What’s the Deal With Parabens?

What Are Parabens, Where to Find Them, and Potential Risks

Table of Contents
View All
Table of Contents

Parahydroxybenzoates, or parabens, are man-made chemicals that prevent mold and bacteria growth. They are used to preserve cosmetics, medicines, foods, drinks, and personal care items. This makes them last longer. 

The use of parabens became quite controversial after being found in the cells of breast cancers patients. Early research showed parabens affect hormone function. 

This can cause changes in cholesterol, blood sugar, thyroid, and immune function. The risk of allergies, obesity, and infertility has also been associated with the use of parabens.

Read on to learn more about the different types of parabens, their potential to affect your health, and where you can find them. Keep in mind that paraben research has been limited to animal and cell studies. Further research is needed on the effects of parabens on humans to confirm the long-term effects of use.

Close-up of unrecognizable woman washing upper body in shower

Grace Cary / Getty Images

Negative Health Effects of Parabens

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) tests ingredients in food and cosmetics for safety. Neither organization found any risks with the use of parabens.

The FDA said the use of up to 0.1% of methyl- and propylparabens was safe for food and drinks. Cosmetics usually contain between 0.01% and 0.3% parabens. According to the CIR, these compounds are safe in doses of up to 25%.

Other research says parabens are endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) that cause problems to the endocrine system. EDCs attach to cells in the body, which results in blocking or weakening hormone cell communication.

Changes in Hormone Function

Parabens cause changes in hormone function, which can result in the following:

  • Changes in brain function
  • Changes in cholesterol
  • High blood sugar 
  • Changes in thyroid hormones
  • Poor immune function
  • Sensitivities, allergies, and rashes
  • Fertility issues
  • Obesity risk
  • Risk of cancer

Changes in Brain Function

Some parabens may harm the brain. Others may help it.

One study found that butyl- and isobutyl-parabens prevented learning in animals. The same animals also experienced low levels of antioxidants, more inflammation, and anxiety.

However, propylparaben was found to reduce the effects of traumatic brain injury associated with Alzheimer’s disease.

Changes in Cholesterol

Cholesterol is needed to make estrogen and testosterone. Parabens can stop these essential hormones from being made.

Animal research shows parabens can turn on the genes that make triglycerides, a type of fat found in the blood. Too many triglycerides in the blood can contribute to the development of heart issues.

A connection between triglycerides and the levels of methyl-, ethyl-, and propylparabens was also seen in humans. Triglyceride levels varied by age, sex, weight, and ethnicity. 

Those with high triglycerides were older, obese, and/or male. Women, non-Hispanic Whites, and non-Hispanic Blacks with paraben exposure had lower triglyceride levels. Canadian men exposed to propylparaben also had a risk of developing high cholesterol. Women exposed to methyl-, propyl-, and ethylparaben had increased levels of good cholesterol, HDL.

High Blood Sugar

A mixture of parabens seems to do more harm than one paraben alone. A combination of butyl- and propylparabens increased the blood sugar for pregnant women in their first and second trimesters. This puts them at risk for gestational diabetes. 

Less is known about the effects of parabens in non-pregnant individuals. One study found no significant changes in those exposed to parabens.

Similar effects could occur in men and non-pregnant women. More research is needed to understand how parabens affect blood sugar overall.

Poor Immune Function

Good immune function is tied to a healthy gut. Using antimicrobial parabens prevents the growth of healthy bacteria. This can weaken the immune system.

Parabens cause the production of Type 2 helper T (Th2) cells. Th2 cells make the immune system very sensitive., causing it to overreact to stimuli more than normal.  Th2 cells are also found in those with asthma and eczema. 

Parabens can weaken immune defenses. The presence of methylparabens was associated with fewer Th1 cells, which prevent autoimmune responses. This will protect the body from attacking its own cells.

Sensitivities, Allergies, and Skin Rashes

The skin has its own microbiome. Parabens can reduce the number of healthy bacteria on the skin, weakening the skin’s immune system.  

Allergies and sensitivities can develop, and some people may experience a histamine response. Symptoms include red, itchy, and dry skin. Skin rashes can occur anywhere on the body, including the scalp. Scalp rashes will dry out the hair and may even cause hair loss. 

