One of the biggest developing health stories in the 21st century is the sheer amount of chemicals in common consumer goods which are turning out to have deadly health consequences and are facing calls to be banned.
Firstly you have the phthalates which are used to make common plastic flexible, which it turned out, dramatically reduce sperm quality and fertility. Then there’s atrazine, which is the most commonly used herbicide in the US and is so estrogenic it turns male frogs into female frogs when added to rivers. Next there’s the neurotoxic heavy metals contaminating many foods such as mercury in tuna and arsenic in fruit juice.
Finally, we have the specific type of chemical most notoriously found in personal care products – parabens. Parabens are a wide class of chemicals, including propyl paraben and butyl paraben. They are united by one common application – their preservative properties which prevent bacteria, mould and fungi from multiplying.
Parabens exist in nature; for example, methyl paraben is an antifungal chemical which naturally occurs in blueberries. The “parabens” most natural health websites rant about, however, are a synthetically manufactured version. Butyl paraben, for example, is produced industrially using sulfuric acid as a catalyst. Parabens are very cheap to manufacture and are added to some foods (with the e-number E216 or E214), but most commonly make-up, shower gel, shampoo, deodorants and other cosmetics…
…and it’s for that reason that they inspire fear; the products containing them are so common. As a few preliminary studies have been conducted showing that parabens have estrogenic properties, just like all the deadly chemicals mentioned above, many are wondering whether the products containing them can cause acne too.
It’s certainly possible, and while the evidence is only trickling in right now, the prospects are grim, or on the other hand, good if you consider the fact that this gives you yet another opportunity for improving your skin.
Parabens match the deadliness of other common chemicals
A Japanese study from 2002 revealed all sorts of consequences you wouldn’t want from a product you apply to your face each day. Firstly, propyl paraben, the perseverative found in common shampoos, was found to cripple daily sperm production and efficiency in all groups.
Secondly, serum levels of testosterone (a vital hormone for sex drive and mental energy) were suppressed in a dose dependent manner and in the group receiving the highest dose of parabens this decrease was “significant”.
Most importantly, the dose of parabens applied was not an astronomically high amount that couldn’t possibly be achieved if you used shampoo for one thousand years; it was equal to the upper limit daily acceptable intake of both Japan and the European Union. The EU is already far stricter with chemicals in commercial products than authorities from the US.
The next deadly consequence that should make you think twice before buying a generic shower gel or shampoo from the supermarket is parabens’ strong estrogenic properties. The most infamous study on parabens ever conducted was in 2004; it revealed that 99% of all female breast tumours (out of 160 sampled) contained synthetic parabens. 60% or more contained all five types: propyl paraben, methyl paraben, butyl paraben, ethyl paraben, and isobutyl paraben.
Some scientists pointed out that there was no rate of concentration in healthy breast tissue for comparison, causing the cosmetics industry to hail parabens as gloriously safe for a time, but more studies soon emerged.
Tests on rats revealed that parabens stimulated estrogen receptors with a strength almost equal to natural estrogen, and the real problem? The parabens were concentrated in female breast tissue at rates nearly 1 million times higher than natural estrogen. Estrogen is necessary hormone for health but excessive levels encourage cell mutation and are strongly correlated to breast cancer.
Worse, parabens have been linked to cancer through other methods – a 2011 study confirmed that they inhibited the ability of human breast cells to undergo the process of apoptosis, the timed cell death that prevents rapid overgrowth and proliferation. Excessive cell cycling was also observed. Parabens also cause detectable DNA damage according to a 2007 study which examined the common propyl paraben (shampoo, bath products, lotions) and butyl paraben (foundation, sunscreen, eye shadow).
Even the fish kingdom is under threat; according to the Environmental Protection Agency, the continual washing away of parabens into sewers and ultimately into natural river systems is damaging the organs of fish, frogs, and other aquatic life. Some might claim that parabens are perfectly safe since you apply cosmetics to the skin rather than eat them. However, the opposite is true; parabens are proven to be absorbed through the skin intact (study) and this is more potent at increasing blood levels since it provides a direct pathway to the bloodstream.
Parabens used as preservatives in processed foods (examples include sauces, beer and processed fish) are actually safer as they are broken down and deactivated by enzymes in saliva and then the stomach. With direct blood absorption the kidneys and liver are bypassed as well. The “skin absorption is worst” rule applies to many acne-causing chemicals; for example, the carcinogenic chemical nitrosodiethanolamine (NDELA) found in common shampoos has a 100 times higher absorption rate when applied to the skin compared to eaten through the mouth.
