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Endocrine Disruptors V: Parabens in Cosmetics

May 20, 2009

By Kathryn Au

Skin care products in our bathroom shelves may be doing more harm to our health than good. That’s because most of these products contain parabens, a group of chemicals that are used as preservatives. Parabens are used to prevent the growth of bacteria and fungus in a variety of household products. In other words, they make products last longer. They are cheap to produce and effective as preservatives, so companies use them in literally thousands of products. You can find parabens everywhere: in cosmetic products like makeup, lipstick, and nail products; in hygiene products like hand lotions, sunscreen, deodorant, soaps, shampoo, and toothpastes; and in many food products like processed foods, condiments, soft drinks, fruit juices, and ice cream.

Parabens pose a potential health danger because they are endocrine disruptors—they interfere with the proper functioning of the endocrine system, which controls the production and release of hormones. Parabens mimic estrogen, and scientists are concerned that this may increase the risk for breast cancer. According to experiments on laboratory mice, they also affect testosterone levels and lower sperm counts [1,2]. In a small number of people parabens can also cause allergic skin reactions, especially when applied repeatedly on damaged skin like leg ulcers [3].

People come into contact with parabens when they eat or drink certain foods or when they apply paraben containing products like lotion to their skin. When eaten, parabens are quickly processed and excreted. However, they may stay in our bodies longer when absorbed through our skin. Studies show that parabens bind to estrogen when applied to the skin or injected directly under it, but not when eaten [4]. Parabens are fat-loving chemicals, so they build up in our fatty tissues.

One study looked at twenty breast cancer tumors and found a type of paraben in almost every single one of them [5]. Of course, it did not compare them to the level of parabens in normal breast tissue, so it does not necessarily mean that parabens are associated with breast cancer in any way. Still, it does show that parabens can linger in our body. The idea is that parabens in products used on the armpit are building up in breast tissue. That could explain why breast cancer tumors most often occur in the area of the breast closest to the armpit [6]. Deodorants, shaving creams, hair removal creams, and body creams all might contain parabens.

Breast cancer is the leading cause of cancer deaths in Native American women. While Native American women have lower rates of breast cancer than Caucasian women, they are more likely to be diagnosed during a later stage of development of the cancer [7]. Awareness of the risk factors and early detection of the disease may help protect women from dying from it.

Luckily for consumers, some companies are becoming aware of the concerns over the possible health effects of parabens, so it is possible to find paraben-free products. The key to reducing exposure to parabens is looking at the ingredients list of body care products, which are usually on the back of bottles or packaging boxes.

  • Some deodorants and other products will actually say “paraben-free” on the front.
  • Parabens can be recognized by words ending in “-paraben” or by really long words beginning with “para-” and having “-ben-“ in the middle, like “parahydroxybenzoic acid” or “parahydroxybenzoate.”

For further information:


[1] Oishi, S. 2002. Effects of propylparaben on the male reproductive system. Food and Chemical Toxicology 40(12): 1807-1813. DOI: 10.1016/S0278-6915(02)00204-1
[2] Oishi, S. 2001. Effects of butylparaben on the male reproductive system in rats. Toxicology and Industrial Health 17(1): 31-39. DOI: 10.1191/0748233701th093oa
[3] Cashman, A. L., Warshaw, E. M. Parabens: A review of epidemiology, structure, allergenicity, and hormonal properties. 2005. Dermatitis 16(2): 57-66.
[4] Snedeker, S. M. 2004. Five types of parabens detected intact in human breast tumors. Cornell University Program on Breast Cancer and Environmental Risk Factors. The Ribbon 9(1): 1-2, 9. Retrieved from the World Wide Web: envirocancer.cornell.edu/newsletter/pdf/v9i1.pdf
[5] Darbre, P. D., Aljarra, A., Miller, W. R., Coldham, N. G., Sauer, M. J., Pope, G. S. Concentrations of Parabens in Human Breast Tumours. Journal of Applied Toxicology 24(1): 5-13.
[6] Vince, G. (2004, January 12). Cosmetic chemicals found in breast tumors. New Scientist. Retrieved from http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn4555-cosmetic-chemicals-found-in-breast-tumours.html
[7] Wingo, P. A., King, J., Swan, J., Coughlin, S. S., Kaur, J. S., Erb-Alvarez, J. A., Jackson-Thompson, J., Arambula Solomon, T. G. 2008. Breast cancer incidence among American Indian and Alaska Native women: US, 1999-2004. Cancer 113(5 Suppl): 1191-1202.


The Native American Community Board (NACB) works to protect the health and human rights of Indigenous Peoples pertinent to our communities through cultural preservation, education, coalition building, community organizing, reproductive justice, environmental justice, and natural resource protection while working toward safe communities for women and children at the local, national, and international level.

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