Parabens with large chemical structures have a greater histamine response. More histamine means worse allergic reactions.

Methylparaben is a small paraben that is unlikely to cause allergies and sensitivities. Butylparaben is a medium-sized molecule that is bigger than methylparabe, but smaller than large parabens. It also has a weaker response than large molecules like heptylparaben.

Medications with parabens placed on broken or damaged skin may also cause skin reactions. Parabens in food can also cause reactions but are rare.

Other Risks

Other identified risks of paraben exposure include:

  • Risk of cancer: Parabens can activate the hormone estrogen. High levels of estrogen have been found in breast cancer tumors. Breast cancer is also associated with the continual use of paraben-containing personal care products applied near the breast area.
  • Fertility issues: Parabens can lower testosterone and sperm production. However, research is limited to animals and failed to prove toxicity in females with paraben-related uterine growths.
  • Changes in thyroid hormones: Females with high levels of butylparaben experienced lower levels of the thyroid hormones thyroxine (T4) and triiodothyronine (T3). These changes could cause thyroid dysfunction.
  • Obesity risk: Methyl- and propylparabens were found in women with higher BMIs. Food and dietary supplements with high levels of parabens may be responsible for weight gain.

Who Is at Risk for Paraben Exposure?

Parabens are absorbed when we eat foods and drinks containing these substances. The skin also takes in paraben when products with these chemicals are applied to the face and body. Parabens have also been found in the sediment, sewage, water treatment plants, rivers, soil, and house dust.

Parabens are all around us so everyone may have some exposure. Especially if you consume foods and drinks and/or use certain paraben-containing products.

Higher Levels of Parabens Have Been Found in Certain Individuals

The National Health and Nutrition Examination (NHANES) survey found about 33% of the 9,813 individuals tested had a presence of parabens at or above the limit of detection in their urine. 

Individuals With the Highest Paraben Exposure

The latest National Health and Nutrition Examination (NHANES) survey showed the following:

  • Urinary levels of parabens were higher in women than men.
  • People 20 years and older had higher paraben levels than younger survey participants.
  • Asians had the highest levels of butyl- and ethyl- parabens.
  • Non-Hispanic Blacks and Mexican Americans had the highest levels of methylparabens.
  • Non-Hispanic blacks had the highest levels of n-propyl parabens.

Types of Parabens

Parabens are made from para-hydroxybenzoic acid (PHBA). PHBA is an acid found in bacteria, plants, and fruits.

Parabens are made from an acid-base chemical reaction called esterification. When PHBA and alcohol are combined they create an ester. Esters vary by the number of chemical bonds in the molecule. The type of alcohol used will determine the number of esters.

  • Methylparaben (methanol)
  • Ethylparaben (ethanol)
  • Isopropylparaben (isopropanol)
  • Propylparaben (n-propanol)
  • Butylparaben (butanol) 
  • Isobutylparaben (isobutanol)
  • Pentylparaben (pentanol)
  • Heptylparaben (heptanol)
  • Benzylparaben (benzyl alcohol)
  • Pentylparaben (pentyl alcohol)

The more ester bonds the more active the paraben. So medium, long, and/or branched-chain esters are more harmful. 

Methyl- and ethylparabens are short-chain parabens. They have weaker estrogenic effects than medium-chain esters like propylparaben. Long-chain esters like butylparaben are stronger than medium-chain esters. The order of increasing estrogenic activity is as follows:

  • Methyl
  • Ethyl
  • Proply
  • Butyl
  • Isobutyl

Long-chain esters are the most harmful according to test-tube studies.

Another thing that determines a paraben's harm is if it dissolves in fat. Cell studies found parabens like benzylparaben easily bound to estrogen. This is a hydrophobic, long-chain ester.

More research needs to be done to know if these effects can be replicated in humans.

How Do Parabens Differ?

There are nine different types of parabens. Methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben, and butylparaben are the most common.

The type of paraben is determined by the alcohol used in the chemical reaction. It will also tell whether the paraben has short, long, and/or branched-chain ester bonds.

