Written by: Khadijah Yassin E.I.T. Biochemical Engineering

The Paraben FamilyParaben-2D-skeletal

Despite the cheerful sounding name–which I find reminiscent of familie names like the Waltons, the Cleavers and even the Andersons from “Father Knows Best”–the Parabens are certainly not the Brady Bunch of cosmetic chemicals that their name suggests.



Parabens belong to a family of synthetically produced chemicals known as parahydroxybenzoates. Parabens are used as antimicrobials or preservatives by the cosmetics and the pharmaceutical industries, the most widely used parabens being: methyl-, ethyl-, propyl-, and butylparaben[9].

The Summary Before the Science

  • Parabens can easily penetrate the skin[10]
  •  The European Commission on Endocrine Disruption has listed parabens under Category 1 Priority Substances–the highest risk category–based on established scientific evidence that they interfere with normal hormone function[12]
  • Parabens can mimic estrogen, the primary female sex hormone and occupy hormonal receptor sites designed for the body’s naturally occuring hormones[9]
  • Parabens have been detected in human breast cancer tissues, suggesting a possible association between parabens in cosmetics and cancer[13]
  • Parabens may also interfere with male reproductive functions[14]
  • Scientific studies have indicated that methylparaben applied on the skin reacts with UVB leading to increased skin aging and DNA damage[15]




Endocrine Disruption: Damage to Hormonal Systems

A wide range of parabens–including all of those mentioned above–have been found to possess varying degrees of weak estrogenicity and therefore the possibility of subsequent effects have caused significant concern within the scientific community[9].
Estrogenicity, when used in reference to synthetic chemicals refers to the ability of those chemicals to mimic and behave like human estrogen hormones within the body[9].

The effects of parabens in this respect are a cause for concern asendocrine-disruptor-graphic in mammalian studies, butylparaben, the most potent endocrine disruptor of the bunch, has been found to possess the ability to cause a phenomenon known as competitive binding[10].

Competitive Binding is the ability of a synthetic chemical, once it has entered the body, to occupy specific receptor sites intended for the body’s own natural chemicals–in this case estrogen hormones. Once a synthetic chemical has occupied the site it prevents the hormone intended for the target receptor, from binding at the target site[9].

Competitive binding becomes problematic and potentially toxic when and the effects of the synthetic chemical on the intracellular signaling pathways differ from the natural hormone intended for binding with the target receptor[10].

Regulating Parabens

In COMMISSION REGULATION (EU) No 358/2014 of 9 April 2014
amending Annexes II and V to Regulation (EC) No 1223/2009 of the European Parliament and of the Council on Cosmetic Products, extreme and stringent limits were set on the use of parabens to either 0.4% or 0.8% dependant upon the molecular form[11].
In a unilateral move Demark outright banned propylparaben and butylparaben, in all forms for use by children under three years of age based on the risks of endocrine disruption[12].

The Breast Cancer Link

While regulators have deemed extremely low concentrations of parabens in cosmetic products to be “safe,” breast cancer research challenges their hypothesis by demonstrating that parabens are able to accumulate within the body, meaning, that even if effects are “weak” and even when used in small concentrations bioaccumulation within the human body can occur, that is to say, the more one uses it, the more of it is collected and stored in human tissues[13].

Detailed studies have enabled the identification and measurement of high concentrations of different types of parabens in twenty samples taken from human breast tumors analyzed using high-pressure liquid chromatography followed by tandem mass spectrometry[13].

Comparison of individual parabens showed that while  methylparaben has not been identified as being of the most potent parabens in competitive binding it was found to be present at the highest level within tissue samples, representing 62% of the total paraben content identified in tumor samples taken from breast cancer patients[13,16].


Further information concerning the safety of parabens has yet to emerge as in-depth studies on the topic are lacking. Despite the protestation of many concerned doctors and scientists, FDA Regulators have permitted the use of parabens in both cosmetics and foods despite admittedly lacking information necessary to be able to assess its long term toxicity respective to it’s potential  carcinogenicity, estrogenicity or other yet to be discovered hazards [17].

Look for products that are paraben-free, they often possess a logo similar to the below:


Further Reading: The Dirty Dozen “Parabens”




[1]“TAHA International Inc. recalls Shakeel Bhai Mehandi Waley …” Government of Canada Recall & Safety Alerts, Government of Canada, 11 Apr. 2017,,5045.1.

[2] Neeraj, Verma, et al. “Retention of Color Intensity in Henna Paste During Storage.” Natural Product Radiance, vol. 7, no. 2, 2008, pp. 117–121.

[3] Underwood, Mitya. “Henna linked to leukaemia in women.” The National, The National, 9 May 2010,

[4] Singh, Shweta. “Mehendi cones may carry harmful ingredients – Times of India.” The Times of India, City, 12 Aug. 2010,

[5] Mailonline, Sophie Inge For. “’I’m never touching hair dye again’: Woman claims she was an ‘hour from death’ after she developed BLOOD POISONING following a severe reaction to a home colouring kit.” Daily Mail Online, Associated Newspapers, 27 Mar. 2017,

[6] Chris Brooke for the Daily Mail. “Coroner attacks cosmetics firms after mother died of massive allergic reaction to her L’Oreal hair dye.” Daily Mail Online, Associated Newspapers, 20 Feb. 2015,


[8] Source: Ingredient Labels from popular brands of “white henna”

[9] Routledge, Edwin J., et al. “Some Alkyl Hydroxy Benzoate Preservatives (Parabens) Are Estrogenic.” Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology, vol. 153, no. 1, 1998, pp. 12–19., doi:10.1006/taap.1998.8544.

[10] U.S. FDA. Parabens. (last update Oct 31, 2007).

[11] United States, Congress, “COMMISSION REGULATION (EU) No 1004/2014.” COMMISSION REGULATION (EU) No 1004/2014, Official Journal of the European Union, 2018.

[12] DHI Water and Environment. Study on Enhancing the Endocrine Disrupter Priority List with a Focus on Low Production Volume Chemicals. Revised Report to DG Environment. Hersholm, Denmark: DHI, 2007.

[13] Okubo, T., et al. “ER-Dependent estrogenic activity of parabens assessed by proliferation of human breast cancer MCF-7 cells and expression of ERα and PR.” Food and Chemical Toxicology, vol. 39, no. 12, 2001, pp. 1225–1232., doi:10.1016/s0278-6915(01)00073-4.

[14] Darbre PD and Harvey PW. “Paraben esters: review of recent studies of endocrine toxicity, absorption, esterase and human exposure, and discussion of potential human health risks.” J Appl Toxicol.28, 5 (Jul 2008):561-78.

[15] O.H. et al (2006) Methylparaben potentiates UV-induced damage of skin keratinocytes, ScienceDirect, Toxicology, Volume 227, Issues 1-2, 3 pages 62-72

[16] Harvey, Philip W. “Parabens, oestrogenicity, underarm cosmetics and breast cancer: a perspective on a hypothesis.” Journal of Applied Toxicology, vol. 23, no. 5, 2003, pp. 285–288., doi:10.1002/jat.946.

[17] Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. “Ingredients – Parabens in Cosmetics.” U S Food and Drug Administration Home Page, Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition,



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