Are the Parabens in Skin Care Products Really Bad For You?

Skin Care


One common source of parabens is deodorant. Photo source

Parabens are preservatives that are found in about 90% of all skincare and cosmetics products. Antibacterial and antifungal p-hydroxybenzoic acid esters, the six most commonly used forms of paraben are Methylparaben, Ethylparaben, p-Propylparaben, Isobutylparaben, n-Butylparaben and Benzylparaben. They are commonly used due to their relatively unique property of being effective preservatives and being correlated with a low incidence of contact dermatitis, according to the American Journal of Contact Dermatitis. However, controversy has risen over paraben use in skin care and cosmetics, implicating that parabens may cause cancer, influence estrogen levels, accumulate in tissues, and increase UVB-mediated DNA damage. Despite these findings and consumer alarm, based on current scientific findings, parabens in skin care and cosmetics are safe, although sunscreen use with paraben-containing products may be suggested. Here is what has been established:

Parabens and Breast Cancer

Paraben doses for fish verses humans

Controversy over parabens began largely in the late 1990’s, due to the suggestions that parabens bind to estrogen receptors in MCF-7 breast cancer cells and rat uteri [after oral administration of parabens]. It was also suggested that parabens upregulate estrogenic gene expression in human breast cancer cells, yeast cells, and in vivo in fish. Studies with immature mice and rats showed that subjection to parabens decreased uterine weight. It was finally suggested that parabens increased breast cancer cell proliferation, and parabens were found in breast tumor samples.

However, none of these studies hold practical implications for skin care products. In the breast cancer cell study, MCF-7 human breast cancer cells are subjected to parabens in one million-fold molar excess, thousands of times beyond the amount of parabens a patient is subjected to in a typical skin care product application. Similarly, parabens bound to estrogen receptor sites in rat uteri at far higher concentrations than paraben levels found in skin care products. In the study with fish, parabens were ingested by the fish in doses between 100 and 300 mg/kg, which amounts to about 15000 mg of parabens for the average 74 kg American woman. (To put this in perspective, a normal application of a skin care product [sunscreen] amounts to 1 mg of product per cm2 of skin, the average human body has 14800 cm2 of skin, the average skin care product is about 1% parabens and 20-60% [depending on paraben type] crosses the skin, resulting in about 60 mg of parabens, or roughly 1/24 the amount used in the study).

With regards to the parabens found in breast tumors, it sounds scary, but it is reassuring to know that no studies have shown that parabens are found in higher concentration in breast tumor samples than any other type of human body tissue. Nor has it ever been established that parabens were the cause of the breast tumors. In fact, parabens in practical concentrations have been established since 1984 as non-mutagenic, and no studies to date have ever shown parabens to be harmful below concentrations of 10-6 M. Finally, no studies have ever established that parabens induce cancer in benign cells. For this reason, the U.S. FDA declared in 2005 that parabens in the concentrations found in skin care products and cosmetics (up to 25%, but typically 1%) pose no logical risk to the consumer.

Parabens and Long-Term Use

Paraben study inaccuracy

In 2007, a French study reopened speculation against parabens when it suggested that parabens may accumulate in tissues over time. In the study, a realistic amount (0.45 mg) of parabens was applied to the skin’s surface every 12 hours for 36 hours. It was found that repeated applications every 12 hours increased quantities of parabens moving across the skin barrier for the first 24 hours. However, the results also showed that parabens applied to the skin had no cumulative effect 36 hours later, suggesting that parabens do not accumulate in the skin at all after one-and-a-half days. As such, parabens in skin care products do not accumulate in tissues after 36 hours, and thereby should not pose a risk for the lifetime skin care product user.

