Are You Aware of the Parabens You Eat?

Recently, I have received a lot of comments regarding my post on parabens (esters of p-hydroxybenzoic acid), in which I conclude (as does the U.S. FDA) that most paraben-containing skin care products are in fact safe for normal use. However, I have received a multitude of comments from readers since who feel that it is better to be “safe than sorry,” and I also think that is fine: if paraben-free makes you feel most comfortable with your skin care, then please, do what makes you at ease. Yet what really bothered me was when several readers wrote, “I would not use parabens…if I can’t eat it, I wouldn’t put it on my body.” I felt I definitely needed to address this point.

According to the Journal of Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology, the average intake of parabens via food only in the U.S. for infants (younger than 2 years of age) is 1-16 mg/kg of body weight, and the average intake for those older than 2 years of age is approximately 4-6 mg/kg of body weight. It should be noted that these numbers are higher than the amount of parabens absorbed through the skin (50-60 mg/day, verifiable by this calculation, amounting to just 0.64 mg/kg/day for the average 86.6 kg male and 0.74 mg/kg/day for the average 74.5 kg female.) Therefore, food accounts for about ten times the exposure to parabens than average skin care and cosmetic product usages. Fortunately, the sum of these averages are in accordance with the European Union’s recommended daily allowance of no more than 10 mg/kg of body weight per day for methyl, ethyl and propyl p-hydroxybenzoic acid esters and their sodium salts.

It has been reported in the Journal of Applied Toxicology that parabens are allowed to be incorporated in foods in the U.S. in concentrations of up to 0.1%. Concentrations are reported to be higher in foods like cakes, pie crusts, pastries, icings, toppings and fillings (0.03–0.06% of a combination of 3:1 methyl and other parabens) by this article in Food and Chemical Toxicology), amongst other sources. Food Navigator.com reports that additional sources of parabens include “the jelly coatings of meat products, surface treatment of dried meat products, cereal- or potato-based snacks and coated nuts, confectionery (excluding chocolate), and liquid dietary food supplements.” Altogether, these sources add up to an average of 4-6 mg/kg/day for the average American.

However, the role of parabens as carcinogenic, teratogenic, or mutagenic has not been established in humans consuming average concentrations of parabens per day. Many are concerned by reports that parabens may accumulate in breast tissue and induce weak estrogenic activity. Addressing the breast tissue concern, in one major the study, MCF-7 human breast cancer cells are subjected to parabens in one million-fold molar excess, thousands of times beyond the amount of parabens a patient is subjected to in a typical day. Furthermore, numerous natural food products are weakly estrogenic. One excellent list, provided by GaiaResearch.com, includes: “coumestrol (found in clover and alfalfa sprouts, lower concentrations in sunflower seeds, lima bean seeds, pinto bean seeds, and round split peas), genistein (high in soy, lower in other legumes, eg chickpeas) and zearealone (a heat-stable fungal mycotoxin, found in cereals, wheat, grains, and rice)” as weakly estrogenic. In other words, some of the healthiest, most nutrient-rich foods may be weakly estrogenic.

Of course, if you still feel safer avoiding parabens, then feel free to do so. Just be sure that you keep track of the parabens you eat (via foods or pharmaceuticals) as well, as the average American is getting about 10 times the exposure from food sources than from their skin care products or cosmetics.

For more on parabens, please visit my February 15, 2008 post.

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by Nicki Zevola

17 thoughts on “Are You Aware of the Parabens You Eat?

  1. Sheena says:

    Thank you so much for being so thorough! I find wading through all the information out there to be a bit frustrating. Your sources are fantastic and make it much easier to make an informed decision.

  2. beautyscientist says:

    The other thing to consider when you think about parabens, is that you have to use some kind of preservative. I think parabens are pretty risk free anyway – but I am sure that they are better than some of the preservatives I have seen in products marketed as paraben free.

  3. Left Brain says:

    Great post. Unfortunately, there will still be many who just don’t want to even consider using any synthetic chemical. I hope we can continue to fight against the “natural” nonsense on the internet.

  4. m says:

    However, the body absorbs many times more through the skin than through eating, which is what makes personal beauty products containing parabens a major concern.

