Are parabens in cosmetics safe?

Publication Date: August 2014


Are your personal care products really dangerous?

Parabens is a term used to describe a set of chemicals used as a preservative by the cosmetic and pharmaceutical industries to prevent bacteria growth. The most common parabens used in cosmetics are butylparaben, propulparaben, and methylparaben. Most personal care products including makeup, deodorants, and moisturizers, contain parabens.

Health Activists and Parabens

A number of environmental and health activist groups have actively pushed for a ban on parabens, arguing that they are endocrine disrupters. Most notably, the Environmental Working Group runs the “Campaign for Safe Cosmetics” in which it pushes for cosmetics free of parabens and other chemicals.

What the Research Says

According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA): “The Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) reviewed the safety of methylparaben, propylparaben, and butylparaben in 1984 and concluded they were safe for use in cosmetic products at levels up to 25%. Typically parabens are used at levels ranging from 0.01 to 0.3%.”

Parabens are acknowledged to be an endocrine disrupter that can act similarly to estrogen. However, FDA notes that studies have shown parabens have much less estrogenic activity than estrogen naturally occurring in the human body. Because parabens are used in such low levels in cosmetics, researchers have concluded that it is “implausible that parabens could increase the risk associated with exposure to estrogenic chemicals.”

The most common study cited by opponents of parabens shows that parabens were detected in breast tumors. The authors of the study note that parabens can act like estrogen and that estrogen has an impact on the development of breast cancer. However, the FDA has noted the study’s limitations, stating: “For example, the study did not show that parabens cause cancer, or that they are harmful in any way, and the study did not look at possible paraben levels in normal tissue.”