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Parabens and Preservatives- Are They Safe?

February 26, 2010 Reviewed by Marta 18 Comments

Parabens get a bad rap. Some products proclaim themselves paraben-free. But are they really that bad and isn't the stuff that they prevent (the formation of nasty bacterias) potentially more harmful? What about the alternatives? Do they work and are they safer?

Parabens are preservatives and they are incredibly ubiquitous; you will find them in cosmetics and all manner of hair care products. They are esters of para-hydroxybenzoic acid and common parabens include: methylparaben (which can occur naturally in blueberries), propylparaben, butylparaben. Less common are isobutylparaben, isopropylparaben and benzylparaben.

The fuss started when a 2004 study linked parabens in deodorant to breast cancer. Because parabens mimic human estrogen and it is known that estrogen stimulates cancer, the link seemed plausible. The study has since been discredited and the American Cancer Society has concluded that there is insufficient scientific evidence of parabens increasing breast cancer risk. And a 2005 study said it is "biologically implausible that parabens could increase the risk of any estrogen-mediated endpoint, including effects on the male reproductive tract or breast cancer".

So if parabens are by and large not carcinogenic, what's not to like? Allergies to individual parabens are rare, but there is a high incidence of cross-reaction so a combination of parabens in one product increases the likelihood of a reaction. Many cosmetic and hair products contain up to four or five parabens.

The other reason to avoid parabens is environmental damage. According the Environmental Protection Agency: "the continual introduction of these benzoates (parabens) into sewage systems and directly to recreational waters from the skin leads to the question of risk to aquatic organs." (source) So be nice to fish and use alternatives where possible.

What about the alternatives? Are they any better?

Unfortunately, many other effective preservatives have safety issues. DMDM hydatoin releases formaldehyde. Kathon, a synthetic preservative, was cited as a "major cause of cosmetic allergy" by a study conducted by a Dutch dermatologist. Sodium benzoate produces a carcinogen when it encounters vitamin C and a British study has linked it DNA degeneration.

Safe, but mild, preservatives do exist and they include: phenoxyethanol, potassium sorbate and - as far as I can tell - sodium levulinate and propyl gallate.

UPDATE - 2/28/08 My mother-in-law, Monique (who irritatingly has some rare and amazing wrinkle resistant gene), sent me some clippings from French magazines. I noticed that journalists in France seemed to be  concerned about phenoxyethanol. I did some more research and found out that it is considered to be extremely toxic and concentrations in cosmetics are severely limited in Japan. This is what a company who sells it to laboratories has to say about it:

"Extremely hazardous in case of eye contact (irritant). Very hazardous in case of skin contact (irritant), of ingestion, of inhalation. Inflammation of the eye is characterized by redness, watering, and itching. Skin inflammation is characterized by itching, scaling, reddening, or, occasionally, blistering."

Marta adds: I got pulled up - quite properly - by a reader regarding the quote above. It should be noted that the manufacturer is referring to its raw state at 100% concentrations.

UPDATE - 3/8/08. I have just come across methylisothiazolinoneDeemed safe in Europe, the US and Japan, there is however one study on rats that demonstrated it is a neurotoxin. At best, there is insufficient
data to say that this is safe at this stage.

UPDATE - 6/4/08 The FDA issues a warning on phenoxyethanol

UPDATE - 6/29/16 New study links parabens to birth defects

  • September 4, 2017

    by Lynda

    I found a very long word in the ingredients listed for a hair product. Out of curiosity in such a long word I looked it up. I read your article on this ingredient and was very shocked that it's band in Canada but not USA. It's a highly allergic ingredient can cause cancer let alone stuff that we may not know. I'm sad cause I really like the product and now I'm going to have to write to the company telling them what I found.

  • May 12, 2017

    by Lynn

    I can't use products with phenoxyethanol or Methylisothiazolinone or Methylchloroisothiazolinone. They not only irritate my skin but they have also caused blistering and contact dermatitis.

  • June 29, 2016

    by Marta

    Hi Tracey, here is the link and I've also added it to the article:

  • June 29, 2016

    by Tracey


    I enjoyed reading your site - it is very informative. With regard to the above article on parabens, can you please give me the source of the quote from the EMP with about parabens presenting a potential risk to aquatic life?

