What Are Parabens and Should I Be Concerned?

Updated on November 6, 2019
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Kate graduated from Sonoma State University with a Bachelor of Science (BS) degree in Biology. She currently resides in Sonoma, California.

Gain a better understanding of what parabens are and why many products are advertised as "paraben-free."
Gain a better understanding of what parabens are and why many products are advertised as "paraben-free."

Some of the newest beauty and hygiene products that are out on the market today now have labels that advertise that they are “paraben-free.” This is supposed to be an effective way of encouraging customers to buy the lotions, shampoos, and soaps because they are healthier and safer for the environment.

However, since not everyone fully understands what parabens are, some may just choose less expensive items that are loaded with the ingredient instead. So to help, the following is a detailed explanation of what parabens are and what they do to the body.

What Are Parabens?

Parabens are esters of parahydroxylbenzoic acid. They are usually chemically derived through a special manufacturing process, but sometimes they occur in nature, too.

These esters were first put to use in the 1950s when it was discovered that they made an efficient preservative agent. Scientists have never fully understood how they work exactly, but it has always been believed that somehow they interfere with the DNA and RNA of bacteria and enzymes. For this reason, they effectively deter the multiplication of bacteria and fungi.

Parabens aren't edible, though. So they can only be used in products that are applied topically to the body.

Products That Often Contain Parabens

  • Makeup
  • Toothpaste
  • Intimate hygiene products
  • Lubricants
  • Hair-care products

Are Parabens Safe?

The safety of adding parabens to products that are applied to the body has been questioned for years by health experts who have treated patients who have suffered side effects believed to have been caused by these agents. But only one country in the world, Denmark, has banned their use.

This is flabbergasting, since studies have shown that parabens don't just affect the DNA and RNA of bacteria and fungi. They can also damage the DNA and RNA of human and animal cells.

Some cite the complete disregard of this information by the beauty and hygiene industry as being due to the cost effectiveness of parabens. Since they are very cheap to synthesize, they are often considered preferable to other preservatives that cost more.

Recent studies have shown that parabens can damage human DNA.
Recent studies have shown that parabens can damage human DNA.

What Are Some of the Side Effects of Parabens?

Skin iritation
Allergic reactions
Increased skin damage from the sun
Hormonal disruptions
Increased risk of breast cancer
Contact dermatitis
The effects of parabens are not fully understood by modern day science. The above is a list of possible side effects of parabens based on recent studies.

Increased Skin Damage From the Sun

The potential side effects of parabens are pretty frightening. When they are applied topically to the skin, they irritate the skin cells and make the skin more susceptible to damage from the sun. It has been shown that when sunscreens and tanning agents that contain parabens are applied before the skin is exposed to UVB rays, it puts a person at risk for more damage than they would have received from the sun if they didn't have it on them.

According to this 2007 study done in Japan, parabens were also found to promote the aging of skin cells.

Hormonal Disruption

The worst side effects that parabens cause to the body concern the endocrine system, though. These esters have been proven to disrupt the endocrine system since they mimic the hormone estrogen.

This is problematic because the body has to maintain a balance of testosterone and estrogen for a person to stay healthy. When there are any sudden changes in this balance, it can have devastating effects, which vary depending on whether a person is male or female.

In Males

Males who receive too much estrogen when they are young can develop breast tissue, extra fat in the abdomen, and extra fat in their hips. Parabens may also affect the ability of a man to reproduce since they can also lower the sperm count and sex drive.

In Females

Females may think that they are safer from the effects of parabens because women and girls already have a higher amount of estrogen in their body, but this isn't true. Parabens have been discovered in malignant breast tumors.

That means there is a good chance that they contribute to the development of breast cancer. How this occurs isn't known, though. But it is thought to be due to the DNA and RNA damage that they inflict.

Parabens may also cause any breast cancer cells that are already present to multiply more rapidly than they normally would, according to this published 2016 study in the Journal for Applied Toxicology. For this reason, women who have a family history of breast cancer are often strongly encouraged to stay away from products containing this ingredient or any other product that could raise their estrogen level.

You will be able to see any parabens used in a product listed under "inactive ingredients."
You will be able to see any parabens used in a product listed under "inactive ingredients."

Alternatives to Parabens

There is a multitude of other natural preservatives that can be used as a replacement for parabens. One of the most common of them all is grapefruit seed extract.

Grapefruit seed extract has long been used as an algaecide, fungicide, and bactericide. It is so safe that it can be taken internally to help a person or animal fight off a bacterial, fungal, parasitic, or viral infection. Farmers and ranchers also commonly use it to clean the water tanks and food dishes of their cattle and other livestock.

However, many companies that sell beauty and hygiene products claim that it isn't strong enough. There are other herbs and natural products that can be combined with it to ensure that the products will stay fresh for months, though, such as frankincense, myrrh, chamomile, and colloidal silver.

What Is the Bottom Line on Paraben Use?

Although the effects of parabens are not fully understood by science and the issue is certainly still up for debate, some studies have shown that parabens may have quite a few side effects that could potentially cause long-term damage to the body. They can damage the DNA and RNA, increase the risk of breast cancer, cause hormone imbalances, and increase the risk of skin damage from the sun. So it is important that anyone who frequently uses products that normally contain these esters use caution.

It has been proven that parabens can build up in the body over the years. So the best thing to do is to avoid beauty and hygiene products that have any form of parabens in them. And remember, there are different chemical versions of these esters. Among others, they could be listed as methyparabens, butylparabens, or benzylparabens.


"Antiperspirants and Breast Cancer Risk." October 14, 2014. American Cancer Society. Retrieved January 26, 2018.

"FAQ: Parabens and Breast Cancer." October 27, 2015. WebMD. Retrieved January 26, 2018.

"Paraben esters: review of recent studies of endocrine toxicity, absorption, esterase and human exposure, and discussion of potential human health risks." July 28, 2008. US National Library of MedicineNational Institutes of Health. Retrieved January 26, 2018.

In what products have you found parabens? Let us know in the comment section below!

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2018 Kate Daily


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    • K S Lane profile image

      K S Lane 

      2 years ago from Melbourne, Australia

      I can't believe only one country has banned the use of such a harmful chemical. There's an incredible pressure on consumers to be aware of each and every ingredient in the products they use (and, as you mentioned, each and every alternative name for products because there can be tens of them) because so many can be harmful, when really the pressure should be falling on governments to implement better regulations. Also, I'm curious; do parabens lead to increased risk of skin cancer seeing as they can make skin more vulnerable to sun damage? Great Hub!


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