An Overview of Parabens and Allergic Contact Dermatitis

Farhaan Hafeez, BA, MS; Howard Maibach, MD


Skin Therapy Letter. 2013;18(5) 

In This Article

Abstract and Introduction


Esters of p-hydroxybenzoic acid (parabens) are the most widely used preservatives in cosmetic, pharmaceutical, and industrial products. However, since the 1960s, controversy has surrounded its use and safety as a potential cause of allergic contact dermatitis. Despite the cloud of suspicion that has hovered over parabens ever since, these ubiquitous compounds have withstood four decades of extensive skin testing conducted by a variety of organizations, both North American and European, and now, it seems parabens have shown to be one of the least sensitizing preservatives in commercial use. Of the very limited reports of paraben-induced allergic contact dermatitis, these cases are often attributable to the application of parabens on damaged skin.


Esters of p-hydroxybenzoic acid (parabens) were first used in the 1920s as antibacterial and antifungal agents, however, not long after they were being incorporated as preservatives for foods, drugs, and cosmetics.[1] Parabens are popular preservatives found in creams, pastes, beauty products, glues, fats, and oils because, in addition to having a broad spectrum of antimicrobial activity, they are colorless, odorless, stable, and inexpensive.[2] Despite formulary advances, alternative preservatives to parabens for commercial topical applications remain limited. Since the 1960s, controversy has surrounded their use and safety with regards to allergic contact dermatitis. The concern over the possible hazards of topical parabens has yet to fully subside, which is a significant obstacle considering they are the most widely used preservatives in cosmetic, pharmaceutical, and industrial products.[2] As a result, apprehension over the possibility of paraben-induced allergic contact dermatitis persist.[3–7] The much publicized scrutiny not only questions their role as contact allergens, but also implicates them as potential endocrine disruptors, hence, herein we reexamine paraben contact allergy as a follow up to our lab's previous overview.[8] This review does not address the important but separate controversy regarding the possible endocrine disrupting effects of parabens and their metabolites, which is reviewed elsewhere.[9–12] A recent discussion by Kirchhof et al. discusses the more complex issue of parabens and their association with endocrine disruption.[9]