What Are Parabens? | Uses, Benefits, and Chemical Safety Facts


Parabens are a group of preservative ingredients used in cosmetic, personal hygiene products, food products and pharmaceuticals. They are highly effective in preventing the growth of fungi, bacteria and yeast that can cause products to spoil. Thus, they contribute directly to the quality of the products by extending their shelf life, making them safe for the families who use them.

What are parabens?

Parabens are derived from para-hydroxybenzoic acid (PHBA) that occurs naturally in many fruits and vegetables, such as cucumbers, cherries, carrots, blueberries and onions. PHBA also is naturally formed in the human body by the breakdown of some amino acids. Parabens used in cosmetics are identical to those found in nature, and the human body quickly changes them into natural PHBA and eliminates them.

Uses & Benefits

Parabens have been safely used for almost 100 years as preservatives in the food, drug and personal care and cosmetic industries.

Parabens (including methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben, isopropylparaben, and isobutylparaben) may be used in products such as makeup, moisturizers, and hair care and shaving products. Contrary to some reports, most major brands of deodorants and antiperspirants no longer contain parabens.

  • Preservatives like parabens may be used in cosmetics to protect against microbial (e.g., bacteria, fungus) growth, both to protect consumers and to maintain product integrity.
  • In the food industry, parabens have been used for more than 50 years as preservatives and anti-microbial agents. Some fruits, such as blueberries, contain parabens as a naturally occurring preservative. Parabens are widely used in confectioneries, cereal-based snacks, dried meats, and much more.

Safety Information

A number of commonly used parabens have had the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) classification since the early 1970s. The GRAS designation means the substance is generally recognized, among qualified experts, as having been adequately shown to be safe under the conditions of its intended use. Other examples of compounds that are considered GRAS include vitamin A, wheat starch and sugar.

FDA also participates on the Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR), an independent panel of medical and scientific experts that meets quarterly to assess the safety of cosmetic ingredients based on data in the published literature, as well as data voluntarily provided by the cosmetics industry. FDA takes the results of CIR reviews into consideration when conducting a safety assessment.

  • In 1984, CIR reviewed the safety of parabens used in cosmetics and concluded that they were safe, even in extremely large doses. Typically parabens are used at levels ranging from 0.01 to 0.3 percent, and the CIR concluded they were safe for use in cosmetics at levels up to 25 percent.
  • In 2012, the CIR reopened its safety report on parabens to consider all new data. As it did in 1984, the expert panel reaffirmed the safety of cosmetic products in which parabens preservatives are used.

Answering Questions

Do parabens cause cancer?

A number of articles and Internet rumors over the years have reported an association between some parabens and cancer. It is implied in these reports that parabens can cause cancer by acting like estrogen, the female sex hormone, through a process called endocrine disruption. Some of these studies suggest a very weak estrogenic or endocrine disrupting effect of parabens. However, these studies, which have been conducted in animals, are observed only when they are dosed with extremely high amounts of parabens – far greater than anyone would be exposed to under actual conditions of use or with repeated use. These studies have been largely discredited by the scientific community; scientists who study the effects of products on the population have found no direct link between cosmetic products and cancer.

Many materials found in plants used as food also have an estrogenic effect. These naturally occurring materials are called phytoestrogens and are present in soy and other fruits and vegetables. Some of these phytoestrogens, when tested in the same way as parabens, give similar estrogen-like results. However, parabens have been shown to be 10,000 times weaker than the most potent phytoestrogens and 100,000 times less potent than estradiol, the estrogen produced naturally by the body. Most scientists agree that there is no endocrine- disrupting effect from the use of parabens in cosmetic and personal care products because their action, if any, is so weak.

Is the use of parabens in cosmetics banned outside the United States?

No. Parabens are permitted for use by government agencies around the world, including the United States, the European Union, Japan, Australia, and Canada. Safe ranges for the use of paraben preservatives have been established in all these countries.

FDA has stated that there is no reason for consumers to be concerned about the use of cosmetics containing parabens. The FDA has also classified methyl and propylparaben as “Generally Regarded As Safe” by medical and toxicological experts for use in preserving food.

What are foods that contain parabens?

Typical food products which contain parabens for preservation, include beer, sauces, desserts, soft drinks, jams, pickles, frozen dairy products, processed vegetables and flavoring syrups. Some fruits, such as blueberries, contain parabens as a naturally occurring preservative.