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At a Glance: Parabens


Lipstick and other cosmetics are known to contain parabens, but some manufacturers offer versions without the preservative.
Lipstick and other cosmetics are known to contain parabens, but some manufacturers offer versions without the preservative.
Jupiterimages/Pixland/Thinkstock

Lipstick, soda and bandages share this common ingredient. As disturbing as it may sound, toothpaste, glue and baked goods include the same helpful component, too. In fact, this compound that goes by names like parahydroxybenzoate could just as easily be found in the eye makeup your wife puts on in the morning as in the jelly you spread on your toast for breakfast. You can probably guess -- if you've read the headline -- that the ubiquitous additives being referenced are parabens.

A chemist would define parabens as a type of ester -- a compound produced when an organic acid and an alcohol come together. That's what they are but what they do is easier to understand. Parabens keep your soft drinks from going bad and your shampoo from growing a layer of green fuzz as it sits open on your shower ledge. Basically, they're preservatives.

There's no question that life is simpler and more convenient as a result of parabens. The more perishable goods in your house, the more trips you have to make to the grocery or drug store. But if it seems a little unsettling that this extremely common ingredient is going in your food, on your body -- and perhaps even holding together that broken and beloved coffee mug -- you're not the first to raise a penciled eyebrow. Some people argue that parabens are linked to cancer, that they damage the endocrine system and upset hormonal balance.

Questions about the safety of parabens were first raised in the 1990s. Unfortunately, it's hard to pinpoint cause and effect when it pertains to an ingredient that's widely used in so many different types of consumer products. Likewise, studying the effect of parabens within a specific product is also problematic because it occurs in such small amounts that they're unlikely to cause any ill-effects.

We do know that parabens can fit into estrogen receptors within cells. When this happens the body responds accordingly. Glands and neurotransmitters react to, what they believe to be, estrogen. The theory is that the endocrine systems response to "bad information" results in unnecessary and unhealthy changes within the body. Researchers have discovered that lab mice have lower sperm counts when subjected to large amounts of parabens. Still, solid proof of parabens effect on humans remains elusive.

Consumers who are wary of the widespread use of parabens have options. Rather than scan the list of ingredients on every food, cosmetic or cleaning product for words like propylparaben, they can simply choose to buy green and biodegradable goods. The shelf-life of those products may be shorter but, in such instances, they'll offer the consumer peace of mind.


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