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Chemistry

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What is Methylparaben?

Karyn Maier
By
Updated: May 21, 2024

Methylparaben is a member of the paraben family, a group of compounds that possess antibacterial and antifungal properties. These agents are esters of para-hydroxybenzoic acid, which is why they’re collectively called parabens. However, in contrast to its cousins, ethylparaben, butylparaben, and propylparaben, methylparaben receives its specific name owing to the fact that its chemical structure contains the methyl alkyl group.

Due to its antimicrobial properties, methylparaben is used extensively as a water-soluble preservative in many foods, beverages, pharmaceuticals, and personal care products. Although it is usually synthesized in a laboratory for this purpose, it is essentially identical in molecular structure to the same compound that occurs in nature. In fact, most plants synthesize para-hydroxybenzoic acid into parabens as a defense mechanism to thwart attacks from bacteria and fungi. Those that are known to produce this substance specifically include wintergreen, birthwort, and blueberries.

Advocates of organic and natural foods and cosmetics have expressed concerns over the use of parabens in consumer products for years, but there is little evidence to warrant it. While it is true that methylparaben is readily absorbed through the skin as well as in the intestinal tract, it is converted back into para-hydroxybenzoic acid and quickly excreted through urine. In fact, the only negative side effects that have been documented are contact dermatitis and skin sensitivity, both occurring with rare frequency and only in reaction to very high concentrations of test material.

There is even less evidence to support the persistent belief that methylparaben is carcinogenic and oestrogenic. Numerous studies involving humans have consistently demonstrated that para-hydroxybenzoic acid is non-toxic. In addition, a great number of plants and fruits contain constituents that exhibit far more oestrogenic activity than methylparaben, including clover, apple, cabbage, potato, carrot, wheat, and scores of others.

In terms of environmental impact, methylparaben is completely and readily biodegradable. As might be expected, it is degraded into para-hydroxybenzoic acid by exposure to water, sunlight, and microscopic organisms in the soil. In addition, the degradation of this substance actually helps to remove toxic phenols from the surrounding environment. This is possible because bacteria belonging to the Enterobacteriaceae family feed off of the carbon molecules in methylparaben, which leaves phenol as a by-product. Another strain of bacterium known as Pseudomonas consume the leftover phenol for energy by breaking the substance down into harmless carbon compounds.

Some of the synthetic alternatives to using methylparaben as a preservative do not share the same positive qualities noted here. For example, thimerosal has been used in vaccines, although it has been eliminated or reduced to very small amounts in most. Thimerosal has been shown to be a neurotoxin and accumulates in the fatty tissue of marine life. Beyond a small potential for skin sensitivity to develop, no detrimental effects have been found from using methylparaben to preserve vaccines or other injection medicines.

All The Science is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Karyn Maier
By Karyn Maier
Contributing articles to All The Science is just one of Karyn Maier's many professional pursuits. Based in New York's Catskill Mountain region, Karyn is also a magazine writer, columnist, and author of four books. She specializes in topics related to green living and botanical medicine, drawing from her extensive knowledge to create informative and engaging content for readers.
Discussion Comments
By anon997500 — On Jan 17, 2017

@Post 8, you better stay away from blueberries then. They have methylparaben! Methylparaben is safe and is allowed in the EU and the US.

By anon924649 — On Jan 06, 2014

I am very disappointed that you are touting methylparaben to be a safe preservative in products that are to be ingested. I would not want it on my skin, let alone in a product that is to be ingested.

By anon340986 — On Jul 07, 2013

Is it safe to use gels in the vaginal area that have methylparaben as an ingredient?

By anon335489 — On May 21, 2013

Methylparaben is the least concerning paraben. The parabens with longer side chains do have a (very) weak estrogenic effect, but it diminishes with side chain length and with methylparaben, it's highly questionable whether it remains at all.

Methylparaben occurs widely in nature, including in commonly consumed fruits and berries, like blueberries.

Parabens have been found in breast tumors, but it's not clear that they actually cause the tumors. It's not unusual for tumors to just accumulate various substances that happen to be around.

As for the estrogenic activity of most parabens, it is a concern to some degree. But there are more potent xenoestrogens around than parabens, particularly phytoestrogens that occur in a wide variety of commonly consumed plants -- soy being just one example.

And finally, parabens are not banned in Europe (I guess you mean the EU). There is a limit on paraben content, but that's about it.

Denmark does have a ban on four of the parabens in products for children under the age of three, but methylparaben is not one of the banned parabens, specifically because it doesn't have an estrogenic effect.

By anon328003 — On Apr 01, 2013

I have a pretty severe allergy to methylparabens/parabens, including dermatitis. I had to go to the ER twice because it was in hair dye I used, and it made my head ooze and I broke out in rashes on my neck and ears. Methylparaben had been found in breast tissue samples taken from women with breast cancer. I had Stage IV endometriosis, which was more than likely caused by all the products I used/consumed with man-made chemicals, which lead to a hysterectomy. At age 39. They are definitely endocrine-disrupting and cause problems. Europe has banned parabens, so why doesn't the U.S.?

There is a direct link between reproductive problems and the products we use. Why, why, why does the FDA continue to ignore the truth? (rhetorical, of course, we all know major corporations are the reason).

By anon303050 — On Nov 13, 2012

Parabens are estrogenic and mimic estrogen in the body. There is a directly link to hormonal levels in the body and cancer spread and survival; it is the foundation of estrogen and progesterone use in the treatment of cancer that is ER receptors. As an estrogen, parabens feed the cancer cells and increased the spread and resistance to treatment such as chemo. They are absorbed quickly into the skin and act like estrogen. So there's no denying, parabens are not safe for human use; it can cost us our life.

By behaviourism — On Jan 11, 2011

@medicchristy, I suppose even an additive or preservative that is mostly natural and biodegradable could still be damaging to the body's natural procedures if a person consumes too much of it. This is why I try to avoid preservatives in my foods; even the seemingly "safe" ones are not very safe.

By medicchristy — On Jul 27, 2010

According to the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), there is much concern about parabens. Apparently, the concerns are focused at the fact that parabens have been proven to have endocrine-disrupting effects.

Karyn Maier
Karyn Maier
Contributing articles to All The Science is just one of Karyn Maier's many professional pursuits. Based in New York's...
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