There are tons of paraben apologists out there who might mumble something about an outstanding safety record in tests but the studies above speak for themselves. We are witnessing history repeat itself. Back in the 1960s the FDA deemed BPA to be generally recognised as safe, but last year the French government banned its usage in plastic and in 2013 the FDA banned BPA in baby’s bottles.
The cycle is beginning with parabens – Denmark has now banned synthetic parabens in all products targeted towards children under the age of 3.
Parabens are nowhere near as well researched as BPA or phthalates, but their damaging, unnatural consequences seem to be nearly identical, mostly including rampant damage to the all-important human reproductive system.
Can parabens end up causing acne in any indirect way?
In this 2011 study, the feeding of butyl paraben to several mice was shown to dramatically increase the quantities of lipid peroxides forming in their bodies. Further analysis revealed that vital antioxidants such as glutathione (very important), ascorbic acid and catalase were massively decreased, and the effect was dose dependent. What’s more, the paraben mice group was compared to a control group, which experienced no worsening of their antioxidant status.
Why does this matter? High oxidative stress, an excess of free radicals and depletion in antioxidants, is one of the top two conditions behind the birth of acne alongside chronic inflammation. Almost every article on this website mentions a strategy related to lowering oxidative stress.
In particular, the glutathione antioxidant shown to be reduced by parabens is absolutely vital for reducing acne as it is widely hailed as the body’s “master antioxidant”. One study found that acne patients have 20% less glutathione in their bloodstream than average.
Given the thousands, near endless sources of 1) healthy antioxidants, and 2) damaging chemicals that reduce bodily antioxidants, my general recommendation is to be constantly on the alert, gaining an advantage in whatever area you can. A further study performed a virtually identical experiment and achieved virtually identical results; mice fed butyl paraben experienced more lipid peroxides in their blood and a dramatic reduction in antioxidants like glutathione and catalase.
While the deadly power outlined above is run of the mill for environmental chemicals and contaminants, parabens apparently have uniquely deadly attributes as well. One study revealed that parabens could increase circulating levels of stress hormones. Scientists analysed both the urinary paraben and cortisol (the main stress hormone) levels of pregnant mothers, and discovered a close correlation between the two.
If you are like most people with acne, you’ll have experienced the reality that stress does indeed trigger pimples (full article here). Principally, mental stress wrecks your skin by triggering an increase in the stress hormone cortisol, but parabens can apparently increase cortisol regardless of whether you’re relaxed or anxious; the effect is purely biologically driven.
Finally we have this 2012 study in which 860 school children had their blood levels of various environmental chemicals analysed and compared with their rates of allergies. Propyl, methyl, butyl, and ethyl parabens were among the chemicals analysed.
This quote was particularly interesting: “as a group, EDCs are not associated with allergen sensitization. However, levels of the antimicrobial EDCs triclosan and parabens were significantly associated with allergic sensitization”. It seems that parabens as well as triclosan (deadly antibacterial chemical once used in toothpaste) have a unique power to increase allergies. Both food allergies and airborne allergies were increased with heightened paraben exposure.
Why is this important? Allergies, food allergies, and digestive problems in general, are a notorious cause of acne. You may have witnessed that in action if, for example, you eat an almond and burst out with acne for no obvious reason. How exactly parabens trigger an increased rate of allergies is a mystery but one possibility is that, given that they are a synthetic chemical, they are simply identified as foreign to the digestive system and treated to an all-out inflammatory assault.
This uncertainty illustrates another point, which is that parabens have unexpected side effects and are still a largely un-researched chemical. Like BPA and phthalates before them, their full range of effects is a mystery.
The verdict on parabens
For one thing, most products containing parabens are packed with other deadly additives anyway. Take antiperspirants. The main agent they use to clog sweat glands is the heavy metal aluminium, and in this article we covered how aluminium causes acne by depleting glutathione AND is strongly linked to Alzheimer’s. In toothpaste, you have both methyl paraben and the enamel-restoring chemical sodium fluoride, which reduces IQ levels in infants as well as cranking up inflammation levels.
It’s a similar story with makeup (phthalates), processed food (sugar, wheat, vegetable oils), and mouthwash (fluoride again). Basically, the main sources of parabens are commercial products which I strongly urge you to avoid anyway.
