by Judith G. Cobb, MH, CI, NCP
This article is not meant to diagnose or prescribe. It is meant for educational purposes only. Judith Cobb, Cobblestone Health, and Nature’s Sunshine Products accept no responsibility for results you get, whether good or bad, from using this information. Always seek the guidance of a qualified health professional.
I recently presented a workshop on summer first aid. We covered things like how to prevent and treat sunburn naturally, and the question of PABA came up. When I mentioned taking PABA orally and/or topically for the prevention of sunburn, some of the class members were shocked. They had heard it was not safe to use in any way, shape, or form. I have to admit that I didn’t have the information I needed to respond well so I came home and did the research. Here’s what I learned.
PABA, also known as para-aminobenzoic acid, was used in sunscreens for many years. I certainly remember watching a TV show in the late 1960s touting the benefits of PABA in sunscreen. As with many things health, though, research has gone farther and shown that the initial results and beliefs didn’t tell the whole story.
PABA is a naturally occurring chemical that is often thought of as a part of the B-vitamin complex. This is sort of true. PABA is actually a part of folic acid. PABA is found in many foods – liver, brewer’s yeast, wheat germ, whole grains, rice, eggs, and molasses. Specifically, we need it to help us use amino acids (protein building blocks), build red blood cells, and support skin and intestinal health. It has also been used in programs to correct vitiligo (the skin condition Michael Jackson had where his skin developed bleached-out patches).1
I was unable to find any research as to the oral use of PABA to prevent sunburn. My husband (red hair and freckles – could sunburn in less than 5 minutes in non-peak sunshine hours) used it orally for many years, at a dose of 300 mg per day, with excellent results. His ‘safe sun exposure time’ dramatically increased and that meant his rate and incidence of sunburn decreased significantly.
There certainly are safety and toxicity issues with high doses, as there are with just about every known vitamin, mineral, or food. It is ‘possibly unsafe’ in doses greater than 12 grams per day and can cause liver problems, kidney problems, and blood problems2 when used to excess.
Where did the idea that PABA is bad come from? It is still an approved ingredient in sunscreen. It works by absorbing UV-B rays. According to Krista Ulatowski, writing for Livestrong.com, “Researchers did not find that PABA wreaked havoc with our cells or poisoned our systems; instead, PABA mostly caused allergic reactions in a percentage of people who applied it to the skin.”3 And she continues, “An FDA report published in 1989 stated that a PABA ester component decomposed to a known carcinogen, despite any real proof that PABA in sunscreen was associated with cancer. Regardless, PABA and PABA esters’ reputations were damaged. Some scientists do believe that PABA damages cell DNA, thus increasing the risk of skin cancer. Sunscreens containing chemical substances such as PABA are considered to be absorbing lotions, and some researchers in the health care industry recommend that consumers purchase reflecting sunscreens instead, ones that block both UV-A rays, which contribute to premature aging, and UV-B rays.”4
DermNetNZ.org cites studies done in the early 1980s that suggest the use of PABA as a sunscreen increased the risk of UV-induced cellular damage – but the results only suggested the possibility, as the first studies suggested that PABA prevented UV damage.5
It appears, then, that PABA may not be as bad as urban myth has led us to believe. It also appears that the biggest risk for topical use may be the risk of allergic reaction as reported on DermNetNZ.org.6
PABA use, whether oral or topical, is not the big, bad, cancer-causing chemical it once was purported to be. While it may not be your topical sunblock of choice, it is safe taken orally, in moderation.
If you have concerns about your health, or just don’t know where to begin making improvements, please contact me, Judith Cobb, to book an appointment. Skype, phone, webinar, and face-to-face appointments are available.
Copyright © 2015 by Judith Cobb, Cobblestone Health Ltd. All rights reserved. Please respect the time it takes to write and publish articles. If you will link to this article and give proper attribution, you are encouraged to quote sections (though not the entire article).