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Parabens and skincare: What’s all the fuss about?

Everything you need to know about skincare products containing parabens.

Curology Team Avatar
by Curology Team
Updated on Jul 6, 2023 • 6 min read
Medically reviewed by Melissa Hunter, NP-C
Woman Applying Skincare Paraben-free
Curology Team Avatar
by Curology Team
Updated on Jul 6, 2023 • 6 min read
Medically reviewed by Melissa Hunter, NP-C
We’re here to share what we know — but don’t take it as medical advice. Talk to your medical provider if you have questions.

Have you ever wondered why more and more labels in the beauty and healthcare aisle have “paraben-free” on them? What is all the fuss about parabens?

It’s a little scary to see such proclamations. You may wonder if it’s a gimmick by a marketing genius to get you to spend more money on “something-free” stuff. After all, you’ve gone this far not knowing what a paraben is, and you seem to be fine. But still. Labels can be confusing. Rest assured, we are here to help you understand what exactly they mean. 

What are parabens?

Parabens are commonly found on ingredient lists because they are preservatives. They’re used in cosmetics, hair and body care products, and even processed foods and prescription drugs. 

Parabens are not a single substance but a whole group of artificial chemicals used to prolong a product’s shelf life. They were created to stop the growth of things like bacteria and fungi. 

You’ve probably seen some of these examples of parabens on your labels before. They include:

  • Methylparaben

  • Ethylparaben

  • Propylparaben

  • Butylparaben

They can also go by another name, the hydroxybenzoates: 

  • Propyl 4-hydroxybenzoate

  • Butyl 4-hydroxybenzoate

  • Ethyl 4-hydroxybenzoate

And from this origin, it would seem like they are helpful. And they have been (and still are!). They are very successful as preservatives.

Liquid Parabens

Where do we find parabens?

Many products that you use everyday contain parabens. Parabens have been the go-to preservative for decades because they’re cost-effective and virtually undetectable. They’re even odorless and tasteless,¹ so they don’t mess with the taste or smell of the products they help preserve.

Take a look for yourself at all the places you can find parabens:

  • Health and home products, including glue, liquid and powder foundation, moisturizer, shampoo, conditioner, shaving cream, and toothpaste 

  • Products at the grocery store, including beer, sauces, cereal, dried meat, soft drinks, jams, pickles, and flavored syrups 

Are parabens actually dangerous for you?

Parabens have been used since the early 1930s, but it wasn’t until the last two decades that they’ve come under heavier scrutiny for potentially being dangerous to us.

In 1984, Cosmetic Ingredients Review (CIR) found that parabens were safe for use in cosmetics.² However, a 2004 study started the paraben controversy by purporting that parabens may be cancer-causing and may disrupt estrogens in the body.³ That said, these claims have not been substantiated.

While they haven’t been substantiated, this hasn’t stopped other scientists and groups from investigating them further just to be safe. 

A study from 2006 discovered two parabens present in the urine of more than 96% of the 100 participants tested.⁴ In a measurement conducted by the CDC on 2,548 participants, they found parabens in the urine of most of the participants. The data from the CDC indicates that for women, the number of parabens in their urine was several-fold higher. They state that this increase may be due to the fact that women tend to use more paraben-containing products than men.⁵

The Danish Centre of Endocrine Disruptors, part of Denmark’s Environmental Protection Agency, listed Isobutylparaben as an endocrine disruptor with moderate adverse effects in 2017,⁶ although no other parabens were labeled as such.

Bag of Cosmetic Products

In 2014, the European Commission banned the use of five parabens in cosmetic products due to the lack of enough data to properly reassess their safety; these were Isopropylparaben, Isobutylparaben, Phenylparaben, Benzylparaben, and Pentylparaben.⁷ Many U.S. retailers also have plans to phase out many of their paraben products. 

So, are parabens safe or dangerous? 

The same 2014 E.C. press release confirmed that Propylparaben, Butylparaben, Methylparaben, Ethylparaben, and others are still safe for use, as has been shown on multiple occasions by their Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety.⁸ Not only that, but both the FDA and CIR have come out in support of their original 1984 ruling on parabens in cosmetics, as well as the FDA still allowing them in foods. The CDC states that just because parabens are found in urine doesn’t mean they are necessarily harmful to your health.⁹ Currently, the FDA states, “At this time, we do not have information showing that parabens, as they are used in cosmetics, have an effect on human health.”¹⁰ That said, they are continuing to evaluate new data about parabens. 

How to avoid parabens

There isn’t currently enough evidence to say that you need to avoid parabens, but if you want to, here are some tips to help. Since parabens appear in our processed foods, check your labels or try to buy fresh and local foods or whole foods with minimal ingredients.

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As for your skincare products, most will announce that they’re paraben free with phrases like “free from parabens” or “0% parabens” on their labels. Consider trying these products if you’d like! 

At Curology, we have made it easy to find effective products for your skin. Not only are our products free of parabens, but they are also free of sulfates. Additionally, they are dermatologist-designed, with your skin and your concerns in mind.

Skincare tailored to you

Founded in 2014 by a board-certified dermatologist, Curology was created with the goal of making quality skincare accessible.

Whether you’ve got acne, signs of aging, hyperpigmentation, rosacea, or melasma, our licensed dermatology providers are here to assist you on your skincare journey. The best part is that it is delivered right to your door!

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FAQs

How to look for parabens?

If you’re trying to avoid parabens in your personal care products, food, etc., check the ingredient lists for some of the parabens mentioned in the article above. Many products will directly tell you that they’re free from parabens on their labels.

What is another name for parabens?

There are different kinds of parabens. You might see names like butylparaben, methylparaben, propylparaben, isopropylparaben, or isobutylparaben pop up on the ingredients list for paraben-containing products. Sometimes hydroxybenzoate will also be used instead of a specific type of paraben.

What products contain parabens in the highest concentrations?

Processed foods normally have higher levels of parabens, including cereal-based snacks, sauces, desserts, soft drinks, jams, frozen dairy products, and flavoring syrups.

• • •

P.S. We did the homework, so you don’t have to:

1. Petric, Z., et al. The controversies of parabens–an overview nowadays. Acta Pharm. (2021, March 1).

2. National Biomonitoring Program. CDC. Parabens. (2017, April 7).

3. Darbre, P.D., et al. Concentration of parabens in human breast tumors. Journal of Applied Toxicology. (January-February 2004).

4. Ye, X., et al. Parabens as urinary biomarkers of exposure in humans. Environmental Health Perspectives. (December 2006).

5. National Biomonitoring Program. CDC. Parabens. Ibid.

6. Hass, U., et al. List of Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals. Danish Centre on Endocrine Disrupters. (September 2018).

7. European Commission. Consumers: commission improves safety of cosmetics. (2014, September 26).

8. European Commission. Consumers: commission improves safety of cosmetics. Ibid.

9. National Biomonitoring Program. CDC. Parabens. Ibid.

10. U.S. Food & Drug Administration. Parabens in cosmetics. (2022, February 25).

Melissa Hunter is a board certified family nurse practitioner at Curology. She received her MSN from George Washington University in Washington, DC.

*Cancel anytime. Subject to consultation. Results may vary.

• • •
Our medical review process:We’re here to tell you what we know. That’s why our information is evidence-based and fact-checked by medical experts. Still, everyone’s skin is unique—the best way to get advice is to talk to your healthcare provider.
Curology Team Avatar

Curology Team

Melissa Hunter

Melissa Hunter, NP-C

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