Butylparaben and sperm counts

paraben structure

In a 2002 study, it was found that butylparaben consumption as 1% of the daily diet in the mouse significantly reduced sperm counts, and as little as 0.1% butylparaben in the daily diet somewhat altered sperm counts. However, just 0.1% butylparaben in the daily diet amounts to about 775 mg/day of butylparaben for the average American consuming 775 g of food each day. This is hundreds of times more than the average skin care product application over the entire body*. As such, it is very impractical to assume that sperm counts in humans can be reduced from using skin care products.
*Assuming, as above: a normal application of a skin care product [sunscreen] amounts to 1 mg of product per cm2 of skin, the average human body has 14800 cm2 of skin, the average skin care product is about 1% parabens and 20-60% [depending on paraben type] crosses the skin, resulting in about 60 mg of parabens per full-body skin care product application].

Methylparaben may increase UV-induced damage

In a 2006 study in Toxicology, cultured keratinocytes (human skin cells) subjected to practical levels of methylparaben and cultured in methylparaben-containing solution for 24 hours were more subject to UVB-damage than cells that were not cultured in methylparaben. However, cells cultured in methylparaben and not subjected to UVB damage were unaffected.

From this study, two questions are raised. One, does this apply to skin cells in vivo, or only in culture? Clinical trials with patients should be conducted. (If they are and I see it, I will post.) Two, does this suggest that sunscreens should always be used in conjunction with methylparaben-containing products? One cannot really answer the second question without answering the first. Hopefully, the scientific community will provide the answer soon!

Other Sources

Other sources of excellent factual information on parabens:

Overall Opinion

Based on current research, typical paraben exposure from skin care products does not seem to increase health risks. I think my favorite quote on avoiding parabens and using paraben-free products comes from Oprah Magazine‘s beauty editor, Valerie Monroe: “If you’re the kind of person who triple-locks and checks her doors, you’ll use [paraben-free products].” Yet, based on the current scientific research, there does not seem to be health risks from paraben use in typical skin care products, so I myself am sticking to my tried-and-true favorite beauty products, regardless of paraben content.

I will certainly repost if I read any scientific studies or articles that suggest risks of parabens in the future.

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  • SkincareHarvest

    This was an interesting blog, I seem to understand that these test were conducted on non-human subjects. The only human mentioned was the one with parabens found in the beast tumor. Our body is a complex instrument and the inner workings are even more complex. Science is still in the industrial age when it comes to how the body works. We have made many strives but are not the real experts yet. I will keep parabens out of all my Skincare Harvest products. Food for thought, for some apparent reason all the major companies in skincare market are providing customers with paraben free products. What aren’t they telling us? Or was the scare started by them? I would rather use a natural preservative to stay on the side of caution. I don’t lock my doors and don’t check them, everyone is welcomed in my home and if you come to do us harm you will wish you didn’t. Made in USA!

  • Beatrice

    I continually find it frustrating to listen to people who are convinced the parabens cause cancer. There is NO scientific proof that this is true and the tests that were done in the above-mentioned studies all indicate that further research is necessary to determine the actual risks of parabens in skin care products. Parabens are natural preservatives and are ingested by humans on a daily basis. The studies that took place all used an unrealistic amount of parabens to obtain the results that they ‘might’ cause cancer. These studies were not conclusive and only suggested that additional research was necessary.

    That was several years ago and still no new information has come to my attention that parabens are causing cancer. The scare is just that: a scare tactic that was probably funded in some part by a company that is in direct competition to paraben distributors.

  • Crystal..

    Hello, I’m 19 yrs old and recently just learnt about parabens and all its danger… I was researching for a friend and found this site

    at the bottom it linked to a womans site, Elizabeth Ruby, who is dedicated to health and skin care, she uses Xtend life .. here is xtend life website

    It states that it uses no dangerous chemicals at all, only natural collgen and natural oils. Has any one ever heard of it / does it work?
    I’d like to start using products without Paraben, Dioxane, Alcohols.. – etc….But its so hard to find within Canada..
    Some help? Does anyone know of a skin care product that is good for you?

  • ms buttercups

    parabens have not been banned in Europe or Japan, that is simply an internet myth.

  • Your skin does not absorb 3-5 lbs of chemicals.

