Parabens have been in our food and cosmetic products for almost a century. However, it wasn’t until a study in 2004 that concerns were raised about our exposure to parabens. This study tested breast cancer tumors and found parabens. Parabens and cancer have now become synonymous with each other. This has been a big marketing boost for organic and paraben free products. But is the concern backed by science or just a good marketing campaign?

What are Parabens?

Parabens include butylparaben, ethylparaben, methylparaben, and propylparaben. These are synthetic chemicals used as a preservative in foods, beauty products, medications, and drinks. These preservatives prevent microbial growth that could sicken humans. In any given product, one or more paraben can be used.  “The use of mixtures of parabens allows the use of lower levels while increasing preservative activity,” reports the Food and Drug Administration.

Exposure to Parabens

Parabens in lotions, shaving creams, sunscreens, and other skin care products are known to absorb through the skin. When found in foods parabens enter the body’s digestive system. In a CDC study that tested the urine of over 2500 people over the age of 6, methylparaben and propylparaben were found in most of those tested. Women had several times more detected amounts than men.

In short, you likely have been and are exposed to parabens daily. Most likely, you have parabens in your system right now.

Is Finding Parabens in Urine a Concern?

The above study doesn’t actually show that the parabens are or are not harmful. What it does show is that the human body does remove parabens from the system.

The Paraben Cancer Research

Parabens were first studied and determined to be safe in 1984 by the Cosmetic Ingredient Review* when used at levels up to 25%. The FDA reports most products only contain .01 to .3% levels.

The safety of parabens was looked at again in 2005, a result of the 2004 study published in the Journal of Applied Toxicology thatfound parabens in breast tumors. This raised alarm because it is known that parabens have properties similar to estrogen and high levels of estrogen over a long period of time have been linked to breast cancer.  

However, from this 2004 study making the connection of parabens to cancer is a leap that has not been substantiated. This 2004 study only reported to have found parabens in breast cancer tumors. The study did not analyze normal healthy tissue of women without cancer for parabens and then compare that to the cancerous tumors.  In addition, although parabens are known to mimic estrogen, their ability to do so is weak.

The Bottom Line: Should You Be Concerned About Parabens? Are Parabens in Cosmetics and Foods Safe?

The study finding parabens in breast tumors did a service in that it also brought more scrutiny and study for this preservative. In a 2010 study published in the journal Critical Reviews in Toxicology the researchers state, “although select constituents exhibit interactions with the endocrine system in the laboratory, the evidence linking personal care products to endocrine disruptive effects in humans is for the most part lacking.” This study looked at severParaben Free Sunscreenal ingredients commonly found in cosmetics including parabens and at multiple studies on the effects of these ingredients.

Whether or not you should be concerned about parabens in cosmetics or foods really depends on your comfort level with this preservative. It does prevent bacteria, yeast, fungi and other germs from growing in foods and cosmetics. It has been found in different parts of the human body. Multiple studies have not been able to make a direct link as to parabens causing any health problems in humans including cancer.

If you want the convenience of shopping for foods and cosmetics without reading all the ingredients, then it seems parabens carry a low risk when compared to the many other environmental hazards we are exposed to daily. However, if it still concerns you, then put your mind at ease and read labels and go ahead and buy paraben free products.


*The Cosmetic Ingredient Review is a scientific committee that includes members from the American Academy of Dermatology, Society of Toxicology, and Consumer Federation of America.


References Personal care products and endocrine disruption: A critical review of the literature

Program on Breast Cancer and Environmental Risk Factors: Five Types of Parabens Detected Intact in Human Breast Tumors

U.S. FDA: Parabens