Secondly, you might hear gurus say that parabens are nothing to worry about, because the quantities used in shampoos and makeup are significantly lower than the acceptable daily limit. But don’t they don’t comprehend that we are exposed to multiple sources of those chemicals each day. The average woman applies makeup in the morning, washes her hands with cleansing gel multiple times, uses shampoos and body wash at night, applies perfume regularly, and uses antiperspirants. Most of those are sources of parabens!
Then there’s the countless other chemicals. Consider this fact – it’s been estimated that women are exposed to 168 different chemicals through cosmetics daily, and absorb an average of 5 pounds of chemicals per year.
The average human’s detoxification systems are currently crippled as well. Our levels of glutathione, one of the most important detoxifying agents, are being rapidly depleted thanks to both a diet lacking in the building block nutrients for it and over-exposure to toxins. Hence, parabens are more likely to build up in tissues and blood rather than be broken down efficiently.
Many environmental contaminants have a synergistic effect as well; non-carcinogenic chemicals are known to turn to cancer-promoting carcinogens when combined. Could a similar phenomenon occur with parabens? There’s no research on it yet, but it’s definitely possible…
Parabens and other chemicals – a hidden menace in health
They were only invented during the last 150 years by humans. During that period we have witnessed an exponential increase in cancer and decline in human fertility rates (a 50% drop in average sperm quality over 50 years up to 2003, for instance).
Paraben, like its frog-mutating, IQ-reducing grandfathers BPA and fluoride before it, enjoys an official status of “generally recognised as safe”. But who assigns the rating?
The answer is complicated. Firstly, the FDA does not regulate chemical additives anywhere nearly as strictly as it does human and animal drugs. The FDA supposedly concluded that parabens were safe based on a single study performed on rats back in 1956 which used an oral dose, and as we discussed earlier, oral doses are far safer.
More recently, the reassuring judgements of safety have come from the Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR), which concluded that parabens were perfectly safe both in 1984 and again in 2005 after the 2004 breast cancer scare took off. But what’s the real story here? The truth is that the CIR has a history of being highly lax about the safety of ingredients.
For example, by 2013 the European Union had banned nearly 1,400 chemicals from personal care products due to experiments showing they were carcinogenic, mutagenic, or toxic to reproduction. In the United States, meanwhile, the CIR has found just eleven ingredients to be unsafe. Some environmental groups claim that the CIR is run by the cosmetics industry, for the cosmetics industry, and is trapped in a classic case of the fox guarding the hen house.
Similarly, the FDA barely tests half of chemicals used in commercial products. For example, the Environmental Working Group once estimated that only 28 common toiletries and cosmetics out of 7,500 had ingredients which were all fully tested for safety.
Meanwhile, health conditions potentially linked to these chemicals are growing ever more common. One of the most suspicious pieces of evidence is the human race’s declining fertility. Over the last 100 years, the testosterone levels of the average male have fallen by over 50% and some scientists estimate them to be dropping by 1% every year now.
No mainstream scientists are offering an explanation for this. At the same time, a vast amount of chemicals, whether it’s parabens, phthalates, triclosan, fluoride, PFCs, or BPA, are endocrine disruptors; they have a variety of detrimental effects on hormones.
In my view, this abundance of environmental chemicals is a massively overlooked phenomenon in many aspects of health, including acne.
For that reason, I am taking no chances when it comes to a wide variety of chemicals in personal care products, and I advise you to do the same.
That includes parabens, and another reason to minimise synthetic parabens in your life is that doing so is very easy. Too many of the insidious chemicals are found in air pollution or are lurking in tap water, or even plastics in cars, computers and laptops, and are thus difficult to avoid…
…but parabens, by contrast, are found in cosmetic products which are purely optional, so it’s smart to seize the chance to eliminate their dangers.
If you live in a polluted city you can’t just flee overnight, but you can switch to a shampoo with more natural ingredients. You can’t eliminate all environmental chemicals but the more you do the stronger your skin will become.
How to banish parabens from your life
Removing every last molecule of synthetic parabens from your life is impossible, unless you isolate yourself from society and live in a wooden hut in the mountains forever. For example, simply shaking the hand of a woman who had applied make-up that morning will transfer a tiny of paraben residue amount to your hand.
But you can easily wipe out 99% plus of all paraben exposure, sending your intake so low that the effect on acne, antioxidant supplies and fertility is virtually zero. Here is the basic guide to replacing and eliminating the main everyday products containing parabens:
Processed foods – the strategy here couldn’t be simpler, eliminate processed foods entirely.
We’ve already covered in this article about how eating processed is a gamble every time. They’re full of added sugar, even in foods where you’d least expect it like steak sauces and breaded fish. There’s very commonly wheat-derived ingredients, vegetable oils, and artificial sweeteners added.
