What Are Parabens In Skincare?

From moisturizers and soaps to cosmetics and deodorant, most people use some skincare products on a regular basis. Yet more than ever, shoppers prefer to support brands using the label "paraben-free" on their products. Parabens are commonly found in many kinds of beauty products, but here we are specifically looking at skincare. It seems everywhere you look there are beauty brands claiming to have the ideal combination of ingredients in their products – most avoiding parabens altogether.


As the largest organ of the body, it's important to know what you're putting on your skin every day and what you may want to avoid. With many beauty brands avoiding parabens, it's logical to assume that parabens may be harmful in some capacity to our health. Yet if you ask most people, many are not able to tell you what parabens are, and why they have found their way onto the beauty naughty list. Let's take a deep dive into the world of parabens to clear up the confusion and help you make an informed decision next time you're browsing the beauty aisle.

Why are parabens used in skincare products?

According to WebMD, parabens have been added to skincare products since the 1920s as preservatives to prolong shelf life by staving off microorganisms. The last thing you want in your favorite tinted moisturizer is harmful bacteria, yeast, or mold – so parabens were created in an effort to avoid this unwanted growth. These man-made chemicals create stability in our cosmetics and personal care items.


Actually, parabens are found in more than just skincare items. According to the CDC, they can also be found in the foods we eat, drinks, pharmaceuticals, hair-care products, and many more everyday goods we ingest or use on our bodies. Since our skin is front and center in our lives, it makes sense that we want to be well-informed regarding the skincare advice we seek on the internet. For credible skincare advice, follow reputable dermatologists on Instagram and always do your research before heading to your nearest Ulta.

How to tell if your skincare contains parabens

So, how do you know if your skincare products contain parabens? You may think that it's sufficient enough to spot that "paraben-free" label on the front of the bottle, but it's always best to do a bit more research before making that purchase. It's important to note that, per the FDA, cosmetics have to list all of their ingredients if they are sold to consumers online or in stores. So if you want to know whether your favorite eye cream contains parabens, you should be able to find that information on the bottle or box.


To get more in-depth with it, you may find six common parabens listed on the back of your skincare product: methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben, isopropylparaben, butylparaben, and isobutylparaben (via WebMD). If you're ever in doubt, look for the word "paraben" at the end of the chemical name listed on the product. Don't be surprised if you find products that contain multiple parabens listed together in the ingredients section.

Parabens and your health

The jury is still out on any concrete evidence telling us whether parabens are safe or unsafe to use in our skincare routines. The FDA currently doesn't have any laws banning the use of parabens in cosmetics or personal care items. However, they do note that some deodorant brands have taken it upon themselves to ditch parabens in their products altogether. This doesn't apply to every deodorant brand out there, so make sure you do your own research when shopping for that specific item.


A 2021 study published in Applied Sciences discusses the fact that parabens can act as "hormone disruptors" or endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs). The findings specifically refer to the possible link between parabens and increased risk of breast tumors, as well as "problems related with reproductive systems due to the endocrine disruptive action." However, the authors acknowledge the need for further studies to prove if there should be any bans on parabens in the U.S.

Parabens banned in other countries

While the FDA doesn't ban parabens in our skincare (or any product), the same can't be said for Europe. Due to their possible endocrine-disrupting behavior, in 2014 the European Commission altogether banned five parabens: isopropylparaben, isobutylparaben, phenylparaben, benzylparaben, and pentylparaben. The E.U. also placed more restrictions on just how much butylparaben and propylparaben are allowed in products.


In 2011, Denmark banned "parabens in cosmetic products intended for children" specifically children under three years old. Additionally, in 10 Southeast Asian countries, parabens have been banned for use in personal care items. Moreover, Japan also restricts companies from using propyl- and butylparaben in their products.

While health advocates continue to pressure the FDA to place more regulations on parabens in the U.S., it's up to consumers to do their own research. The best way to do this is by reading the labels on your skincare items and looking for cleaner alternatives.

Alternatives to parabens

Most products contain some preservatives to prolong the time on the shelf and avoid unwanted bacteria. This doesn't mean you don't have options when it comes to paraben-free products, especially as brands get savvier in creating cleaner products. There are many skincare companies emerging with paraben-free formulas available. A few include Burt's Bees, Clinique, WELEDA, Naturopathica, Real Purity, Aveeno, and most bareMinerals products. In recent years, we've seen a rise in cleaner, more natural beauty brands. In order to ensure that products don't contain any nasty germs, companies are looking at safer alternative preservatives.


Another essential piece of information on the product you should be checking is the expiration date. Due to the popularity of all-natural and organic products, the shelf-life may be shorter than conventional products using chemical preservatives. Therefore, the importance of expiration dates on natural beauty products cannot be overstated, so be sure to check every product before using it.

The controversy of parabens

While continued research is still being done on the health effects of parabens in skincare, the general public is left with few definitive answers. According to The Derm Review, although parabens can act as hormone disruptors in the body (meaning they mimic estrogen), they "do not cause cancer in a higher incidence than naturally occurring estrogen." Because there has been so much debate over parabens, more skincare companies are choosing to leave them out in order to avoid controversy altogether. 


The question remains, what if your favorite skincare line contains parabens? To ease your mind, the typical paraben concentration used in cosmetics is 0.01 to 0.3 percent. So while there is not an outright ban on parabens in personal care items, the U.S. does regulate how much is used, which is rather low concentrations. Because parabens act as preservatives to ward off contamination and growth, you have to decide if the risk of microbes in your skincare is a better choice.