Since the 1950s, parabens have been used in a variety of cosmetics, foods and drugs, providing protection against bacteria, mold and other microorganisms — not to mention giving products a longer shelf life.
Although the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) deems current exposure levels safe and without health risks, concerns persist about hormone-disrupting effects and the impact of parabens on health and cancer risk. More research is needed to accurately address these concerns and to understand any impact paraben compounds have on health.
Humans are regularly exposed to parabens, but the FDA has concluded that there are no known health effects with current exposure levels. If you prefer to be cautious and avoid exposure to parabens, many health and beauty products and food items are now paraben-free, and if paraben compounds are in the product, they'll be listed on the label.
How Are People Exposed to Parabens?
Common paraben compounds include methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben and butylparaben. These ingredients are actually derived from para-hydroxybenzoic acid (PHBA), a substance naturally found in many fruits and vegetables.
People are typically exposed to parabens by ingesting them or by absorbing these substances through the skin. Their use is so widespread, almost everyone in modern society is exposed. In fact, an analysis of the urine of 100 adults found that 99 of them had methylparaben — the most commonly used paraben — in their urine.
Possible Effects on Hormones
Most of the safety concerns about parabens are related to their role as endocrine disruptors, which are substances that, at certain doses and in specific conditions, can interfere with the activity of hormones within the body.
Parabens are known to be estrogenic, meaning they act like estrogen — an important sex hormone that can lead to problems if levels are unbalanced. This has prompted concerns that excessive use of paraben-containing products could lead to early puberty in females, fuel the growth of estrogen receptor-positive breast cancers, or impact fertility in males — causing low sperm counts or decreased levels of testosterone.
Lack of Evidence for Adverse Health Effects
Although parabens have estrogen-like effects, butylparaben — the most potent paraben — is 10,000 to 100,000 times weaker than estrogen and not thought to be capable of causing negative health effects.
Also, while estrogen plays a role in certain types of breast cancer, there is no proof that parabens cause breast cancer, and no studies to show that breast cancer rates are higher in people who use more paraben-containing cosmetics.
In addition, there is no evidence that parabens cause other reproductive harm in humans. The FDA continues to review research reports on paraben safety, although current data does not show human exposure rates have an effect on health.
Sensitivities and Allergies
Since parabens are used in many cosmetics, there is a small likelihood that irritation or allergy can occur. The reporting of adverse events related to paraben-containing products began in the 1940s, and these preservatives have demonstrated very low rates of sensitivity and allergy — despite their extensive use in foods, cosmetics and drugs.
Due to consumer concerns about the the safety of these compounds, parabens have been replaced with other ingredients that have far greater potential for allergies.
Reviewed by Kay Peck, MPH RD
- Environmental Health Perspectives: Parabens as Urinary Biomarkers of Exposure in Humans
- Dermatitis: Parabens: Contact (Non)Allergen of the Year.
- The Dermatologist: An Update On Parabens
- US Food and Drug Administration: Parabens in Cosmetics
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Parabens Factsheet
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Biomonitoring Summary: Parabens
- Journal of Cogent Medicine: Breast Cancer and Environmental Contamination: A Real Connection?