This blog will soon be published also in English. Here is a first tasting of an older post titled ”Paheelliset parabeenit”. Enjoy!

Parabens are preservatives. They have an antimicrobial effect, they are water-soluble and cheap. They are widely used in cosmetics and hygiene products. Consumers have become aware of parabens especially after one manufacturer after another has begun to market their products as paraben free. I went through my cosmetics collection and found some examples:











Products in Niina’s cosmetics collection that advertise themselves as paraben free.

What has brought about this wide hostility against parabens and is it justified?

In the past, parabens were at first suspected to induce allergies. However, a greater fuss arose from proving the fact that the substances have weak oestrogenic activity, i.e. they act as natural oestrogens. However, this oestrogenic effect is several times lower than the effect of a natural oestrogen called oestradiol. The Finnish National Institute for Health and Welfare has written on its website:

“According to the general view of the authorities, use of parabens at the current exposure level does not cause any health risks, but we continue to monitor the situation.”

Parabens are weakly oestrogenic substances.

Oestrogenic effect is however no small thing. Even if individual substances are just weakly oestrogenic, a mixture of substances with a similar mechanism of action may cause reactions. This is true for both human beings and organisms in the environment. Residues of several oestrogenic substances, including parabens, have been identified in wastewater and surface water (Brausch et al. 2011).

In the environment, natural oestrogens as well as ethinylestradiol used in birth control pills is known to cause, for example, male fish to turn female. The effect is also visible in the production volumes of fish roe.In small concentration, oestrogens increase roe production; in large concentration, they decrease it (Pawlowski et al. 2004). This means that the effects of oestrogen on reproduction are remarkable.

Oestrogen load is influenced by all substances that have the same mechanism of action. In addition to parabens, there are also some musk fragrances and chemical UV screens that contain weakly oestrogenic substances. This means that the usage of such substances should be reduced if they are not strictly necessary.

The main source of parabens is cosmetic products, medicinal products and food.

Parabens are absorbed in the human body from creams and make-up that stay on the skin for a long time.Also medical ointments and liquid medicines may contain parabens. So it is no wonder that parabens have been found in human blood, urine and breast milk (e.g. Ye et al. 2006 and Lokhnauth et al. 2007). They have also been tested for and found in tumours in the breast area. This suggested connection to breast cancer is the one thing that has certainly alarmed consumers.

Parabens are breathed into the body with dust – a Spanish study showed that parabens are also present in indoor dust (Canosa et al. 2007).

Paraben residues have also been found in foodstuffs. In a study conducted in the United States, 267 foodstuff and beverage samples were analysed for parabens (Liao et al. 2013). Parabens were detected, with the concentrations from highest to lowest, in grains, beverages, dairy products, meat, vegetables, fats and oils, and fruits. The origin of parabens in foodstuffs is not clear. It has been suggested that they come from raw materials or packaging. Parabens are also allowed as food additives in some cases (more information on that may be found below). However, according to this study, the packaging method did not influence the paraben concentration. For example, paraben concentration was the same in preserved food and in fresh food.

In any case, the share of cosmetic products in our daily paraben exposure is the largest. The estimated daily dose of parabens is 76 mg, of which 50 mg comes from cosmetics and hygiene products, 25 mg from medicinal products and 1 mg from food. (Ye et al. 2006)

Why are parabens used?

Preservatives are naturally used for ensuring that the product will remain usable for the desired period. The preservation of cosmetic products is regulated in Article 5 of the Decree of the Finnish Ministry of Trade and Industry on Cosmetic Products (75/2005). This article stipulates two marking obligations:

1) If the shelf life of the product is no more than 30 months, the shelf life must be indicated with the best before marking and the expiry date or reference on the part of the package where the expiry date may be found must be displayed immediately next to the marking.

2) If the shelf life of the product exceeds 30 months, it is necessary to specify its period after opening, e.g. using the symbol of an open cosmetics pot and marking the useful lifetime after opening in months (M) in or beside the symbol:

“‘Period after opening’ means the period during which the preparation may be used without any harm to the person after opening the product, if the shelf life of the preparation exceeds 30 months;”

Of course, parabens are not the only preservatives used in cosmetics. A list of preservatives approved in the EU may be found on the European Commission Health and Consumers website.

Parabens are generally well-tolerated and hypoallergenic substances. Allergic reactions are usually caused by those preservatives that release formaldehyde. According to the website (in Finnish), those include:

Imidazolidinyl urea

Diazolidinyl urea

DMDM Hydantoin



Sodium Hydroxymethylglycinate

Tris (hydroxymethyl) Nitromethane



If you are known to have allergic reactions to formaldehyde, avoid products that contain the aforementioned preservatives!

Parabens are listed in the product ingredients

There are various types of parabens. Their INCI names, i.e. names that are used in labels, include the word PARABEN with the prefixes indicating the alkyl chain length:   METHYL-, ETHYL-, PROPYL-, BUTYL-, ISOBUTYL- etc. Methylparaben and propylparaben are the most commonly used substances in the cosmetics industry.

Some parabens have also been classified as food additives with the following E-numbers:

E218 methylparaben (i.e. methyl para-hydroxybenzoate)

E214 ethylparaben (i.e. ethyl para-hydroxybenzoate)

E216 propylparaben (i.e. propyl para-hydroxybenzoate)

According to the website (in Finnish), parabens may be used for the following: “surface treatment of dried meat products, sweets and salty snacks made of grains and potato.” Maximum usage limit is 10 milligrams per kilogram of body weight per day.

Is it sensible to avoid parabens?

It is established that parabens are weak oestrogenic substances and they are found in our bodies, our excretions, wastewater and surface water. According to common sense, it is sensible to avoid using parabens in order to avoid the chemical load on our bodies and our environment. But what will the industry use for replacing parabens is another interesting topic for discussion. After all, preservatives will always be needed in cosmetics, medicinal products and foodstuffs.