Parabens that dissolve in fat are called hydrophobic parabens. Parabens that are hydrophobic with long and/or branched chains easily bond with estrogen cell receptors. This could be harmful to health.

Products With Parabens

Parabens are often found in cosmetics, personal care products (PCP), pharmaceuticals, medicines, and foods. Here is a list of parabens broken out by category.

Cosmetics and Personal Care Products

The main source of paraben exposure comes from cosmetics and personal care products.  

  • Face, body, and hand creams
  • Eye shadow
  • Foundation
  • Blush
  • Eyeliner
  • Mascara
  • Lip gloss, lipstick, lip balm 
  • Lotions/Moisturizers
  • Mud packs
  • Skin lighteners
  • Body wash/scrubs
  • Shampoo/Conditioner
  • Shower gel
  • Shaving gel
  • Haircare products
  • Perfume
  • Skin toner
  • Deodorant
  • Nail polish
  • Sunscreen
  • Facial cleanser or soap
  • Makeup remover wipes
  • Baby products

Personal care products often contain methyl-, ethyl-, butyl-, and propylparaben.

Medications and Pharmaceuticals

The concentration of parabens in medications and pharmaceuticals is around 1%. See below for what products fall into this category:

  • Pills
  • Suppositories
  • Pain relievers
  • Eyewashes
  • Acne medication
  • Medical weight gainers
  • Injectable drugs
  • Condoms and other contraceptives

Foods

Regardless of the type of food packaging (paper, glass, plastic, or can), methyl-,  ethyl-, and propylparbens have been seen in 90% of foods. Butyl- and benzylparabens were also found but less frequently. Here is a list of foods that contain parabens:

Beverages

  • Bottled water
  • Carbonated soft drinks
  • Alcoholic beverages (beer, wine, bourbon)
  • Juice
  • Milk
  • Infant formula
  • Coffee

Dairy Products

  • Yogurt
  • Cheese
  • Ice cream 

Fats and Oils

  • Vegetable oil
  • Salad oil
  • Olive oil 

Fish and shellfish

  • Freshwater fish
  • Marine fish
  • Shrimp
  • Crab
  • Clam 

Grains

  • Wheat flour
  • Bread
  • Rice
  • Noodles
  • Pie/pastries
  • Pasta
  • Pizza
  • Corn products
  • Cookies
  • Cakes
  • Cereals

Meats

  • Beef
  • Pork
  • Chicken
  • Turkey
  • Ham
  • Sausage

Fruits

  • Apples
  • Pears
  • Pineapples
  • Peaches
  • Grapes/raisins
  • Oranges 
  • Bananas
  • Yellow melons
  • Passion fruit
  • Mixed fruits

Vegetables

  • Broccoli
  • Cabbage
  • Carrots
  • Celery
  • Cucumbers
  • Mushrooms
  • Onion
  • Potatoes
  • Tomatoes
  • Green peppers
  • Radishes
  • Pumpkin
  • Lettuce
  • Beans 
  • Mixed vegetables

Animal feeds can also contribute to the level of parabens in meats and other animal products.

Other Foods that Contain Parabens

  • Jams/jellies
  • Pickles
  • Sauces
  • Desserts
  • Flavoring syrups
  • Processed foods (fish, meat, fruits, and vegetables)
  • Condiments
  • Bean products
  • Olives
  • Vanilla extract
  • Icings

Summary

Methyl-, ethyl-, butyl-, and propylparaben are the types of parabens in shampoo, food, and other personal care products.

These parabens do not bind to cell receptors as strong as the actual hormone estrogen. Research shows they are fine in low doses. However, intake may exceed safe levels when numerous paraben-containing products are used on a daily basis.

While the research is limited to animal and cell studies, there's the potential that parabens can cause health problems. Until controlled human studies are carried out it is hard to know the true effects of long-term paraben use. 

In the meantime, you can limit your exposure to parabens cutting back on the use of paraben-containing products.

A Word From VeryWell

Animal and cell research shows parabens can act like estrogen which may cause health problems. Unfortunately, there is still a lot we do not know about how these chemicals affect humans. If you have a reaction and think it may be from paraben exposure, be sure to contact your healthcare provider. They can help you get tested to see if you have a paraben sensitivity or allergy.