  • Alice

    I have stayed away from beauty products, I.V.s and latex products – all containing methylparaben for several years now. Methylparaben is commonly used with latex products. Since staying away from parabens, my skin is significantly less red. Hospitals have to reformulate any “sticks” and I heal significantly faster. It is difficult to explain just how much faster my healing took place after major surgery last year without parabens and latex products.(I compare to my c-section 15 years ago, gallbadder 13 years ago, and another surgery 3 years ago). My advice: Stay away from parabens (and latex). Plenty of healthier alternatives abound.

  • Peter

    If someone produced an acne treatment that was paraben free, would that product take precedent over products that contain parabens? I have read about this product CTRL. It claims to be paraben free, has anyone used or heard of this product?

  • Diskoe

    Yeah. And they used to spray DDT on people @ Coney Island to keep mosquitoes away. And BPA was safe in our plastic bottles. Wake up and smell the benzene.

  • Nancy

    Wow- The link to the Cornell University video was very revealing! Parabens being equated to Environmental Estrogens! I don’t know why anyone would take the unnecessary risk and continue to apply products with Parabens until the additional study results come out. Too many of my peers are being diagnosed with cancer!

  • Linda

    Finally a voice of reason on this site – Dan is correct. Just like Bispheol A (BPA) that was discovered in 1917 and used in plastics even today parabens are not safe ingredients.

    With women absorbing betwen 3 – 5 lbs of chemicals annually the notion that ingredients that are oestrogenic and have been found in breast cancer tissue, urinary excretion and linked to fertility problems would be “fine” for use is ridiculous.

    Here’s the issue. The science is conflicting because of the MONEY trail. The same consumer watchdog groups and academic centers (non-profit) that pressed the issue with BPA are fighting twisted science from the Consumer Products companies (for-profit) that don’t want to redo their ingredients.

    Why in god’s name would anyone suggest that a person simply proceed in using products with parabens when there are plenty of other excellent products that don’t have them???

    Nicki – you are a medical student and you know the oath that you’ll be asked to take upon graduation — “first do no harm.” This is the approach we should all take with parabens. WHY TAKE THE RISK — FIRST DO NO HARM!!!

    Thank you for the forum.

  • Dan

    Many people dismiss the controversy over parabens. However, if Europe had Parabens banned all together, I think it’s only wise to avoid them. After all, they’re an unnecessary risk. There have been links to cancer and in a Cornell University study, they found parabens intact within breast cancer tumors.

    Think about it…this is something we are applying to our skin every single day, acne medication, soap, shampoo, lotions. There could be severe complication after long term use.

  • paul vail

    I appreciate the post. There seems to be a lot of companies and individuals who exploit the consumer’s lack of understanding of chemistry and biology (particularly here in the US). Researching REAL data on the potential harm of a compound, or a collection of compounds, at real-world concentrations when used on the body is a herculean task. There is so much hype about ‘organic’ and ‘safe’ that the reality gets obscured with all the hand-waving and shouting. So many people get lost in the maze of claims and counter-claims.

    As a granola-type that is also a chemist, I get really frustrated when my friends go on about the ‘chemicals’ in this or that — they would do well to take a food microbiology, soil microbiology or basic chemistry class. So much of the fear that the scare-mongers prey on is due to ignorance. Thanks for taking the time to treat this sliver of chemistry in a mature fashion.

    BTW, I can’t seem to pull up your link for Do you have a PDF or update for that page?

  • Thi

    Thank you for posting this entry. I was trying to see what the big deal was with PABA.. Lots of high end skincare use it.. and I didn’t want to toss away so many of my skincare and cosmetic items!!

  • Jen Hill

    I have also asked this question and researched on the subject of parabens. Great topic and great points made here.

    Preservatives are necessary to give our beauty products shelf life, and parabens are probably the least expensive, most effective way to accomplish this. However, alternative and possibly safer preservatives should be investigated. I appreciate beauty companies that consider the possibility that parabens might be harmful, and change their product despite the expense and inconvenience this may cause them.

    I don’t triple lock my doors, but I certainly lock them, and check them before I go to sleep at night. Due to the sheer quantity and continual use of beauty items in our daily lives, I am trying to be more selective of what I purchase for myself and my family.

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