to your skin!?

Another pro-paraben argument that you'll hear is that the skin metabolizes parabens quickly and they're flushed out of the body.  Not so!  This study found that after a month of applying methylparaben to skin cells, it "remained unmetabolized and persisted slightly" in the stateum corneum. Additionally, it was found to affect DNA expression in the skin cells, inhibiting collagen production, and possibly leading to early aging of cells. 

So, just because parabens may have been found to be in foods, doesn't mean that personal care products with parabens are safe.  Parabens applied to your skin behave much differently, likely increasing levels of estrogen and leading to premature aging and other changes in the skin. 

Reader Comments (8)

How does underarm deodorant with its parabens affect men?

Fri, March 18, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterjennifer

Great article!! Thanks Stephanie!! =)

Sun, March 20, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterPaz

Thanks Paz!

Jennifer--The buildup of parabens and other xenoestrogens in men can leading to an excess of estrogen in the body. Elevated estrogen levels in men can cause breast tissue growth (this is especially concerning for young developing boys), depression, erectile dysfunction, and muscle and bone loss.

Sun, March 20, 2011 | Registered Commenter[Stephanie Greenwood]

I really appreciate your time and effort to let everyone know of these studies and facts.. I was so lost and worried that no one had the right answer to the truth of ingredients. Thank you for making me feel relieved!

Fri, April 8, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterHelen

Just curious...if a body builds up parabens from use of topical lotions or whatnot over time, will they eventually flush out if you quit using those, or is your body thrown off for good?

Thu, August 4, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJackie

Jackie great question..... I was just going to ask the same thing !
I stopped recently using ingredient containing parapens (in cosmetics, lotions, shampoos, etc) and I am hoping/wondering if it will flush out of my system too.

Anyone know if this will happen ?

Thank you

Sun, January 15, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterHeather

Wed, October 25, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterLynn

If the main thing parabens do that is detrimental is to increase estrogen, does that mean that the effects on men would be negligible?

Sat, February 10, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterTimos

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