    Many thanks


  • May 1, 2015

    by Pat

    I know this was last year when Rachel was having so many problems with her products and inflammation around her eyes.
    I too have had many severe problems with lots of products. You don't know what you don't know until someone tells you, is my theory.
    So my advice. Cosmetic and facial care companies will not give you an entire list of what is in their products but, you may want to do what I did.
    Find a product read the ingredients - go home google or search one ingredient at a time. Yes this may be time consuming but......
    What I have found that works great for me with no reactions and all of their products are pure, safe and beneficial. I'm over 60 and I have never looked better.
    The products are Arbonne and they have been around for 35 years. I believe that says something for itself.
    Vegan certified No Animal Products No parabens No Paba No Formaldehyde No petroleum based ingredients such as mineral oil, Benzene, Petrolatum, Phthalates or Toluene

  • April 14, 2014

    by Rachel

    Hi all,
    For the past five years I have been struggling with eye allergies which I believe is caused by makeup. Ever since I had a makeup trial for my wedding, I woke the next day with inflomation of the bottom eyelid with redness along the top of it also eyeness of the eye ball, itchiness, white discharge, burning when I close my eyes and sensitivitie to light. I have seen every possible person to try help me when I get these 'flare ups' which will last weeks until I use FML eye drops. No one has seemed to come up with a proper reason this is happening. Each one says different things.. Staff infection, slow tear ducks, dry eye and so on!! I even had a allergy arm test $400+ to have an end result that I'm not allergic to any of the normal allergy factors dog hair, dust, pollen ect.. So I have been doing my own research and I think it must be something in the costemics! Would it be parabens? or is there something else I should also try banish from the products I try next?? I'm so fed up with it happening every couple of weeks and my eyes have never seemed to be white since :(

  • October 15, 2013

    by Keith


    Just found this site and saw your comment on Methylisothiazolinone, do you know what it really is?

    Isothiazolinone is a watered down version of the deadly pesticide Alkyl DiMethyl Benzyl Ammonium Chloride. A residual, synthetic hormonal pesticide poison which in the concentrated state will burn the flesh off your bones.

    It is a quartenary Ammonium compound which were reported by medical staff in American hospitals in 1984 as being ineffective against many bacteria, causing skin allergic responses, and these chemicals form a bio-film over skin which allows harmful bacteria to survive and multiply to increase the risk of infection.

    Prof Patricia Hunt proved in 2008 that just the residue from the use of cleaning chemicals containing these quartenary Ammonium compounds, is enough to cause an epidemic of birthing difficulties, and birth defects in mice. Reduce the egg number and size in females and the number and size of sperm in males. Who share 98% of genes with US!

    In the early 1940s doctors in Europe treating the first patients suffering from severe burns from medicinal skin creams with these chemicals, reported in the Oxford Medical Journal that these chemicals are too dangerous for use on human beings.

    The doctors who fought to have the last plant manufacturing Dioxin shut down said that when you are dealing with a hormonal poison there is NO SAFE level of exposure as they bio-accumulate.

    I have just returned from traveling in China where they manufacture these chemicals in giant plants as big as cities, and just before I left the Chinese government admitted they are manufacturing these chemicals, and as a result they now have whole villages in the surrounding areas they call cancer villages, because every man, woman and child has cancer.

    And you thought Phenoxyethanol was a SOB!

    I have been working with natural products for a number of years now and there are some very good natural preservatives BUT as with anything there are always those who are allergic to them, And they are more expensive.
    For more information google Mian sanctuary.

  • June 24, 2011

    by Interview with Teri Dourmashkin, Founder of La Vie Celeste -

    [...] being said, I don’t use parabens and I don’t need to. But I do think that they need to be re-examined.  Recent research shows [...]

  • July 13, 2010

    by Julie Kay

    My dermatologist is a good doctor, in my opinion. We've discussed skin care products- even as far as what we'd each like to see if we (either or both- no, we've never talked about collaboration) marketed our own products, theoretically. That said- in his office he touts Obagi, the entire line. Obagi uses parabens. /shrug* Now my dermatologist isn't ignorant and sitting back in his office thinking about developing a product and/or treating patients daily and offering them a product that would, in his opinion, harm them. Just saying... I trust my dermatologist. ~jk

    ps this is not to say some people can't have a sensitivity to parabens or any other ingredient... but overall parabens do do their job in a product. I try whenever possible to keep them out of the scenario, but I do know the relavence of preservation.

  • July 13, 2010

    by Darrell

    Hi Lotta,
    Many types of products stay fresh easily without preservatives. Many more products though do not stay fresh and safe without assistance of some kind; such as through use of preservatives or by being stored sealed and cool in a basement.

    Generally, natural and water-based products are more likely to harbor pathogens unless preserved or kept sealed and refrigerated. In the food world, pasta is a great example - storing safe and well for years dry, but quickly going bad once cooked and left out.

    Respectfully, I'm curious to learn more about your experiences with dermatologists and so I have a number of questions.

    Dermatologists must know, separate from their opinions about the allergy potential of any specific preservative system, preservatives protect us from potentially dangerous pathogens.

    There are of course, situations where it's determined a patient has allergies to specific preservatives and is advised to avoid products with those preservatives - that makes complete sense.

    I'm trying to understand though, any general advisement by dermatologists to avoid an entire preservative system based on allergy potential. Without offering an alternative solution that protects their patients from harmful pathogens, wouldn't it be irresponsible for dermatologists to make such advice?

