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Parfum and parabens: what are they doing to your body?

As far as perfumes go, we all love a pretty fragrance that makes us smell nice and feel good about ourselves.
So much so that in 2016, the world-wide market for fragrance is estimated to reach a whopping 40.1 billion $(US).
However, is our global obsession with all things sweetly-scented poisoning our bodies to the point of chronic illness, and even incidences of breast cancer, low sperm counts and inflammatory disorders?
It may sound extreme but the harsh reality is that a number of ingredients commonly used in fragrances have been recognised by credible international organisations to have a detrimental effect on the body.
The EU, for example, has recognised 26 fragrance allergens with the potential to cause health and environmental problems.
Despite companies in Europe being required by law to list the presence of allergens in their products when concentrations exceed 0.001% in leave-on products and 0.01% for those that are rinsed off, labelling becomes a murky business with other potentially harmful ingredients being grouped together on ingredients lists as “perfume”. This makes it difficult for consumers to make informed decisions about purchases that don’t have the potential to harm them and their families.
It must be remembered that perfume ingredients, regardless of natural or synthetic origins, may all cause health or environmental problems.
Fragrances are considered to be either natural essential oils or man-made aromatic hydrocarbons (compounds) used to create a pleasant scent.
Natural fragrances are produced using flowers, seeds, plants, roots and resins while synthetic fragrances are derived from petroleum (of which hydrocarbon is a chief component) that is associated with skin irritation and environmental damage.
Unfortunately it would be almost impossible to avoid exposure to fragrances given they are used in so many different types of personal care, cosmetic and food products. Perfume contains an abundance of mixed fragrances which make up to 60% of the product. Other products we use during the course of a given day that include fragrances are lotions, shampoos, sunscreen, air fresheners, laundry conditioners and cosmetics. We are continually being exposed to a large cocktail of compounds and while the impact of this chronic exposure is not yet certain there is heightened concern that the effects of chemicals that mimic natural hormones such as oestrogen, risk disrupting the body’s fragile endocrine system. As more and more studies get underway to probe the link between the oestrogenic effect of chemicals and illnesses such as breast and testicular cancer, underlying concern about fragrance ingredients cannot be put to rest.
Commonly identified fragrance allergens with known human immune system toxic or allergenic effects include oak moss, isoeugenol, cinnamic aldehyde, cinnamic alcohol, eugenol, hydroxycitronellal, geraniol and amyl cinnamaldehyde. Other fragrances have raised concerns about their effects on endocrine disruption and asthma.
Among the most concerning ingredients in fragrances are parabens, phthalates and synthetic musks. For now, let’s take a closer look at parabens, what they are used for and what potential impact they may have on our bodies.
So what are parabens and what are they used for?
Parabens are chemical compounds derived from para-hydroxybenzoate (of Hydroxybenzoic Acid). It is used as a low-cost, synthetic preservative and microbial agent for an array of personal care, pharmaceutical and food industry products, keeping them free from the growth of bacteria and fungus. Common compounds you may find on an ingredients list include methyl (E218), ethyl (E214), propyl (E216), and butyl (E209) p-hydroxybenzoate.
Parabens are widely used in lotions, soaps, shampoos, deodorants, hairspray, moisturizers, make-up, toothpaste, as well as food products such as jams, jellies, syrups, baked good, processed vegetables, pickles, sauces, fats, oils, seasoning, sugar substitutes, coffee extracts, fruit juices, frozen dairy products, beer and soft drinks.
The effects on parabens on the body
Parabens are fat soluble and absorbed into the body through the skin and the gastrointestinal tract. Since 1974 regulating bodies including the FAO and WHO assigned an acceptable daily intake for the collective sum of methylparaben, ethylparaben, and propylparaben in food. In 2007 it was recommended that propylparaben and its salts for use in food be excluded due to its adverse effects. In the EU, there are some restrictions on the concentration of paraben in cosmetics. Propylparaben and butylparaben, their isoforms and their salts are banned in cosmetic products for children under three years of age due to the potential for disruption to immature endocrine systems. While the levels of paraben found in food are lower than in personal care products, there is growing concern about skin exposure, ingestion and inhalation of paraben, although skin contact and absorption appears to be the primary method of exposure.
Given parabens have been found in a range of human milk, urine, semen and blood samples questions remain as to the body’s ability to successfully break them down. A 2015 study found that detectable concentrations of paraben in urine were reported in more than 90% of girls who opted to replace their personal care products with paraben-free options over a three day period. One conclusion drawn was that the chemicals may remain in the body for a period of up to five days after exposure to the skin.
Exposure to parabens in the air and in house dust was also reported in a study of 120 homes in Cape Cod in the United States. The study found that 67% of homes had air concentrations of butyl paraben, ethyl paraben and methyl paraben that were above the reporting limit of 1ng/m3. Methyl paraben was frequently detected with indoor air concentrations between 2.9 ng/m3 and 21 ng/m3.
The relationship between parabens, cancer and toxicity
No one knows for sure whether there is a relationship between parabens and breast cancer but scientists have known for decades that oestrogen exposure is linked to the disease. Parabens are considered xenoestrogens, a type of synthetic compound that imitates oestrogen even though they differ chemically from the natural hormone made in the body. Research shows that parabens play a role in stimulating cell proliferation of human breast cancer cell lines with isopropyl and isobutyl parabens showing the more potent proliferative effect. In one study, parabens were detected in human breast tumours with up to 99% of breast tissue samples having detectable levels at median concentration of 85.5 ng/g. Although the ability of parabens to mimic oestrogen activity has been widely reported as weak, there is now concern that parabens might be toxic at lower levels of exposure that previously thought.
Also of concern is paraben interference with reproductive functions and fertility in men. In rat and in vitro studies paraben was found to have a weak effect on the activity of androgen, the male sex hormone, blocking androgens such as testosterone and inhibiting enzymes that metabolize oestrogen. They have also been found to play a role in damaging genetic information within cells that cause mutations, potentially leading to cancer. Worryingly, when female rats were exposed to butyl paraben during gestation and lactation periods effects on their male offspring were noted. Propyl and butyl parabens also appear to reduce sperm production and lead to a reduction on testosterone levels.
Parabens have also been implicated in precocious (early) puberty in children, infertility, disorders of the reproductive system and effects during pregnancy. Female exposure to isobutyl paraben during pregnancy has also been found to be associated with anxiety and behavioural changes in their offspring.
Whether or not repeated, long-term exposure to chemicals like parabens that weakly mimic oestrogen activity plays a part in the proliferation of disease is yet to be determined but it’s worthwhile checking the ingredients on the label of your next purchase. There are plenty of paraben-free products now readily available including Bee Loved’s skincare range.
Want to know more?
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