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Research shows that prenatal exposure to parabens can cause long-term problems to the growing baby. We now know that parabens cross the human placenta. The good news is that there are ways to protect your developing baby.
Endocrine disruptors have been repeatedly associated with pregnancy and fetal complications in animals, but there is limited research about how these chemicals behave inside the human body. We now know that the omnipresent preservatives known as parabens can easily cross the human placenta and accumulate in the blood of the growing baby.
The US pilot study, which clarified this issue, was published in May 2015 and evaluated the levels of commonly used parabens in the blood of 50 pregnant women and upon delivery, in the blood of their babies (1). Parabens where found in 94% of women and their newborns. This makes sense, since it is estimated that parabens are included in approximately 22,000 products, so avoiding them is not exactly a piece of cake. However, the most impressive finding of this small study was the fact that in more than 50% of the cases, the babies had significantly higher amounts of the most popular paraben (methyl-paraben) in their blood than their mother did. The mean concentration of methyl-paraben in pregnant women was 20.41 ng/l, while newborn babies had a mean concentration of 36.54 ng/l. This is a significant difference and a whole lot of parabens for a newborn baby with immature kidneys and detoxification mechanisms.
There is plenty of research proving that prenatal exposure to parabens can cause long-term problems to the growing baby. As many endocrine disruptors, parabens mimic estrogen and affect the sensitive hormonal balance required for a healthy pregnancy and baby. Accurate hormone signals regulate the proper development of the baby during pregnancy, which justifies the fears that parabens can affect the baby´s health in the long-run.
The list of possible effects of parabens to babies is long. Selected research in animals suggests that prenatal exposure to parabens is linked to autistic-like behavioral symptoms in infants (4), impaired social behavior (5), decreased sperm number and motility later in life (6) and learning difficulties (7) among other problems. But this is not just about the babies; women can be harmed by parabens too. Scientific research suggests that parabens may be linked to breast cancer, which is a reasonable concern, given the fact that inside the body, parabens act like a weak type of estrogen.
Tainted Science and Lack of Regulation
Since parabens are mainly found in cosmetics and personal care products, a considerable effort has been made by the industry to convince that parabens are practically non-toxic in the concentrations used in cosmetics. The latest report by the Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) Expert Panel, which is exclusively funded by the Personal Care Products Council (the industry trade association), is worryingly reassuring the safety of parabens and indirectly promotes the use of parabens in cosmetics by setting very high safety threshold for adults and especially for infants (2,3). Unfortunately the specific report does not take into account the fact that people are exposed to a cocktail of parabens, rather than a single paraben, on a daily basis. In other words, there is no assessment of the additive and cumulative risk of multiple paraben exposure from daily use of multiple cosmetics and personal care products.
Bear in mind that parabens, and other endocrine disruptors (i.e. phthalates), are not regulated by the FDA, which essentially means that the cosmetics industry is unregulated when it comes to the ingredients of their products.
4 steps to limit parabens exposure
- Only choose cosmetics and personal care products, which explicitly state that they are "paraben-free". If there is no indication of parabens in the label, this does not necessarily mean that they are not there.
- Lotions and perfumes are the kinds of products associated with high exposure to parabens. In general, parabens are essential for products with high water content (i.e. moisturizing lotions), which are prone to bacterial and/or fungal contamination. Opt for formulas based on less water, such as bar lotions, solid perfumes, which require less preservatives.
- If possible, buy preservative-free cosmetics in small batches and use them quickly. Products with natural preservatives, such as grapefruit seed oil and vitamin E are also a good choice.
- Foods with a long shelf life, such as beer, syrups, salad dressings, jams, canned foods, tortilla shells, frozen desserts and other frozen dairy products also contain parabens. Eating fresh food and cooking your meals from whole, local ingredients is a great way to avoid parabens and a whole group of other unhealthy chemicals.
 Towers CV, Terry PD, Lewis D, Howard B, Chambers W, Armistead C, Weitz B, Porter S, Borman CJ, Kennedy RC, Chen J. 2015. Transplacental passage of antimicrobial paraben preservatives. J Expo Sci Environ Epidemiol.
 Final amended report on the safety assessment of Methylparaben, Ethylparaben, Propylparaben, Isopropylparaben, Butylparaben, Isobutylparaben, and Benzylparaben as used in cosmetic products. Int J Toxicol. 2008;27 Suppl 4:1-82.
 Cosmetic Ingredient review. https://www.ctfa.org/
 Ali EH, Elgoly AH. 2013. Combined prenatal and postnatal butyl paraben exposure produces autism-like symptoms in offspring: comparison with valproic acid autistic model. Pharmacol Biochem Behav. 111:102-10.
 Kawaguchi M, Morohoshi K, Imai H, Morita M, Kato N, Himi T. Maternal exposure to isobutyl-paraben impairs social recognition in adult female rats. Exp Anim. 2010;59(5):631-5.
 Kang KS, Che JH, Ryu DY, Kim TW, Li GX, Lee YS. 2002. Decreased sperm number and motile activity on the F1 offspring maternally exposed to butyl p-hydroxybenzoic acid (butyl paraben). J Vet Med Sci. 64(3):227-35.
 Kawaguchi M, Irie K, Morohoshi K, Watanabe G, Taya K, Morita M, Kondo Y, Imai H, Himi T. Maternal isobutyl-paraben exposure alters anxiety and passive avoidance test performance in adult male rats. Neurosci Res. 65(2):136-40.
 Karpuzoglu E, Holladay SD, Gogal RM Jr. 2013. Parabens: potential impact of low-affinity estrogen receptor binding chemicals on human health. J Toxicol Environ Health B Crit Rev. 16(5):321-35.