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  6. Monet says:

    I would like to say that parabens have had a negative impact on my 12 year old and on myself. They have changed her periods from 23 to 28 days, caused her menstrual headaches, and changed her moods. They have done the same to me and these were in name brand lotions! Finding out what foods they are in is difficult since they can simply list “preservatives” and not say which ones.

  7. Emil says:

    I would be careful before assuming that just because some food contain parabens, then it is the least of our worries. Your article shows that parabens taken via foods account for much higher intake, but other works show that we are exposed to more parabens through cosmetics. The bottom line is that there is a lot of controversy surrounding parabens and many other chemicals and you can’t go wrong by trying to avoid a chemical that was not intended to be consumed through evolution. There have been many products in the past that were assumed to be safe until decades later (DDT). It’s just common sense to try and eat as healthy as you can. I will bet that those of us who eat healthy have close to zero mg paraben consumption. There have been various studies showing how more affluent families are much healthier than poor ones. Why is that? Because they eat healthier foods. So if you can afford it but choose to experiment with various chemicals nevertheless, then it’s your choice.

    Finally, take notice of this: I am a scientist who has been doing a lot of research for years. One thing I can tell you is that we often don’t understand the results of our own experiments. There is also a lot of dishonesty in the field with people often “modifying” their data to better fit their hypothesis so they can get a paper out of it and get funding. This disappointment was one of the reasons that I pursuing an MD now instead of Ph.D. alone. I would not trust any single scientific paper unless it was backed up by at least two other, independent publications. I would also look into who funded the research.

    “The total consumption of parabens from all sources (via cosmetics and personal care products, food and pharmaceuticals) is estimated as about 77.5mg/day, with food accounting for approximately 2.5mg/day, cosmetics and personal care products 50mg/day and drugs 25mg/day. For an individual weighing 60kg (132lb) it correlates as about 1.29mg/kg/day.”

    Source: Soni, M.G., et al., Evaluation of the health aspects of methyl paraben: a review of the published literature. Food and Chemical Toxicology 40, 1335-1375 (2002) and references cited therein

  8. Simon Kam says:

    Hi There,
    There are numerous skincare products available in the market that are PARABEN-FREE with no preservative., so YOU HAVE A CHOICE!
    We have our liver to detoxify toxin that enter our body via mouth, BUT toxic can enter our cell almost directly after mechanical or chemical exfoliation of the skin, so more Paraben will invade us directly with skincare products as we are more defendless of toxin via skin. (Recall how Hormonse Replacement Theraphy was applied through the skin?)
    Indeed, ” You have a choice to use skincare products that you can put into your mouth”!
    Simon kam

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  14. Susan says:

    Interesting article. But the natural foods that we eat are designed for our body. The chemical ones are not. So there again this article is just stating information but has no conclusive evidence. Chemical substances are not always harmful but the studies done are few from what I understand. One of the biggest culprits is from the dairy industry, RBGH, or recombinant bovine growth hormone. It can contribute to breast cancer. It’s in milk, cheese, and any other dairy products that isn’t organic. I’m just saying There are so many dangerous chemicals that are man made that we need to be careful. It’s not just in cosmetics. But we should be aware of the health issues that can affect us through these substances.

  15. Nina says:

    Interesting to note that no one here has reported allergies to parabens. I am highly allergic to parabens. My body rejects them so I know there is something wrong with parabens. I don’t think we are allergic to natural foods. I think it is a preservative or maybe how they are processed. Parabens are in everything! I can’t even find a natural lotion that works at Rite Aid or CVS. I have to order online straight from Jergens. But that’s ok because its cheaper. Now that I know that it’s in foods also, it’s another reason for me to continue eating organic. Thanks for the info.

  16. Renee says:

    Nina, I too am allergic to Paraben in addition to Quaternium 15–which is a form of formaldehyde also (like Paraben) and have been allergic to lanolin for most of my life. I find most of my products out of this country–and use food grade oils primarily for skin and scalp. A big issue is finding a good deodorant–that will last in Texas heat.
    I am also going to start researching foods that contain parabens.

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