Propylparaben - The Dermatology Review




What is propylparaben?

Propylparaben is a preservative that is used in the formulation of cosmetics and personal care products in order to extend the shelf-life by preventing microbial contamination.

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Propylparaben in food

Did you know that propylparaben naturally occurs in some fruit and vegetable products, such as barley, flax seed, and grapes? It is a member of the class of compounds known as parabens. Other common parabens include methylparaben, ethylparaben, and butylparaben. Parabens are found in plants in the form of p-hydroxybenzoic acid (PHBA), a chemical that breaks down to become parabens in order to protect the plant. In fact, the parabens used in cosmetics are identical to those found in nature. If parabens are absorbed through the skin, the human body can quickly metabolize them to PHBA and eliminate them.

In addition to its natural occurrence in some fruits and vegetables, propylparaben may also be added to food for preservation. Typical food products which contain parabens for preservation include beer, sauces, desserts, soft drinks, jams, pickles, frozen dairy products, processed vegetables and flavoring syrups.

Propylparaben in skin care

At one time, parabens were the most widely used group of preservatives in cosmetic products. Parabens were so popular because of their gentle, non-sensitizing, and highly effective profile in comparison to other preservatives. However, the use of parabens is now controversial due to their alleged relation to health concerns, which we will discuss below. 


Propylparaben functions as a preservative in cosmetics and personal care products. In most formulations, parabens are used at very low levels ranging from 0.01 to 0.3%. The use of preservatives is necessary to prevent microbial contamination, as well as to prevent degradation by environmental factors such as heat, light, and air. 

Cosmetics have a high potential for microbial contamination and growth. The most susceptible products are creams and lotions that are packaged in jars, opened frequently, and applied to the skin with the fingers. Inadvertent contamination may also occur after the use of makeup brushes around the eyes or other parts of the face that touch the skin and the cosmetic repeatedly. Each use increases the chance for contamination. Furthermore, contamination may occur if the consumer leaves a product container open for an extended period of time. 

Another major cause of product contamination is storage conditions. Since the majority of products are stored at room temperature, the warm temperature can stimulate the growth of microorganisms. Plus, the ingredients used in cosmetic formulations, such as water, oils, peptides, and carbohydrates, create the perfect environment for microorganism growth. 

Microbial contamination can lead to significant health problems, from skin irritation to infections. To avoid these problems, a strong yet non-irritating preservative must be added to the formulation of a product. propylparaben fits both of these criteria. 

The possible dangers of propylparaben

Now that you know why propylparaben is used in skin care, you’re probably wondering: is propylparaben safe? This is a question on the minds of many consumers due to numerous beauty brands making sure to label their products as “paraben free”.  Over the past 10 years, parabens have become criticized for use in cosmetics due to research that has revealed their potential relation to health concerns. However, the research on parabens is conflicting and polarizing. Below we’ll discuss a few of the possible dangers of propylparaben. 

Propylparaben and cancer

The concern started when a 2004 study linked parabens in deodorant to breast cancer. This link seemed plausible since parabens can mimic human estrogen and it is known that high estrogen levels stimulate the growth of cancer cells. However, the study has since been discredited and the American Cancer Society has concluded that there is insufficient scientific evidence of parabens increasing breast cancer risk. Furthermore, a 2005 study published in the journal Critical Reviews of Toxicology concluded that, “it is biologically implausible that parabens could increase the risk of any estrogen-mediated endpoint, including effects on the male reproductive tract or breast cancer.” 

Propylparaben allergy

Another concern with propylparaben and other parabens is the possibility of allergic reaction. However, the actual incidence of propylparaben allergy and true allergic contact dermatitis to parabens is very low (less than 2 percent). They are also considered to be gentle and non-irritating. The one instance when parabens can cause problems is with inflamed skin. This is known as the “Paraben Paradox”. Essentially, parabens almost never cause a problem on normal skin, but can cause allergic dermatitis when used on active skin disease, such as wounds or eczema. This is why parabens are never used to preserve topical hydrocortisone creams or antibiotic ointments.

Is propylparaben safe?

Other research indicates that parabens are safe as used in cosmetics and preferred since they are gentle, non-sensitizing, and highly effective. Furthermore, these studies have demonstrated that parabens did not have any effect when compared to natural hormones in the body. In fact, parabens were found to be beneficial due to their ability to deter the growth of mold, fungi, and other harmful pathogens.

Overall, the cosmetics industry has determined that the low levels of parabens used in cosmetic products are safe. The FDA finds that while parabens can mimic estrogen, the actual effects of this low level of activity on the body do not cause cancer in a higher incidence than naturally occurring estrogen. 

Using propylparaben safely

Remember from above that the typical concentration of parabens used in cosmetics in 0.01 up to 0.3 percent. If you’re wondering if these levels are large enough to have a negative impact on your body, there’s little reason to be concerned. However, if you combine eye shadow, mascara, foundation, and other skin care products that contain propylparaben, you may be exposing your skin to higher-than-normal levels of the ingredient.

To combat this problem, start reading label ingredients when you shop for cosmetics. Choose only one or two products that contain propylparaben or make an effort to avoid combining items that contain it. You can also supplement your cosmetics collection with all natural products that do not include anything synthetic, including propylparaben.

References: J Appl Toxicol 2004 Jul-Aug;24(4):301-3, Crit Rev Toxicol 2005 Jun;35(5):435-58, American Cancer Society “Antiperspirants and Breast Cancer Risk”

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