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Problems With Parabens in Skin Care Products

Why Avoid Parabens?

Parabens are "Endocrine Disruptors" and Contribute to Estrogen and Hormonal Imbalances

Parabens are a type of endocrine (i.e. hormonal system) disruptor6 known as "estrogen analogs." This means they mimic estrogen in the human body1. An over-balance of synthetic estrogen5 and other estrogen analogs in the body is implicated in the occurence of breast cancers.

Many, many human-made substances qualify as estrogen analogs—the introduction of these substances in our human environment has in recent years reached epidemic proportions. Experts estimate that 40 million pounds of hormonally active chemicals are produced—and 2,000 new substances introduced—each year in the U.S. alone6.

Parabens are Absorbed and Held in Fatty Tissues, Can Act as Chronic Irritants

Parabens are lipidophilic, which means they are attracted to and then retained in the body's fatty tissues—breast tissue is mostly fatty tissue3. Once parabens are absorbed into normal fatty breast tissues, their estrogenic and allergenic activities can contribute to development of tumors.

When parabens are ingested as preservatives in food, the natural action of the digestive system greatly reduces their estrogen-mimicking behavior2 (though allergic reactions to parabens are more common than to the benzoates used previously2). Parabens applied to the skin, however, are not subjected to the protective action of the digestive tract.

Parabens Cause Skin Damage When Exposed to Sunlight

On the skin itself, methyl paraben (the most common form of paraben used in cosmetics) has scientifically-documented "harmful effects on human skin when exposed to [UV radiation in] sunlight"9 including:

  • increased cell death;
  • production of Nitrous Oxide (which acts as an oxidant in the blood);
  • increased skin and fatty tissue oxidation (i.e., free radical formation); and
  • interference with normal gene replication processes (cellular mutation).

Increased cell death and increased cellular and fatty oxidation can be expressed simply as "aging." Oxidation produces "free radicals," which upon entering the blood stream continue to cause oxidative damage to other tissues and blood constituents and are considered a primary reason for aging. Having our skin and tissues age faster runs directly counter to why we use creams and lotions in the first place!

Why are Parabens Put into Health and Skin Care Products?

Parabens are used as bactericidal and fungicidal preservatives in almost all conventional (and many "natural") skin care products—and even foods—including:

  • lotions and skin creams (including pharmaceutical creams);
  • shaving creams, toothpastes and other toiletries;
  • deodorants and anti-perspirants;
  • personal lubricants;
  • etc.

How Well Are We Being Protected?

Though the connection between breast tumors and parabens officially remains "unproven," 60% of human breast tumors are found within the upper-outside quadrant of the breast nearest the armpits1 where deodorants and shaving creams are often applied daily! High paraben levels have been found in breast tumors, with one study finding elevated paraben levels in 18 out of 20 breast tumors studied1. Another study found that contracting breast cancer at an earlier age correlated with more frequent use of antiperspirants, deodorants and underarm shaving.10

Despite this high level of migration and bio-accumulation of parabens into breast tissue, one study concluded that further research was not needed because of the "low probability that parabens will penetrate into the tissue, remain intact, and accumulate there."4 However we do know from the tumor tissue study that parabens in fact bioaccumulate in fatty tissues (like breast tissue) and in breast tumors.

Phrases like the National Cancer Institute's "not aware of any conclusive evidence" and the "low probability" mentioned in the study cited above may sound authoritative, but gloss over the fact that breast cancer rates in the U.S. have increased by more than 40 percent between 1973 and 1998.7 Who is being protected here—you, or the profits of the cosmetics industry?

Speaking of the cosmetics industry, cosmetics are not regulated by the FDA. The terms "natural," "pure" and "organic" have no legally-binding meaning when used on cosmetic labels.8 The presence of these terms on cosmetic labels is no guarantee of the safety of a product.

Further Reading:

  1. "Endocrine Disruptors—Tipping the Hormonal Scales" Dixie Mills, MD. A thorough article on the subject of endocrine disruptors (including estrogen analogs) written by a medical doctor.
  2. The Campaign For Safe Cosmetics website has many informative and interesting articles on the safety (or lack thereof) of your cosmetic products.


  1. "Parabens" on Wikipedia.
  2. "Overall, reported contact reactions to benzoates are rare in comparison to the parabens." Adverse Reactions to Benzoates and Parabens, John Fahrenholz and Ronald Simon, from "Food Allergy: Adverse Reactions to Food and Food Additives," Dean D. Metcalfe, Hugh A. Sampson, Ronald A. Simon; 2003.
  3. "Breast" on Wikipedia.
  4. Safety assessment of esters of p-hydroxybenzoic acid (parabens). Soni MG, Carabin IG, Burdock GA (2005). Food and Chemical Toxicology 43 (7): 985-1015.
  5. Synthetic "estrogen" is actually an estrogen analog, which means the synthetic estrogen molecule is not the same as a natural estrogen molecule. Estrogen analogs are also known as "endocrine disrupters," because of their unpredicatble, often powerful and mostly unknown effects on the sensitive human endocrine system (which is responsible for controlling and balancing our body's hormonal system) as well as on early brain development.
  6. Endocrine Disruptors—Tipping the Hormonal Scales, Dixie Mills, MD.
  7. State of the Evidence: The Connection Between Breast Cancer and the Environment, edited by Janet Gray, Ph.D.
  8. Natural and Organic Products, one of many good articles on the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics website.
  9. Methylparaben potentiates UV-induced damage of skin keratinocytes, Osamu Handa et al.
  10. An earlier age of breast cancer diagnosis related to more frequent use of antiperspirants/deodorants and underarm shaving. McGrath K, 2003. European Journal of Cancer Prevention 12 (6): 479-85.