How To Spot Parabens in Your Products

The way to find parabens in your products is to check out the ingredient label. Some names include ethyl-, propyl-, and butyl-, isopropyl- and isobutylparaben. Anything with the word “paraben” will tell if there are parabens present.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Are there paraben alternatives on the market?

    Alternatives to parabens include the following:

    • Formaldehyde
    • Quarternium-15
    • Im-idazolidinyl urea
    • Diazolidinyl urea
    • Dimethyloldimethyl hydantoin
    • Thymol
    • Cinnamaldehyde
    • Allyl isothiocyanate
    • Citric acid
    • Ascorbic acid
    • Rosemary extract
    • Formic acid
    • Propionic acid
    • Sorbic acid
    • Benzoic acid
    • Salicylic acid
    • Benzyl alcohol
    • 2-phenoxyethanol
    • Sodium benzoate
    • Triclosan
    • Bronpol
    • DMDM hydantoin
    • Methylisothiazolinone
    • Methylchloroisothiazolinone
    • Essential oils (grape seed extract)


    These natural preservatives may also cause problems. They have been associated with allergies and other health issues. Formaldehyde has even been linked to cancer. Some may also interfere with medications so be sure to ask your doctor before using any of these products. 


    Overall there is not enough research to prove any of these are actually safe and effective alternatives to parabens.  

  • What are the environmental effects of parabens?

    Many paraben products are used in the shower or rinsed off with water. This causes them to go down the drain and get into the water supply.


    Treatment plants work to eliminate parabens from wastewater but only 80% of methyl-, ethyl-, propyl-, and butylparaben are removed.


    Parabens pose problems for wildlife. Plankton, algae, dolphins, and polar bears were found to have high levels of these chemicals. The mixture of methyl-, ethyl-, propyl-, and/or butylparaben is more toxic than one paraben alone.

  • Why are parabens so bad for your hair?

    Parabens may trigger the immune response which can lead to red, dry, itchy skin. Chances are if you get a rash on your body you may end up with one on your scalp. Paraben shampoo use may leave you with dry, damaged hair and possibly hair loss.


    Sulfates, sodium laurel, or laureth sulfate (SLS) is another chemical that causes dry skin. This substance is likely to cause scalp problems similar to parabens. So if you want to prevent potential scalp damage be sure to get a shampoo without parabens and sulfates.

Was this page helpful?
44 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Parabens Factsheet. Updated September 2, 2021.

  2. Kirchhof MG, de Gannes GC. The health controversies of parabens. Skin Therapy Lett. 2013;18(2):5-7.

  3. Pan S, Yuan C, Tagmount A, et al. Parabens and human epidermal growth factor receptor ligand cross-talk in breast cancer cells. Environ Health Perspect. 2016;124(5):563-569. doi:10.1289/ehp.1409200

  4. Routledge EJ, Parker J, Odum J, Ashby J, Sumpter JP. Some alkyl hydroxy benzoate preservatives (parabens) are estrogenic. Toxicol Appl Pharmacol. 1998;153(1):12-19. doi:10.1006/taap.1998.8544

  5. Mitsui-Iwama M, Yamamoto-Hanada K, Fukutomi Y, et al. Exposure to paraben and triclosan and allergic diseases in Tokyo: a pilot cross-sectional study. Asia Pac Allergy. 2019;9(1):e5. doi:10.5415/apallergy.2019.9.e5

  6. Kolatorova L, Sramkova M, Vitku J, et al. Parabens and their relation to obesity. Physiol Res. 2018;67(Suppl 3):S465-S472. doi:10.33549/physiolres.934004

  7. Rattan S, Zhou C, Chiang C, Mahalingam S, Brehm E, Flaws JA. Exposure to endocrine disruptors during adulthood: consequences for female fertility. J Endocrinol. 2017;233(3):R109-R129. doi:10.1530/JOE-17-0023

  8. Soni MG, Carabin IG, Burdock GA. Safety assessment of esters of p-hydroxybenzoic acid (parabens). Food Chem Toxicol. 2005;43(7):985-1015. doi:10.1016/j.fct.2005.01.020

