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Parabens in Skin Care Products and Skin Cancer

parabens in skin care products and skin cancer ask a dermatologist
Parabens in skin care products and skin cancer concern is just one of the many controversies regarding parabens. A reader sent me this question about parabens and it's worth sharing. Parabens are a concern to many people for a number or reasons. But, what's true and how dangerous are they? Here's my answer to this reader.
Hello Dr Bailey,
I love your blog and have changed my skin care regimen to include many of the products you recommend.  I was wondering what your thoughts are about methylparaben causing increased damage in sun exposed skin. (see article "Methylparaben potentiates UV-induced damage of skin keratinocytes" by O Handa et al, 2006).

Is this a real concern and should we avoid moisturizers containing this ingredient, or will simply using a sunscreen and antioxidant make up for this problem?

Thanks, Brent C

Dear Brent,

This is an excellent question!  I love that you're thinking about skin care with the same level of detail that I do. Regarding the Handa paper in 2006 Toxicology, the authors studied keratinocytes (the cells which make up the outer living layer of our skin and which can become precancerous actinic keratosis, squamous cell carcinoma and basal cell carcinoma) in vitro (in a petri dish).  This type of study is much like the retinyl palmitate/UV study that was so popular in the media this summer. 

Are laboratory studies enough to change your skin care choices?

My opinion, and please note that this is my opinion, is that in vitro (petri dish) studies are interesting and need to be followed up by in vivo studies using intact skin (ideally real living skin on real living human beings). - Dermatologist Dr. Cynthia Bailey

I would not alter what I feel is a scientifically sound and good therapy based on these two studies because our body's 'intact skin' is a miracle of complex interrelationships between the keratinocytes and many other cells, with biochemical reactions, unique structural elements etc. 

Drawing conclusions about the skin on our bodies from a study of keratinocytes in a petri dish without all this other good stuff is akin to drawing a conclusion about a long document by reading one sentence, which may even have been taken out of context. So, the results of these studies are interesting and warrant in vivo study.  However, years of paraben usage, and numerous other scientific studies over the past 50 or so years have failed to show any causal adverse effects from the use of parabens and UV exposure in humans.

Because your question about parabens is such a good one and a topic that I think is critically important, I wanted to also get the opinion of a skin product chemist that I greatly admire and this is what he said:

The FDA has been continually calling for scientific papers and studies regarding paraben safety (especially since it is a food preservative) and to date they have found no risk in using parabens. They (parabens) are the principle preservative used since World War II and even more compelling is the fact that epidemiological studies (studies on large groups of real people) have not shown increased risk from usage (of parabens). There is no definitive peer reviewed study (this is the kind of study that is really strong and respected by scientists and doctors) relating paraben and UV combination risk in humans.

That said, I am always 'keeping my ear to the ground' about parabens for both my patients, myself and my family.  I personally use products with parabens.  My family, friends and patients use products with parabens.  I'm super heath conscious and want to make sure that none of us jeopardize our health doing something risky that can be avoided. 

We try to avoid parabens at Dr. Bailey Skin Care

Here, where I live and practice, in Northern California there are a number of people who have decided that they want to avoid parabens. I want my paraben concerned patients to have peace of mind about their skin care. I help them as best I can to find high quality paraben free products that fit their budget and lifestyle, and that don't have 'bad' preservatives in them.

I believe that it's always important to 'follow our gut' in these situations because science can be wrong, moves slowly and peace of mind is important. Dr. Bailey

Skin care products need preservatives to prevent microbial growth that may be harmful

My personal conclusion, however, is that parabens are better than a number of the alternatives. There are some natural preservatives, but products made with them often don't last long once opened and are thus impractical for most of us. They are also typically very expensive because of their short shelf life.  I've tried a number of naturally preserved skin care products and I find that they go bad and smell 'off' quickly.

New preservatives have replaced parabens

Many of the products I sell (and have years of experience using) are paraben free. I originally wrote this article in 2010. Now, in 2023, most all of the products I sell are paraben free. Skin care science has made great strides in offering paraben alternatives. Consumers love this. Are the new preservatives really safer? Time will tell. The good news is that we have good choices now.

Brent, thank you for this fascinating and really 'juicy' question.

Warm Regards,

Cynthia Bailey MD, Dermatologist


Handa O, et. al, Methylparaben potentiates UV-induced damage of skin keratinocytes, Toxocology. 2006 Oct 3;227(1-2):62-72.

Final amended report on the safety assessment of Methylparaben, Ethylparaben, Propylparaben, Isopropylparaben, Butylparaben, Isobutylparaben, and Benzylparaben as used in cosmetic products. Int J Toxicol. 2008;27 Suppl 4:1-82

Disclaimer: Please realize that availing yourself of the opportunity to submit and receive answers to your questions from Dr. Bailey does not confer a doctor/patient relationship with Dr. Bailey. The information provided by Dr. Bailey is general health information inspired by your question. It should not be a substitute for obtaining medical advice from your physician and is not intended to diagnose or treat any specific medical problem (and is not an extension of the care Dr. Bailey has provided in her office for existing patients of her practice). Never ignore your own doctor’s advice because of something you read here; this information is for general informational purpose only.