What are Parabens?

Mary McMahon

Parabens are a group of chemical compounds which are widely used as preservatives, especially in cosmetics. In addition to being used in cosmetics, parabens are also utilized by the pharmaceutical industry, and they sometimes appear as food additives as well. Parabens have been a topic of some controversy, due to consumer concerns about their safety, which explains why you may find products voluntarily labeled as “paraben free,” using their ingredients as a selling point for concerned consumers.

Health concerns about parabens used in drugs are focused on their potential to act like estrogen compounds in the body.
Health concerns about parabens used in drugs are focused on their potential to act like estrogen compounds in the body.

These chemicals are esters of para-hydroxybenzoic acid. Esters are defined as chemical compounds in which an acid molecule has bonded with an alcohol molecule, displacing a water molecule. Some parabens actually appear in nature, generated by plants as a way of defending themselves from fungal and bacterial invaders. The parabens used commercially are typically generated synthetically, ensuring that the products remain consistent, so that companies can be assured that they will work.

Low amounts of parabens may be used in pharmaceutical products.
Low amounts of parabens may be used in pharmaceutical products.

Typically, the concentration of parabens in cosmetics is very low, often less than 1%. A mixture of parabens may be used to create the best preservative effect, ensuring that molds, fungi, bacteria, and other unwanted visitors will not contaminate a product. It is also possible to use naturally derived preservatives, such as grape seed extract, but many of these substances have not been fully tested for efficacy, raising concerns about the safety and shelf life of products preserved with these substances.

Concentrations of parabens in other products, like foods and pharmaceuticals, are similarly quite low. As a general rule, companies use a minimal amount of preservatives, using laboratory testing to determine the best concentration.

Health concerns about parabens are primarily focused on their potential to act like estrogen compounds in the body. Substances which behave like estrogens are known as estrogenic compounds, and they do pose some health risks, especially when consumed in high volumes. Estrogens primarily impact the endocrine system, potentially creating an increased cancer risk. People who are concerned about parabens argue that their estrogenic traits make them too dangerous to use in food, cosmetics, and pharmaceuticals.

However, there have been a number of studies on this issue, both from inside the cosmetics industry and outside of it. These studies have found that while parabens certainly do have estrogenic qualities, they are probably safe in very small amounts. People and companies who adopt a “best practices” approach may choose to stay away from parabens, as future risks may be identified, or they may turn out to bioaccummulate in the body.

Most makeup products contain parabens or another preservative.
Most makeup products contain parabens or another preservative.

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Discussion Comments


@anon19758: parabens are not formaldehyde releasers and are quite allergy-friendly. You might want to look closely at the "paraben-free"-labeled products if they haven't replaced it with a more allergenic preservative.


I use cosmetics once or twice a month. I use bar soap. I don't use hair products. I use baking soda for deodorant. I do have shampoo and conditioner and a special body wash I use every once in a while when I want to feel special. How at risk for paraben bioaccumulation? I feel that part of the problem is society's insane desire to look more and more fake and "young." Who really needs all those beauty products anyway?


What I think is funny is that you talk about eliminating parabens, but without a doubt many paraben-free products are using a preservative that has just come out within the last year -- a preservative that has little testing and no long term testing.

Parabens are most widely tested preservative, so you can make the choice. You can switch to solid shampoos and conditioners that need no preservatives, which is great, and then use a small amount of parabens if needed, or you can use mystery preservatives.


There are several types of parabens. They start with Propyl, Butyl, Methyl, Ethyl and Iso and always end in paraben.

This issue with parabens is this --- they are in 98% of cosmetics and skincare products and the average women uses 12 products EVERYDAY that have parabens. The cumulative impact of parabens on a womens estrogen levels and long-term health are serious. Not to mention that men have been shown to have fertility, sterility and other disorders thanks to environmental estrogens.

The cosmetic companies and personal care product companies have MUCH to loose if they are pressed by the government to re-formulate. Big time cost!!!

Don't fall for the "they are harmless" story. Parabens are the next Bisphenol A (BPA) story. The companies fought BPA, the FDA ruled it safe and then just 60 days ago a study came out of Europe that linked them directly to Diabetes and Hypertension. Look it up -PARABEN-FREE Products are what you should be looking for.


Are parabens considered a formaldehyde releasers? I am allergic to formaldehyde and have to watch the cosmetics that I use.

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