  9. Cosmetic Ingredient Review. Safety assessment of parabens as used in cosmetics. Updated February 23, 2018.

  10. Lee HR, Jeung EB, Cho MH, Kim TH, Leung PC, Choi KC. Molecular mechanism(s) of endocrine-disrupting chemicals and their potent oestrogenicity in diverse cells and tissues that express oestrogen receptors. J Cell Mol Med. 2013;17(1):1-11. doi:10.1111/j.1582-4934.2012.01649

  11. Lincho J, Martins RC, Gomes J. Paraben compounds—part I: an overview of their characteristics, detection, and impacts. Appl Sci. 2021;11(5):2307. doi:10.3390/app11052307

  12. Santiago-Castañeda C, Segovia-Oropeza M, Concha L, Orozco-Suárez SA, Rocha L. Propylparaben reduces the long-term consequences in hippocampus induced by traumatic brain injury in rats: its implications as therapeutic strategy to prevent neurodegenerative diseases.J Alzheimers Dis. 2021;82(s1):S215-S226. doi:10.3233/JAD-200914

  13. Petric Z, Ružić J, Žuntar I. The controversies of parabens - an overview nowadays. Acta Pharm. 2021;71(1):17-32. doi:10.2478/acph-2021-0001

  14. Kawaguchi M, Irie K, Morohoshi K, et al. Maternal isobutyl-paraben exposure alters anxiety and passive avoidance test performance in adult male rats. Neurosci Res. 2009;65(2):136-140. doi:10.1016/j.neures.2009.06.011

  15. Hegazy HG, Ali EHA, Elgoly AHM. Interplay between pro-inflammatory cytokines and brain oxidative stress biomarkers: evidence of parallels between butyl paraben intoxication and the valproic acid brain physiopathology in autism rat model. Cytokine. 2015;71(2):173-180. doi:10.1016/j.cyto.2014.10.027

  16. Pazos R, Palacios C, Campa A. Urinary paraben concentration and its association with serum triglyceride concentration in 2013-2014 NHANES participants: a cross-sectional study. J Environ Public Health. 2020;2020:8196014. doi:10.1155/2020/8196014

  17. Kim J, Chevrier J. Exposure to parabens and prevalence of obesity and metabolic syndrome: an analysis of the Canadian Health Measures Survey. Sci Total Environ. 2020;713:135116. doi:10.1016/j.scitotenv.2019.135116

  18. Bellavia A, Chiu YH, Brown FM, et al. Urinary concentrations of parabens mixture and pregnancy glucose levels among women from a fertility clinic. Environ Res. 2019;168:389-396. doi:10.1016/j.envres.2018.10.009

  19. Van der Meer TP, van Faassen M, van Beek AP, et al. Exposure to endocrine disrupting chemicals in the Dutch general population is associated with adiposity-related traits. Sci Rep. 2020;10(1):1-10. doi:10.1038/s41598-020-66284-3

  20. Wu HJ, Wu E. The role of gut microbiota in immune homeostasis and autoimmunity. Gut Microbes. 2012;3(1):4-14. doi:10.4161/gmic.19320

  21. Jackson-Browne MS, Henderson N, Patti M, Spanier A, Braun JM. The impact of early-life exposure to antimicrobials on asthma and eczema risk in children. Curr Environ Health Rep. 2019;6(4):214-224. doi:10.1007/s40572-019-00256-2

  22. Knaysi G, Smith AR, Wilson JM, Wisniewski JA. The skin as a route of allergen exposure: Part II. Allergens and role of the microbiome and environmental exposures. Curr Allergy Asthma Rep. 2017;17(1):7. doi:10.1007/s11882-017-0675-4

  23. Nowak K, Jabłońska E, Ratajczak-Wrona W. Immunomodulatory effects of synthetic endocrine disrupting chemicals on the development and functions of human immune cells. Environ Int. 2019;125:350-364. doi:10.1016/j.envint.2019.01.078

