Understanding Parabens

Immediacy of information seems like a good thing a lot of the time but so much of it can get twisted, misconstrued, or enveloped in blanket statements during delivery that it makes finding the truth so much harder. Lately, the topic of parabens has been coming up a lot since we’ve brought on some new products at the office. Parabens, like hydroquinone, have gotten a lot of press in the last several years with fashion and beauty magazines and blogs emphasizing the evils of them and not touching on what a paraben is or does.

First off, “paraben” is an umbrella term for chemical esters that have been used for many decades as preservatives. They’re a cheap and effective way to extend shelf-life and inhibit the growth of bacteria, fungus and mold in cosmetics, hair care products, shaving products, moisturizers, pharmaceuticals, and some foods but, ironically, aren’t found in many deodorants. (U.S. Food and Drug Administration, 2016) Parabens are formulated from p-hydroxybenzoic acid; the four most commonly used esters are methyl, ethyl, propyl, and butyl parabens. (U.S. Food and Drug Administration, 2016) In nature they can be found in coconuts, wine, vanilla, acai oil and many more plants and a specific type of mushroom and algae. (Gargi Dey, 2005) (Rong-Rong Tian, 2009) (Pacheco-Palencia LA, 2008)

In 1998 a study published in Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology brought to the attention that parabens are weakly estrogenic. (Edwin J. Routledge, 1998) The researchers found that butylparaben interacted with estrogen receptors in rats. This was followed by another article in the same journal in 2004 reiterating similar results but also noting that parabens were found in breast tumor tissue. Here’s a link to this study. This information sent the media into frenzy but there was a catch, the study only had 20 subjects and they did not examine noncancerous breast tissue for parabens. (P.D. Darbre, 2004) People took this information, twisted it around and rumors that parabens caused breast cancer started to circulate. Nowhere in the paper did it say that this was true and in a replay to the journal the researchers even clarified this fact.

Thirteen years later and paraben is still treated like a dirty word. When you Google it dozens of pages come up perpetuating the cancer-causing falsehood. There still hasn’t been any new research that firmly connects these chemicals to any health problems. Don’t believe me? Check out this page from the American Cancer Foundation.

The best advice I can give is that people who have a personal or familial history of cancer or those generally concerned with exposure should avoid these products. Many companies are using other preservative substitutes, like methylisothiazolinine (MIT), but they come with their own drawbacks.  (American Cancer Society, 2014) Unfortunately there isn’t one perfect ingredient out there yet that keeps the public and the product both safe with no side effects. Until that day comes, if you’re concerned give the office a call and we can help you decipher the ingredient lists on your products and help find others that fit into your lifestyle.


American Cancer Society. (2014, 14 October). https://www.cancer.org/cancer/cancer-causes/antiperspirants-and-breast-cancer-risk.html. Retrieved April 12, 2017, from http://www.cancer.org: https://www.cancer.org/cancer/cancer-causes/antiperspirants-and-breast-cancer-risk.html

Edwin J. Routledge, J. P. (1998). Some Alkyl Hydroxy Benzoate Preservatives (Parabens) Are Estrogenic. Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology , 12-19.

Gargi Dey, M. C. ( 2005). Profiling C6-C3 and C6-C1 phenolic metabolites in Cocos nucifera. Journal of Plant Physiology , 375-381 .

P.D. Darbre, e. a. (2004). Concentrations of Parabens in Human Breast Tissue. Journal of Applied Toxicology , 5-13.

Pacheco-Palencia LA, M.-T. S. (2008). Chemical composition, antioxidant properties, and thermal stability of a phytochemical enriched oil from Acai (Euterpe oleracea Mart.). Journal of Agricultural Food Chemistry , 4631–6.

Rong-Rong Tian, Q.-H. P.-C.-M.-B.-H.-D. ( 2009). Comparison of Phenolic Acids and Flavan-3-ols During Wine Fermentation of Grapes with Different Harvest Times. Molecules , 827-838.

U.S. Food and Drug Administration. (2016, October 5). https://www.fda.gov/cosmetics/productsingredients/ingredients/ucm128042.htm. Retrieved March 31, 2017, from https://www.fda.gov: https://www.fda.gov/cosmetics/productsingredients/ingredients/ucm128042.htm

 Written By: Sarah Rutherford, PMA.