    Because parabens are the most widely used preservative system in consumer products, and because dermatologists are motivated to steer patients away from potential allergens, are the recommendations you've heard a general advisement for all consumers to avoid preservatives - and specifically those products with parabens? Or, are these dermatologists advising that those who may be predisposed to paraben allergies avoid those products containing them?

    ...And last, when they're recommending we avoid products with parabens, what alternatives are these dermatologists recommending? More companies these days are using higher-than-ever percentages of natural ingredients, which to remain safe, require preservatives. Wouldn't it seem short-sided then, for dermatologists to suggest avoiding one preservative system, such as parabens, without recommending an alternative that equally protects their patients from harm due to exposure to unchecked pathogens?


  • July 13, 2010

    by Lotta

    Re. parabens. I've always been warned about them by Dermatologists. I've heard so many of them warn about them I can't even say how many. It's MANY. All Derms I have gone to over the years (around 40yrs), at hospital (outpatient clinics and inpatient clinics), at private practicing Derms as well as in countless lectures (patient organization meetings, congresses and such) etc. Their warning has always been that parabens are provocative regarding allergies, and that they simply do not recommend using creams containing these substances. In my (and all the others I know of) case, part of the warning has also been that it would especially not be worth taking any chances when you already have one skin disorder, risking to maybe contract another. Many times it has also been mentioned that it should should be avoided for moisturizers for kids with atopic dermatitis (eczema).

    It really seems bad though that companies are substituting the parabens with phenoxyethanol. Maybe they are counting on this substance to be less known amongst customers? Since people have been warned against parabens for a long time? I think I heard about it the first time at the end of the 80's or about that time...

    I prefer creams and such with no preservatives. I also make my own. In my experience bacteria growth and creams going bad is not a very big problem. I think this problem often is exaggerated. I have had creams for years after the expiration date and they've been fine (though being stored cold in the basement). I have never experienced any cream going bad. At all.

    Thanks for great information!

  • November 5, 2008

    by Marta

    <p>Jacqui, thanks for this and you are right. This is from MSDS sheet at 100% concentrations. I'll edit the post to make that clear. </p>

  • November 5, 2008

    by Jacqui

    <p>Hi Marta and other readers, I am a natural health advocate and a naturopath. What I have read here on your website is by enlarge excellent, and I am so glad to see someone else putting forward the voice of reason where parabens are concerned. </p>

    <p>However, I am concerned about the "statement" you have posted above from the manufacturer regarding phenoxyethanol. You have not made it clear that these warnings relate to the "bluk handling" of the pure raw materials on mass. When handled on mass exactly the same warnings could and should be placed on many, many otherwise "safe for use" substances such as cayenne, black pepper, most essenital oils, menthol, comfrey, belladonna, etc, etc. So, whilst I think your website and information is terrific, I also think you need to be very careful that the information you are providing is given in the right context.</p>

  • May 19, 2008

    by Marta

    <p>I should add that for paraben etc free makeup you could try the NVEY range (at Sephora).</p>

  • May 19, 2008

    by Sandra

    <p>I am about to start using Progestelle, which is a natural progresterone derived from Yams. However, the instructions advise me to give up all skin products with Parabens or Phenoxyethanol in them. Can anyone advise on any skin creams/shampoos/conditioners which do not contain these in them?</p>

  • May 19, 2008

    by Marta

    <p>Hello Sandra<br />
    The choice gets better every day.If you check the Five Best category in the index on this site, you'll find plenty of options. Off the top of my head though, Mychelle is great for skin care (good results and no parabens etc), I use Ormedic's Organic Moisturizer which has nothing nasty at all (you can order it here: <a href="" rel="nofollow"></a> Dr Alkaitis products are very pure - I use his shampoo. </p>

    <p>It is intriguing that your Yam product specifically asks you to eliminate these. I'll have to look into it.</p>

  • March 11, 2008

    by marta

    <p>First of all, you are right. There is not much - if anything - out there. And so, we will have be pragmatic and make lesser of two evil choices. In this case, I think that I would avoid oxybenzone, but live with phenoxyethanol - assuming that it is in a concentration of 1% or less (as deemed by Europe and Japan) and if I don't get a reaction. <br />
    I don't want to give the impression that I am becoming some mad, obsessive purist (at least not about potions), but I do think we should have as much information as possible.</p>

  • March 11, 2008

    by Lori

    <p>phenoxyethanol - it seems that this ingredient is in many products that would otherwise meet our high standards. I purchased Neova Ti-SILC sunscreen and love it - dose not contain oxybenzone which was also hard to find and has a great combination of effective sunscreens per the but it contains phenoxyethanol. What is the lesser of two evils? It seems we are chasing after lotions and potions that do not exist. </p>

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