Parabens (p-hydroxybenzoate esters) are a group of widely used preservatives in topically applied cosmetic and pharmaceutical products. Parabens display weak associations with the estrogen receptors in vitro or in cell based models, but do exhibit estrogenic effects in animal models. It is our hypothesis that parabens exert their estrogenic effects, in part, by elevating levels of estrogens through inhibition of estrogen sulfotransferases (SULTs) in skin. We report here the results of a structure-activity-relationship of parabens as inhibitors of estrogen sulfation in human skin cytosolic fractions and normal human epidermal keratinocytes. Similar to reports of paraben estrogenicity and estrogen receptor affinity, the potency of SULT inhibition increased as the paraben ester chain length increased. Butylparaben was found to be the most potent of the parabens in skin cytosol, yielding an IC(50) value of 37+/-5 microM. Butylparaben blocked the skin cytosol sulfation of estradiol and estrone, but not the androgen dehydroepiandrosterone. The parabens were also tested as inhibitors of SULT activity in a cellular system, with normal human epidermal keratinocytes. The potency of butylparaben increased three-fold in these cells relative to the IC(50) value from skin cytosol. Overall, these results suggest chronic topical application of parabens may lead to prolonged estrogenic effects in skin as a result of inhibition of estrogen sulfotransferase activity. Accordingly, the skin anti-aging benefits of many topical cosmetics and pharmaceuticals could be derived, in part, from the estrogenicity of parabens.