  24. Stollery N. Scalp problems. Practitioner. 2010;254(1726):36-37.

  25. PubChem. Methylparaben Interactions. Published March 26, 2005.

  26. Jacob SL, Cornell E, Kwa M, Funk WE, Xu S. Cosmetics and cancer: adverse event reports submitted to the Food and Drug Administration. JNCI Cancer Spectr. 2018;2(2):ky012. doi:10.1093/jncics/pky012

  27. Koeppe ES, Ferguson KK, Colacino JA, Meeker JD. Relationship between urinary triclosan and paraben concentrations and serum thyroid measures in NHANES 2007-2008. Sci Total Environ. 2013;445-446:299-305

  28. Institute of Medicine (US) Committee on Medicare Coverage of Routine Thyroid Screening, Stone MB, Wallace RB. Pathophysiology and Diagnosis of Thyroid Disease. National Academies Press (US); 2003

  29. Liao C, Lee S, Moon HB, Yamashita N, Kannan K. Parabens in sediment and sewage sludge from the United States, Japan, and Korea: spatial distribution and temporal trends. Environ Sci Technol. 2013;47(19):10895-10902. doi:10.1021/es40

  30. Wang W, Kannan K. Fate of parabens and their metabolites in two wastewater treatment plants in New York State, United States. Environ Sci Technol. 2016;50(3):1174-1181. doi:10.1021/acs.est.5b05516

  31. NHANES 2013-2014. Personal care and consumer product chemicals and metabolites data documentation, codebook, and frequencies. Updated September, 2016.

  32. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Fourth National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals. Updated January 2019.

  33. Engeli RT, Rohrer SR, Vuorinen A, et al. Interference of paraben compounds with estrogen metabolism by inhibition of 17β-hydroxysteroid dehydrogenases. Int J Mol Sci. 2017;18(9):2007. doi:10.3390/ijms18092007

  34. Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety (SCCS). Opinion on Parabens.  Published December 4, 2010.

  35. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Biomonitoring Summary. Published September 3, 2021.

  36. Berger KP, Kogut KR, Bradman A, et al. Personal care product use as a predictor of urinary concentrations of certain phthalates, parabens, and phenols in the HERMOSA study. J Expo Sci Environ Epidemiol. 2019;29(1):21-32. doi:10.1038/s41370-017-0003-z

  37. Cosmetic Ingredient Review. Safety Assessment of Parabens as Used in Cosmetics Published February 23, 2018.

  38. Liao C, Liu F, Kannan K. Occurrence of and dietary exposure to parabens in foodstuffs from the United States. Environ Sci Technol. 2013;47(8):3918-3925. doi:10.1021/es400724s

  39. Tade R. Safety and toxicity assessment of parabens in pharmaceutical and food Products. Published 2018. doi:10.13140/RG.2.2.23621.40161

  40. Dodson RE, Boronow KE, Susmann H, et al. Consumer behavior and exposure to parabens, bisphenols, triclosan, dichlorophenols, and benzophenone-3: Results from a crowdsourced biomonitoring study. Int J Hyg Environ Health. 2020:113624. doi:10.1016/j.ijheh.2020.113624

  41. Dominguez JR, Gonzalez T, Cuerda-Correa EM, Muñoz-Peña MJ. Combating paraben pollution in surface waters with a variety of photocatalyzed systems: Looking for the most efficient technology. Open Chemistry. 2019;17(1):1317-1327. doi:10.1515/chem-2019-0133

  42. Lee J, Bang SH, Kim YH, Min J. Toxicities of Four parabens and their mixtures to daphnia magna and aliivibrio fischeri. E. Environ Health Toxicol. 2018;33(4):e2018018. doi:10.5620/eht.e2018018

  43. Xue J, Sasaki N, Elangovan M, Diamond G, Kannan K. Elevated accumulation of parabens and their metabolites in marine mammals from the United states coastal waters. Environ Sci Technol. 2015;49(20):12071-12079. doi:10.1021/acs.est.5b03601

  44. Geier J, Uter W, Pirker C, Frosch PJ. Patch testing with the irritant sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) is useful in interpreting weak reactions to contact allergens as allergic or irritant. Contact Dermatitis. 2003;48(2):99-107. doi:10.1034/j.1600-0536.2003.480209.x