It’s impossible to tell what’s in processed foods sometimes; did you know, for example, that E621 is actually MSG, which is strongly linked to damaged digestion? Unless you have a library of e-numbers in your brain, relying on processed foods is a minefield.
Hence, the basic dietary strategy for acne is to stick to whole foods, none of which will contain synthetic parabens anyway. The foods most notorious for parabens include beer, sauces, and processed fish.
You can still drink a can of beer occasionally and get drunk every week, particularly if the rest of your diet is bursting with nutrition. As we discussed, skin absorption of parabens is the real threat. Simply stay away from processed foods when they’re neither necessary nor pleasurable to indulge in.
Shower gel, shampoo, hand wash, washing up liquid, all-purpose cleaner, deodorant – the glorious alternative to each of those paraben-filled products is Dr Bronner’s liquid castile soap. Dr Bronner’s is an all-natural soap containing natural oils like tea tree oil, coconut oil, hemp oil, jojoba oil and more. It’s free from parabens, phthalates, and any other unnatural chemicals.
The first thing you’ll notice on the bottle is the massive letters boasting of “18 uses in 1”, and that’s why I recommend it. Dr Bronner’s is as great for any shampoo for cleaning hair and keeping it soft, it cleans dishes superbly, and it’s excellent as a body and hand wash.
You don’t have to worry about absorbing unhealthy chemicals through the skin simply because there aren’t any. I strongly recommend Dr Bronner’s to replace a variety of cosmetics.
Follow the link here to the large 32oz bottle, for greatest value for money. The best flavouring is the orange version, and the almond and peppermint are excellent as well. Dr Bronner’s also functions well as a basic face wash, although you should only use small, diluted amounts to avoid drying the skin out and disrupting its barrier function.
Toothpaste – commercial toothpastes commonly contain methyl paraben. The problems specifically associated with methyl paraben include allergies and damage to DNA. The sodium fluoride in common toothpastes and mouthwash mean that any acne patient should avoid it (full article here) and my recommended alternative is a mixture of baking soda and coconut oil.
Baking soda is both 1) alkaline to wipe out any excess acidity in the mouth and 2) antibacterial to kill off the enamel-destroying bacteria which feed off those acids. Coconut oil reduces the abrasiveness of baking soda, increases the easiness of usage, and has antibacterial powers of its own due to its high lauric acid content.
Additionally, a massive favourite in the natural remedy community is “oil pulling”, a type of natural mouthwash where you swish virgin coconut oil back and forth in your mouth for 15 minutes. Oil pulling is often dismissed as alt-med mumbo-jumbo because it is sourced from the ancient Indian Ayurvedic medicine school (which claims that heavy metals are good for you) but coconut oil has proven antibacterial effects.
Make-up – women worldwide are not going to stop using make-up just because of a random chemical, so the smartest option is to track down a chemical free (or mostly chemical free) version. Luckily, the market is booming thanks to all the interest in chemical-free living.
For homemade options designed to be natural and free from chemicals check out this article. For commercial products, ones that are paraben/chemical free and get good reviews from women in primal/all-natural circles are as follows. Mascara: Physicians Formula Organic Wear 100% Natural Origin Mascara. Foundation: Jane Iredale. Bronzer/blush: Aubrey Organics. Eyeliner: Jane Iredale.
Acne cleansers – the options are endless. Read this article for the top 5 natural topical treatments.
Ruthlessly eliminating paraben-filled products from your life will not clear your skin like magic but it’s yet another minor positive change to make, to step closer to the skin you’ve always dreamed of. Going all natural with the personal care items and cosmetics you use will ensure that your antioxidant supplies are slightly higher, your stress levels slightly lower, and your digestive system slightly calmer.
What’s also possible is that your skin is abnormally sensitive to parabens for whatever reason. Maybe you’re a woman who cannot understand why you break out with a vengeance when you simply apply make-up, and then resort to applying even more make-up to hide it, but then break-out even further. In that case, there’s a good chance that by switching to natural make-up you’ll enjoy a noticeable clearing of your acne rather than just a miniscule one.
If this article is the first news you’ve read about dangerous chemicals in commercial products full stop, get started now. The first things to ditch are chemical laden moisturisers and face cleansers, which are the worst of the worst for inflaming existing acne.
For most people, parabens are one among thousands of minor contributing factors towards acne, but one you should eliminate nevertheless.
Thanks for reading!