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Definition of Paraben

By Amy Lucas ; Updated April 18, 2017

Parabens are common ingredients found in cosmetics, food additives and drugs. Defined as a group of chemical compounds that act as preservatives, parabens are esters of para-hydroxybenzoic acid. Esters such as parabens are widely used as solvents in cosmetics, and are formed when an acid molecule bonds with an alcohol molecule.

Paraben Production

Parabens are prevalent in such naturally occurring vegetables and fruits as barley, carrots, strawberries, black currants, peaches, onions, cocoa beans and vanilla. To ensure product effectiveness and consistency, however, parabens found in cosmetics, food and drugs are synthetically produced.

Parabens in Cosmetics

Cosmetics are vulnerable to bacterial attack and fungi growth, which contaminate the product. Parabens defend against the spread of harmful microorganisms, protecting the product from spoilage. Parabens are found in toiletries such as shampoo, toothpaste, makeup, self-tanner, moisturizers, deodorants, antiperspirants and shaving cream. Parabens are easy to spot in an ingredient list; just look for the paraben suffix. Common parabens include methyl, ethyl, propyl, butyl, isopropyl and isobutylparaben. Multiple parabens are typically used to increase efficiency and protect against product contamination.

Parabens in Food and Pharmaceuticals

Parabens are typically used as preservatives in meat products, cereals, chips, nuts, soft drinks and sweets, among others. Methyl and propyl parabens are the most commonly used parabens in food. Parabens have been used in pharmaceuticals since the mid 1900s and are a common ingredient in pills, contraceptives, syrups and injectable drugs.

Paraben Health Concerns

The label “paraben-free” is popping up on many products, calling attention to the purported dangers of paraben use. Parabens have been linked to cancer due to their estrogenic properties. The Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) notes some studies have shown that when used in very high doses in cell cultures and female mice, parabens copy the female sex endocrine hormone estrogen through a process called endocrine disruption. Research has suggested that endocrine disruption may lead to an increased risk of breast cancer. However, the Food and Drug Administration, along with the National Cancer Institute and American Cancer Society, discount these findings as inconclusive. According to the FDA, parabens are 100,000 times weaker than the estrogen the body generates naturally, much too weak to warrant paraben safety concerns.

Safety of Parabens

The FDA has rated parabens as GRAS (Generally Regarded As Safe) for use in food and cosmetics, and the European Commission has also rendered parabens safe for use in cosmetics. In 1984, the CIR declared paraben usage safe in cosmetics at concentrations of less than 25 percent. Parabens are typically used at a level of .01 percent to .3 percent in cosmetics, food and drugs. CIR reviewed its assessment in 2005 based on new data and research findings, but upon evaluation it found its original assessment that parabens are safe for use in cosmetics to hold true.

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