Do I Have an Allergy to Parabens?

Published: June 6, 2007

Q. I get severe skin breakouts to parabens. They seem to be in so many cosmetics, body creams and sunblocks. Can you tell me what parabens are, what causes this allergy and what I can do to avoid them?

Dr. Skotnicki: Parabens are one of the most commonly used preservatives in the cosmetic and toiletry industry as well as in the food industry. They are so widely used because – contrary to what most people believe – they are one of the best and least reactive preservatives.

With the new wave of using everything natural, they get a bad name because they are synthetic preservatives. The actual incidence of true allergic contact dermatitis to parabens is very low, less than 2 per cent. They are also not very irritating. So it is unlikely that the skin reactions you are having are related to parabens.

The one area where parabens can cause problems is with inflamed skin. This is known as the “Paraben Paradox”. In essence, 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.

What is more common to cause both allergic and irritant skin reaction or dermatitis is the fragrance added to toiletry products. Fragrance is still the number one cause of allergic contact dermatitis to toiletry products, with an incidence of about 4 per cent within the North American population. It would be wise to see a dermatologist to figure out whether fragrance is behind your breakouts.

Send your sensitive skin questions to: [email protected]. For more information see

Submit a Question