The Cancer-Causing Chemical You Use Every Day

There's a chemical in nearly every cosmetic you own that may be giving you cancer (and other health problems)...

I'm talking about "parabens."

These cheap chemicals block the growth of molds, fungi, and bacteria. Companies have used parabens in cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, and even food since the 1920s to give their products longer shelf lives. (The cosmetics industry began using parabens in the 1950s after several cases of blindness occurred from people using spoiled lotion.)

Some common parabens you'll find on the ingredient lists in your bathroom are "methylparaben," "ethylparaben," "propylparaben," and "butylparaben." The first part of each name derives from the number of carbons in the "functional group" of the molecule. Methylparaben, for example, has one carbon alkyl group... while ethyl has two carbons. (Obviously, you can recognize parabens because they all end with "-paraben.")

Several studies have found that high concentrations of parabens disrupt estrogen function... This can lead to dangerous consequences. Parabens are considered "estrogen mimics." This means they can disrupt the normal functions of hormones in our bodies – especially estrogen. Estrogen is ubiquitous in humans. In women, it regulates menstrual cycles and plays a key role in fertility. Excess estrogen – in both men and women – has been linked to several kinds of cancers, including breast cancer...

In one study, researchers found parabens throughout the breast tissue of women who'd had breast cancer. The highest levels of parabens were found in the breast tissue closest to the armpit. The reason is still unclear – high concentrations near the armpit might suggest that parabens in deodorant were the cause, but some of the women in the study said they had never used deodorant. But wherever the parabens came from, this study shows one of the strongest connections between parabens and breast cancer yet.

In addition to their link with cancer... parabens applied topically can damage your skin. Recently, researchers found that skin cells treated with parabens and exposed to sunlight died three times more often. In addition, chemicals known as oxidants were also found on the paraben-treated skin. Oxidants cause wrinkling and old-age spots.

For younger men, the big concern is infertility...

Several studies have shown that parabens decrease sperm counts. These studies found that propylparaben and butylparaben disrupt male reproductive functions and decrease daily sperm production. This is frightening when you consider that paraben use is increasing, and that scientists have found that sperm counts fell almost 30% from 1989 to 2002. Another study found that men born in the late 1980s have lower sperm counts than men born in the early 1980s. And this trend continues as parabens find their way into more of our goods.

Interestingly, parabens may have some benefits. Methylparaben is found in some fruits – like blueberries. It acts as a natural preservative and antimicrobial agent. But this is the paraben in its natural form and natural concentrations... not man-made like you find in deodorant.

Today, you can find parabens in 75%-90% of deodorants, moisturizers, shampoos, and makeup. Although the cosmetic concentrations of parabens are often less than 1%, it's unclear at what level the chemicals become dangerous.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which is supposed to watch what goes into these products, says parabens are "normally used at levels ranging from 0.01 to 0.3 percent." Predictably, the agency that's supposed to be watching out for us doesn't seem to know what's happening. Its assessment doesn't jibe with the real concentrations.

In 1984, the Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) expert panel said parabens are safe in cosmetics in concentrations up to 25%. In 2005, CIR reassessed its original study and found no reason to change its original guidelines. And while the FDA doesn't monitor the use of parabens, it accepts the findings of CIR.

So what is safe? 1%? 25%? What has really been studied? Sadly, there is no consensus.

What can you do to avoid parabens in your cosmetics?

Buy cosmetics without parabens. This can be difficult because of how ubiquitous they've become. I believe this is especially true for women, who typically use more cosmetics than men. But you can find paraben-free products...

The Burt's Bees brand offers many paraben-free cosmetics – including deodorants, lotions, and shampoos. Tom's of Maine also sells paraben-free soap and deodorant.

Or you can also do what I do... Avoid using underarm deodorants on days you're able to swim or splash around in water. Water cleans away much of the bacteria known to naturally cause smelly underarms and body odors. I'll even splash a little cologne or aftershave on my shirt...

To see if what you have in your house is paraben-free, just read the ingredient label. If you see a man-made paraben on the list, I'd try to avoid it (or at least, cut back).

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