Parabens: Safe or Not? The Truth About the Common Cosmetic Ingredient

Parabens: Safe or Not? The Truth About the Common Cosmetic Ingredient featured image
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If you’ve ever investigated the Clean Beauty aisle at Sephora or dipped into the world of natural skin-care, you may have seen the term “paraben-free” advertised. But are parabens dangerous?

Not too long ago, parabens were being investigated for their potential to disrupt the hormonal cycle, among other feared consequences of exposure. But further study shows there is no demonstrable risk from the concentration of parabens used in cosmetics, and it turns out that their replacements could be worse for us.

Omaha, NE dermatologist Joel Schlessinger, MD explains that replacements for parabens have serious consequences. “The substitutes [for parabens] have caused many issues ranging from poor results (products that spoiled or grew mold) to numerous allergic reactions,” Dr. Schlessinger says. “Some of which are lifelong in nature. Be careful what you ask for…”

What Are Parabens?

Parabens are a group of 21 man-made chemicals that were introduced as a preservative in the 1920s and are used in small amounts to extend the shelf-life of products like cosmetics, foods and pharmaceuticals. Everything from the sauces in your pantry to the shaving cream on your skin contains some amount of parabens to inhibit the growth of microorganisms like bacteria and mold.

Cosmetic chemist Kelly Dobos explains that parabens enjoyed popularity for a reason. “Parabens in many ways are great preservatives for cosmetics,” Dobos says. “They are stable of the pH range typical for many cosmetics, slow activity against several types of microorganisms, have activity at low use percentage and they don’t contribute to unwanted colors or odors.”

This means that it doesn’t take a lot of a paraben to be effective at fighting spoilage.

Because we use them so frequently, scientists started noticing small levels of parabens in our bodies. The CDC’s biomonitoring data shows that the two most commonly used parabens (methylparaben and propylparaben) are measurable in 99.1 percent and 92.7 percent of the over two thousand urine samples gathered from U.S. participants.

When studied, the FDA and CDC determined that the parabens in our bodies leave pretty quickly. Our bodies actually excrete parabens easily and don’t appear in high concentrations. Repeated studies on the effects of parabens in animals have revealed that they do not cause cancers and have a low toxicity level but concerns over parabens in products has continued. 

Initial Causes for Concern

Inquiry into the safety of parabens initially seemed to demonstrate cause for concern when a 2004 study indicated that parabens had appeared in a small sample of breast tumors. 

Though the study, led by Philippa Darbre, professor emeritus in the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Reading in Great Britain, did not claim a connection between the parabens found and the growth of the cancer, the public perceived a connection did exist. Dobos explains that that this connection has been difficult to break.

“There were no clear conclusions regarding the role of parabens from this study and it did not in any way show that parabens cause cancer,” Dobos says. “Even the researcher who led that study, Philippa Darbre, eventually responded to controversy in a statement to the Journal of Applied Toxicology saying that ‘No claim was made that the presence of parabens had caused the breast cancers.’ But as you can imagine the impact of tying this ingredient to an emotional and devastating disease has been hard to shake.”

Despite widespread criticism of the study, including its small sample size of only twenty tumors and a lack of control (non-cancerous) breast tissue examined, fears surrounding parabens quickly took hold. According to the Washington Post, Darbre’s study has been cited nearly 1,000 times since it was published.

Current Consensus

Further research into parabens by the FDA and CDC have not demonstrated any relationship between parabens and cancer.

In Europe, where much harsher regulations on chemicals exist, parabens are not entirely banned. The European Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety (ESCCS) suggests caution regarding young children who may not have systems mature enough to quickly remove the parabens that enter their bodies, but they also note that this is not a serious health concern. Children under six don’t encounter very many paraben-containing cosmetics and the caution that already exists around parabens means that ESCCS doesn’t see cause for concern.

This same committee concluded that the two most common parabens (methyl- and ethyl-) are safe to use at the limits established, and that use of paraben-containing cosmetics was not a health concern for children of any age group. Notably, these limits are above the typical concentration of parabens in cosmetics currently. Most products use as little paraben as .1 percent of the total product, and the EU’s acceptable limit is .4 percent for a single paraben and .8 percent for mixtures of parabens.

Continued caution regarding lesser-used parabens was also recommended, as there have been fewer studies regarding their potential health effects. 

Beauty Goes Paraben-Free

Despite the consensus in the scientific community that parabens are a nontoxic, noncarcinogenic preservative that exists in safe concentrations in the products they appear in, there is still a negative perception associated with them. “Clean” product aisles at beauty or drugstores may even advertise that these products are “paraben free” as a rule. The perception that parabens are among the “harsh chemicals” that more natural, clean products seek to eliminate has led brands to seek alternative preservatives.

“It is fashionable to be ‘against’ some things and parabens have unfortunately been put in the ‘bad’ category. Sadly, the substitutes have often been worse,” Dr. Schlessinger says. “Many manufacturers really don’t care about the ingredients they are putting into their products as long as they are pushing all the right buttons (ie ‘not parabens’).”

Dobos also notes that this misinformation around parabens has extended beyond the natural beauty community. “Even beauty brands that don’t overtly identify as ‘clean’ or ‘natural’ have removed these ingredients from use due to negative misconceptions about their safety,” Dobos explains.

Risks of Leaving Parabens Behind

Parabens are so common because they are extremely effective in extending the shelf life of products. Additionally, the alternatives don’t have much data behind them. That means that leaving parabens out of cosmetics can lead to products spoiling months sooner than you’re used to, and the growth of bacteria and mold. The horror stories this has led to range from irritation (like with formaldehyde) to serious reactions with life-long consequences. One common paraben substitute, methylchloroisothiazolinone, operated without issue at low concentrations, but caused an allergic reaction at higher doses in leave-on products.

“It ended up resulting in a great deal of misery,” Dr. Schlessinger explains. “As not only did the reaction happen to that particular product, but the act of having a significant allergic reaction to it caused the body to now understand it was sensitive to that ingredient.

“This meant that even lower concentrations and brief exposures would now lead to a catastrophic allergic reaction.”

At present, there is no alternative to parabens in terms of shelf stability, and there is no indication that the levels used across cosmetics, foods, and pharmaceuticals are dangerous for human consumption. In fact, several products advertised as paraben-free have been recalled due to the presence of mold and bacteria.


Caution surrounding chemical exposure is important. Studies on the effects of parabens were vital and necessary to understanding if parabens are safe to use at the levels we currently do, and they have helped us better understand the impact of man-made chemicals on our bodies.

It’s important to note that several times over the course of the last century, when we have found a chemical somewhere we didn’t think it would be, it turned out to be incredibly dangerous. It’s hard to call this kind of caution and fear conspiratorial when we know now about “forever chemicals,” and cases where asbestos was in talc powder and mercury was in skin care.

But the science does not indicate that parabens represent the same kind of threat.

If you’re drawn to natural products as a consumer and prefer your beauty “clean,” it is vital to recognize that a lack of parabens means a drastically reduced shelf life. Take care to examine your product for any changes in color or smell and throw it away the moment it starts showing signs of expiring. It is also important to patch test new products in case an ingredient is irritating to your skin.

Dobos notes that there is ample published evidence to support the takeaway that parabens are safe.

“Both the Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety of the European Union and the Cosmetic Ingredient Review Panel in the United States have issued extensive reports assessing the available toxicological data regarding parabens and they also conduct periodic re-reviews to assess new information as it arises,” Dobos says. “The conclusions of both groups—made up of scientists, toxicologists and medical professionals—continue to support the safety of parabens as used in cosmetics.”

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