Women with PCOS, by definition, have hormonal (endocrine) imbalances. We work hard every day making lifestyle choices that are aimed at rebalancing our hormones. Therefore, we should obviously avoid anything that will make those imbalances worse.
Enter Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals (EDCs) such as parabens.
What is a Paraben?
Parabens are synthetic preservatives used in foods, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics and personal care products such as deodorants, moisturizers and shampoos. These chemicals prevent molds and yeast from growing and ensure a longer shelf life. Before parabens, formaldehyde was the preservative of choice. Companies now use parabens because they are cheap and effective.
The most common parabens have “paraben” in their name, and include methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben and butylparaben. They may also be listed as Alkyl parahydroxy benzoates.
Parabens enter our bodies in two ways- in our food or through our skin. Parabens that we ingest with our food are processed through the digestive system and are (mostly) filtered out by our saliva, stomach acids, kidney and liver. Those that enter through our skin do not get processed this way and immediately enter the bloodstream and tissues. Once these chemicals enter the body, they tend to build up because we lack the necessary enzymes to break them down.
Why should I be concerned?
Studies show that parabens mimic and interfere with naturally occurring estrogens, disrupting the endocrine (hormone) system. Thus, we call them “endocrine disrupting chemicals.”
A recent report from the Environmental Working Group states:
“There is no end to the tricks that endocrine disruptors can play on our bodies: increasing production of certain hormones; decreasing production of others; imitating hormones; turning one hormone into another; interfering with hormone signaling; telling cells to die prematurely; competing with essential nutrients; binding to essential hormones; accumulating in organs that produce hormones.”
The World Health Organization (WHO) says in its joint report with the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP),
“The diverse systems affected by endocrine-disrupting chemicals likely include all hormonal systems and range from those controlling development and function of reproductive organs to the tissues and organs regulating metabolism and satiety.
Effects on these systems can lead to obesity, infertility or reduced fertility, learning and memory difficulties, adult-onset diabetes or cardiovascular disease, as well as a variety of other diseases.”
Even the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has linked methyl parabens to metabolic, developmental, hormonal, and neurological disorders, as well as various cancers. The evidence found in countless studies is hard to deny.
The study that had people around the world talking came out in 2004. Dr. Phillippa Darbre and her team at the University of Reading in the UK found high concentrations of parabens in cancerous breast tumors, particularly around the outer breast and under arm area (where you apply deodorant every day). Whereas parabens mimic estrogen, and estrogen is a player in the development of breast cancer, her team examined the concentration of five parabens in breast tumor tissue. They found one or more types in 99% of the tissue samples. 60% of the samples contained all five types. Dr. Darbre explains, “Parabens are getting into the breast, and they’re getting in in significant amounts.”
Dr. Darbre later repeated her study with a larger group and found the same results. Does this mean that deodorant causes breast cancer (or cancer on general)? Not necessarily. The study doesn’t prove that parabens cause cancer, only that they were easily detected and are very commonly found among cancerous cells. Nevertheless, the results inspired more research. For instance, a later Danish study found that since the parabens contained in skin lotion could be easily absorbed, they “could potentially contribute to adverse health effects.”
Why then, do Health Canada, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the European Commission’s Scientific Committee on Consumer Products, and the Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) all say that parabens at the low levels found in personal care products are not a concern?
They are looking at individual products. Paraben exposure would not be a problem if it was occasional. Unfortunately, the average person uses 9 products a day that offer exposure. One study indicates that women take in as much as 5 pounds of cosmetic chemicals every year. Combine parabens with all of the other endocrine disrupting chemicals in our environment, and that adds up to trouble.
Dr. Darbre explains it this way, “We’re going to see that the problem is long-term, low-dose exposure to a cocktail of chemicals.” The U.S. Environmental Working Group agrees that research must not just look at individual product exposure, but “must find a way to evaluate the cumulative impact of many products used over many years.”
What can I do to protect myself?
While the World Health Organization (WHO) and United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), report suggests that banning endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) may actually be needed to protect the health of future generations, that does not seem likely in the near future.
In the meantime, follow this rule of thumb, “Don’t put anything on your body that you wouldn’t put in your mouth.”
- Look for products that are made by companies that are earth-friendly, animal-friendly and green.
- Read the ingredients on your personal care products. If they are 99% chemicals, try to find a natural alternative. For example, I use only Morrocco Method products to shampoo and condition my hair.
- Buy products that come in glass bottles rather than plastic, since chemicals (like BPA) can leach out of plastics and into the contents. These leached chemicals are not parabens, but they are endocrine disruptors.
- Reduce the number of personal care products that you use.
Remember, limiting your exposure to these chemicals can make a long term difference. You have the power to limit your exposure.
“The reason I’m keen on the personal-care products [issue] is that women have the option to stop using these things. I want to empower them to be able to make their own decisions.”
–Dr. Phillippa Darbre