The Myth of “Natural” Parabens

Parabens are a class of chemicals used as preservatives in food, industrial products and personal care products, but most widely prevalent in cosmetics and personal care products. Nearly everyone is exposed to these compounds: the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tested more than 2,500 urine samples, and detected methyl paraben in 99 percent and propyl paraben in 93 percent.

Although parabens are classified as “generally recognized as safe” in foods by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, increasing evidence has drawn attention to their possible health risks, primarily their potential to disrupt the endocrine system, which can interfere with the normal functioning of hormones.

But some companies are trying to sidestep such health concerns. Recently, some makers of personal care products have claimed parabens are “natural,” found in healthful foods such as blueberries, carrots and olives. Even the CDC is chiming in, stating on its website that parabens “occur naturally in some foods, including specific fruit juices and wine.” The CDC cited a paper that asserted a widespread and natural occurrence of parabens in food—cloudberry, yellow passion fruit juice, white and naturally sweet wines, Bourbon vanilla—but provided no supporting references for such claims. Turns out that a company that specializes in getting chemical additives approved for use in food wrote the paper.

Intrigued, I dug into the scientific literature. I found a couple of studies that found methyl paraben in cloudberry and vanilla extract, but it’s a big exaggeration to say they are common in fruits and vegetables.

Most claims of naturally occurring parabens fail to provide a reference to a peer-reviewed scientific study to confirm their assertions. Scientific literature about natural sources of parabens is sparse. In contrast, there are many studies using sophisticated analytical techniques to examine the chemical constituents of certain items. In these studies -- listed in the table below -- no parabens are included in the chemicals found in blueberries and many other alleged natural sources of parabens.

This is not to say that parabens are completely absent from the natural world. Related molecules have been found to occur naturally in blueberries and some other plant species. Parabens differ from these molecules in that they contain chemicals called esters, which results in different chemical properties and characteristics.

Certain conditions favor conversion of related compounds into parabens, which may be how certain organisms may be able to produce certain types of parabens. These include a certain strain of Microbulbifer marine bacterium, which has been shown to produce types of parabens naturally.

Two studies that claimed to have found naturally occuring parabens, both from researchers at Colorado State University, were retracted several years after their publication.

The fact is that parabens do exist rarely in nature, but it is highly misleading to claim that they are a common constituent of fruits or vegetables. Meanwhile, a growing body of scientific evidence lends credence to health concerns from paraben exposure.

Companies have started responding to pressure from consumers and health advocates, and have taken voluntary steps to remove paraben compounds from their products. Despite this, there are still many products that contain parabens. Consumers can benefit from using EWG’s consumer guides to help minimize exposure to these chemicals in cosmetics and food.

Table of Studies

Food Study Results
Blueberry, black mulberry, black currant, blue-berried honeysuckle, European juneberry, blackberry Phenolic acid profiles in some small berries No parabens mentioned
Blueberry, blackberry Phenolic compounds and antioxidant capacity of Georgia-grown blueberries and blackberries No parabens mentioned
Blueberry, blackberry, strawberry Survey of antioxidant capacity and phenolic composition of blueberry, blackberry, and strawberry in Nanjing No parabens mentioned
Botrytized Wine Changes in wine aroma composition according to botrytized berry percentage: a preliminary study on amarone wine No parabens mentioned
Botrytized Wine Characterization of key-aroma compounds of botrytized wines, influence of grape botrytization. No parabens mentioned
Botrytized Wine Effects of noble rot on must composition and aroma profile of amarone wine produced by the traditional grape withering protocol. No parabens mentioned
Carrot Characterization and distribution of phenolics in carrot cell walls No parabens mentioned
Carrot Elicitor-induced changes in Ca2+ influx, K+ efflux, and 4-hydroxybenzoic acid synthesis in protoplasts of Daucus carota L. No parabens mentioned
Caucasian whortleberry Separation, characterization, and quantitation of phenolic acids in a little-known blueberry (vaccinium arctostaphylos L.) fruit by HPLC-MS. No parabens mentioned
Cloudberry Content of some organic acids in cloudberry (rubus chamaemorus L.) Found 0.1-0.4 mg/100g methylparaben and 0.1-0.6 mg/100g propylparaben
Cloudberry Supercritical fluid chromatography-gas chromatography of volatiles in cloudberry (rubus chamaemorus) oil extracted with supercritical carbon dioxide No parabens mentioned
Cloudberry The aroma of cloudberries (rubus chamaemorus L.). No parabens mentioned
Cucumber Accumulation of salicylic acid and 4-hydroxybenzoic acid in phloem fluids of cucumber during systemic acquired resistance is preceded by a transient increase in phenylalanine ammonia-lyase activity in petioles and stems. No parabens mentioned
Rabbiteye blueberry Chemical constituents of the leaves of rabbiteye blueberry (vaccinium ashei) and characterisation of polymeric proanthocyanidins containing phenylpropanoid units and A-type linkages. No parabens mentioned
Vanilla Comparison of headspace-SPME-GC–MS and LC–MS for the detection and quantification of coumarin, vanillin, and ethyl vanillin in vanilla extract products. No parabens mentioned
Vanilla GC–MS and GC–olfactometry analysis of aroma compounds in a representative organic aroma extract from cured vanilla (vanilla planifolia G. jackson) beans No parabens mentioned
Vanilla (Bourbon and Ugandan) Comparative analysis of volatiles in traditionally cured Bourbon and Ugandan vanilla bean (vanilla planifolia) extracts. Bourbon vanilla: 0.38 mg/kg methylparaben; Ugandan vanilla: 1.56 mg/kg methylparaben
Vanilla (Tahitian) Identification of the key odorants in Tahitian cured vanilla beans (vanilla tahitensis) by GC-MS and an aroma extract dilution analysis. No parabens mentioned
Vanilla (Tahitian)

Odor-active compounds of Tahitian vanilla flavor

No parabens mentioned
Wine A comparative study of sensor array and GC–MS: Application to Madrid wines characterization. No parabens mentioned
Wine Chemometrical development and comprehensive validation of a solid phase microextraction/gas chromatography–mass spectrometry methodology for the determination of important free and bound primary aromatics in Greek wines. No parabens mentioned
Wine GC-MS identification of volatile components of Galician (Northwestern Spain) white wines. Application to differentiate Rías Baixas wines from wines produced in nearby geographical regions. No parabens mentioned
Wine Impact odorants of Chardonnay dry white wine from Changli County (China). No parabens mentioned
Wine Volatile composition of Macedonian and Hungarian wines assessed by GC/MS No parabens mentioned
Wine Volatile profiles of sparkling wines obtained by three extraction methods and gas chromatography–mass spectrometry (GC–MS) analysis No parabens mentioned
Wine Wine flavor and aroma. No parabens mentioned
Yellow passionfruit Characterization of the aromatic profile in aqueous essence and fruit juice of yellow passion fruit (passiflora edulis sims F. flavicarpa degner) by GC-MS and GC/O. No parabens mentioned
Yellow passionfruit, cashew, tamarind, acerola, guava Screening of tropical fruit volatile compounds using solid-phase microextraction (SPME) fibers and internally cooled SPME fiber No parabens mentioned
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