Study links prenatal exposure to chemical found in cosmetics to overweight risk

Researchers suggest pregnant women exposed to parabens are more likely to have children who are overweight in early to mid-childhood.

Unborn babies exposed to a common chemical found in cosmetics may be at higher risk of becoming overweight in the first eight years of their life, according to new research.

Scientists say pregnant women exposed to butyl paraben (BuP), a preservative widely used in consumer products including cosmetics and food, are more likely to have children who are overweight in early to mid-childhood.

BuP, which is part of a group of chemicals called parabens, can enter the body through ingestion or skin absorption and can be detected in urine and blood.

Tobias Polte, from the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research- UFZ in Germany, and colleagues collected data from 629 pairs of mothers and their children between 2006 and 2008.

Exposure to parabens was assessed using questionnaires undertaken in the 34th week of pregnancy.

Following birth, the children’s body weight and height were measured every year.

Parabens are preservatives found in cosmetics such as sunscreen
Parabens are preservatives found in cosmetics such as sunscreen (Myung Jung Kim/PA)

The researchers found that mothers who reported the use of cosmetics containing parabens had elevated concentrations of these chemicals in their urine.

They also observed a “positive association” between BuP concentrations in the mothers’ urine samples and the risk of their children being overweight in in the first eight years of their life.

The association was found to be stronger in girls.

Tests on mice showed that exposure to BuP exposure led to increased food intake and weight gain in female offspring.

Writing in the journal Nature Communications, the researchers noted: “Our study results strongly suggest that prenatal exposure to BuP increases overweight development in the offspring.

“Our findings do not implicate to disregard the importance of a balanced diet or sufficient exercise for weight management but call attention to the great significance of environmental exposures during pregnancy for the disease susceptibility in later life.”

Commenting on the research, Dr Alex Polyakov, a senior lecturer in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at The University of Melbourne, said: “This study demonstrated an association between maternal use of paraben-containing cosmetic products and increased urinary paraben concentration.

“There are a couple of limitations that need to be addressed. Firstly, the proposed mechanism of exposure to paraben causing increased risk of obesity was elucidated in a mouse model.

“While it points towards a hypothesis of similar mechanism in humans, this connection cannot be automatically assumed.

“Secondly, as is usually the case in epidemiological studies, the causative relationship between maternal paraben exposure and risk of childhood obesity in offspring cannot be established.

“Further research is clearly required on the topic, especially in view of the fact that numerous cosmetic, pharmaceutical and food compounds widely used by pregnant women contain paraben.”

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