Parabens: Their Harmful Effects on Mother, Child, and the Ability to Conceive
By Dr. Chris D. Meletis
Women often don’t think much about the makeup, lotion, shower gels, deodorants or lubricants they’re applying to their skin. After all, if you find it in the store, it must be safe, right? However, many of the personal care items you use every day contain one or more toxic chemicals. One of the biggest offenders is a family of chemicals known as parabens. Unless you’re actively taking steps to avoid these damaging substances (more on this later), chances are good you’re exposed to a lot of them. That’s because an estimated 90% of grocery store items contain parabens, which are antimicrobial substances that preserve the shelf life of products.
Ironically, while they preserve the shelf life of the things we use daily, parabens may be taking years off our lives and that of our loved ones. Parabens belong to a class of chemicals known as endocrine “hormone” disrupters. That means they can affect your reproductive tract. They accomplish this by tricking the body into thinking they are the hormone estrogen. Posing as this hormone, they bind to estrogen receptors, which can wreak havoc on your prenatal health. It can also affect your child, both in the womb and throughout life.
They’re Lurking Everywhere
The average woman is exposed to a lot of parabens. Women who use lotion, cosmetics, cologne/perfume, nail polish, suntan lotion, or hair gel have a 28% to 80% higher level of parabens and phthalates (another chemical of concern) compared to women who do not use these products.1 Specifically, women who use lotion have urinary butylparaben and propylparaben levels that are 2 to 3 times more than women who don’t use lotion.1 Regularly spraying on perfume can lead to methylparaben levels 45% higher compared with women who don’t use cologne.1 With the widespread use of personal care products, parabens have been detected in 98% to 100% of pregnant women.2
Parabens also build up in the dust covering surfaces in your home. Research has shown that people are exposed to parabens from ingesting dust, although the amount is much less than from personal care products.3,4 Even so, toxic effects are more likely to occur after cumulative exposure to parabens and exposure to dust only adds to the burden. Children are exposed to more dust and therefore are exposed to more parabens through this route.
Where Are Parabens Hiding?
- Shower Gels
- Vaginal Lubricants
- Indoor Dust
- Suntan Lotion
- Makeup Foundation
- Makeup Powder
- Eye Liner
- Eye Shadow
- Bar Soap
- Liquid Soap
- Nail Polish
How Parabens Damage Mother, Father, and Baby
Parabens can impact all stages of conception. Human and animal studies suggest that they may interfere with the ability to become pregnant. Women who consume higher amounts of parabens have lower antral follicle counts,5 which are a measure of egg supply for the future and therefore an indication of fertility. One human study found that pregnant mothers with the highest paraben levels had a greater chance of having a preterm birth and that babies conceived to these mothers had decreased gestational age at birth, lower birth weight, and decreased body length.6 Another study found that women with higher urinary levels of methylparaben and ethylparaben were likely to have less children compared with women with lower levels.7
Many studies in rodents sounded the alarm that parabens are a cause for concern. For example, one study in rats found that oral exposure to methylparaben during pregnancy increased litter size, but also increased mortality of the offspring from postnatal day seven onwards. This was probably due to abnormalities in the mammary glands of the mothers.8
Other researchers observed that butylparaben exposure to pregnant rats was harmful to the reproductive system of male offspring.9 These offspring had higher estrogen levels. In animal studies, maternal exposure to parabens also damages testicular structure and function in the male offspring, causing abnormalities in their sperm when they become adults.10
A similar effect occurred when 3-week old rats were exposed to butylparaben. The sperm count in these animals dropped by more than 58% compared with rats not given butylparaben.11 The daily sperm production in the testis also significantly declined. And serum testosterone levels dropped as well.
The harm that parabens may cause to infants extends beyond reproductive problems. Butylparaben given to pregnant animals orally and subcutaneously was associated with problems with social interactions, learning, and memory in the offspring.12 The problems were similar to those seen when the researchers induced autism in rats. In another study, isobutylparaben given to pregnant rats subcutaneously led to anxiety and reduced learning performance in mature male offspring.13
How To Reduce Your Paraben Exposure
The good news? You can limit your exposure to parabens and protect your health and that of your child. Here are some ways to reduce your encounters with these toxic chemicals:
- Carefully read the labels of all personal care products. Ingredients that include the prefix ethyl, butyl, methyl, and propyl—even if they don’t specifically use paraben by name—may alert you to its presence.
- Use natural and organic personal care products. Look for the words “paraben free” or “made without parabens” on the label of a product.
- Dust your house frequently. Wash your hands after touching a dusty surface and before eating.
- Use essential oils rather than perfumes.
- Instead of lotions, consider using natural oils – organic coconut oil is a good choice – as a topical moisturizer for your skin.
1. Braun JM, et al. Personal care product use and urinary phthalate metabolite and paraben concentrations during pregnancy among women from a fertility clinic. J Expo Sci Environ Epidemiol. 2014 Sep;24(5):459-66.
2. Mortensen ME, et al. Urinary Concentrations of Environmental Phenols in Pregnant Women in a Pilot Study of the National Children’s Study, Environ Res. 2014 Feb;129:32-8.
3. Wang L, et al. Occurrence and human exposure of p-hydroxybenzoic acid esters (parabens), bisphenol A diglycidyl ether (BADGE), and their hydrolysis products in indoor dust from the United States and three East Asian countries. Environ Sci Technol. 2012 Nov 6;46(21):11584-93.
4. Guo Y, Kannan K. A Survey of Phthalates and Parabens in Personal Care Products from the United States and Its Implications for Human Exposure. Environ Sci Technol. 2013;47(24):14442-9.
5. Karwacka A, et al. Exposure to modern, widespread environmental endocrine disrupting chemicals and their effect on the reproductive potential of women: an overview of current epidemiological evidence. Hum Fertil (Camb). 2017 Jul 31:1-24.
6. Geer LA, et al. Association of birth outcomes with fetal exposure to parabens, triclosan and triclocarban in an immigrant population in Brooklyn, New York. Journal of Hazardous Materials. 5 Feb 2017;323:177-83.
7. Smarr MM, et al. Urinary Concentrations of Parabens and Other Antimicrobial Chemicals and Their Association with Couples’ Fecundity. Environ Health Perspect. 2017 Apr;125(4):730-6.
8. Manservisi F, et al. Effect of maternal exposure to endocrine disrupting chemicals on reproduction and mammary gland development in female Sprague-Dawley rats. Reproductive toxicology. July 2015;54:110-9.
9. Zhang L, et al. Effects of n-butylparaben on steroidogenesis and spermatogenesis through changed E₂ levels in male rat offspring. Environ Toxicol Pharmacol. 2014 Mar;37(2):705-17.
10. Guerra MT, et al. Maternal exposure to butyl paraben impairs testicular structure and sperm quality on male rats. Environ Toxicol. 2017 Apr;32(4):1273-89.
11. Oishi S. Effects of butylparaben on the male reproductive system in rats. Toxicol Ind Health. 2001 Feb;17(1):31-9.
12. Ali EH, Elgoly AH. Combined prenatal and postnatal butyl paraben exposure produces autism-like symptoms in offspring: comparison with valproic acid autistic model. Pharmacol Biochem Behav. 2013 Oct;111:102-10.
13. Kawaguchi M, et al. Maternal isobutyl-paraben exposure alters anxiety and passive avoidance test performance in adult male rats. Neurosci Res. 2009 Oct;65(2):136-40.
© 2022. Used by permission of Fairhaven Health. This article can be found at https://www.fairhavenhealth.com/parabens-harmful-effects-prenatal
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