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Cosmetics, Parabens, and Breast Cancer

Subject: Cosmetics, Parabens, and Breast Cancer (article) Posted 9/6/04

From the Summer 2004 newsletter of the Women's Community Cancer Project
c/o the Women's Center, 46 Pleasant Street, Cambridge, MA 02139

Cosmetics, Parabens, and Breast Cancer
by Rita Arditti

Early this year the media reported that English researchers identified
parabens in samples of breast tumors. Parabens (alkyl esters of
p-hydroxybenzoic acid) are widely used as antimicrobial preservatives
in thousands of cosmetics, personal care products, pharmaceutical
products, and food. There are six commonly used forms (Methylparaben,
Ethylparaben, p-Propylparaben, Isobutylparaben, n-Butylparaben and
Benzylparaben) and it is estimated that they are used in at least
13,200 cosmetics products. According to the lead researcher of the
recent study, Philippa Darbre, an oncology expert at the university of
Reading, in Edinburgh, the chemical form of the parabens found in 18 of
the 20 tumors tested indicated that they originated from something
applied to the skin, the most likely candidates being deodorants,
antiperspirants, creams, or body sprays.

Breast cancer is the most common cancer among women, accounting for
nearly one of every three cancers diagnosed in U.S. women. For 2003,
it is estimated that 211,300 new cases of invasive breast cancer were
diagnosed in women with an additional 55,700 cases of in situ breast
cancer. For many years there have been rumors that underarm deodorants
and antiperspirants used by millions of women, mainly in the West,
might increase the risk of breast cancer. But most researchers thought
this idea seemed too far-fetched, the product of paranoid female minds,
typically substituting rational scientific thinking with
unsophisticated, primitive beliefs. Enter the late nineties. From
1998 on, reports started appearing stating that parabens had
estrogenic-like activity in mice, in rats, and in human breast cancer
cells in the lab. Since most breast cancers respond to estrogen the
link between deodorants and breast cancer did not seem so outlandish
anymore. So, currently, questioning the safety of applying
hormone-mimicking compounds to an areas so close to the breast appears
to have gained some legitimacy. In addition, estrogen/progesterone
Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) was found to significantly increase
breast cancer risk making the paraben/cancer connection even more

So what does the new study actually tell us? Up to now it was known
that parabens could be absorbed from the gastrointestinal tract or the
blood, metabolized, and eventually excreted in the urine. But now the
presence of intact parabens in tumor tissue shows that these chemicals
can not only be absorbed through the skin but can also persist and
accumulate in breast cancer tissue in their original form, without
being degraded. (when parabens are eaten they are degraded and lose
some of their constituents, making them less estrogen-like). This is
new information. We do not yet know how long they can persist and what
effects they might have. Because controls with normal breast tissue
were not done, we also don't know if comparable levels of parabens
would be found in normal tissue. Plus, the study did not identify the
route by which the parabens entered the body. In other words, thought
the chemical form of the parabens found suggests that the source was
probably underarm cosmetics, though this needs to be confirmed. (This
article does not say anything about the use of
deodorants/antiperspirants by the women in the study.)

Despite these limitations, this study represents an important first
step. Knowing that parabens can be absorbed through the skin and
retained in breast tissue is necessary in order to investigate the
causes and possible mechanisms of its action. The authors of this
study write in their paper: "This adds parabens to the list of
environmental estrogenic chemicals that can be found to accumulate in
the human breast and already includes polychlorinated byphenyls (PCBs)
and organochlorine pesticides (OCPs)." This also raises the issue of
possible interactions between all these chemicals and the influence
that might have on their toxicity.

In the last couple of years new and much needed work has been done
regarding the accumulation of chemicals in our bodies. The 2003
National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals released
by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) presents data
from 15 different geographic regions of the U.S. representing different
segments of the population including African Americans, Mexican
Americans, adolescents, pregnant women, children, and the elderly and
the findings regarding more than 100 toxic chemicals in their blood or
urine, reflecting the amount of a chemical in the environment that
actually gets in the body. The Report concludes that Americans are
exposed to a broad spectrum of hazardous chemicals that contaminate the
food we eat, the air we breathe, and the water we drink. These
chemicals are now in our tissues/fluids and while we do not know their
specific effects it does not seem too far-fetched to think that having
compounds like dioxins, persistent OCPs, herbicides, PCBs, PAHs
(polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons), phthalates, etc., in our bodies, is
potentially harmful. (For more information on this take a look at a
careful analysis of the report done by Physicians for Social
Responsibility at
It was particularly interesting to read in an article in Health Day
News, January 12, 2004 issue, that Darbre has been studying breast
cancer for over 20 years but in spite of that she could not get funding
for this study, " 'I was told I wouldn't find anything' she says. So,
she galvanized friends and colleagues in the medical community who
helped her gain access to analytic machinery and breast tissue." She
analyzed her samples with high pressure liquid chromatography followed
by tandem mass spectrometry, standard state of the art analytic
techniques. I have often heard the saying that researchers who dare to
"think outside the box" have a hard time getting support for their
work. this case would certainly confirm that view.

Darbre also pointed out in an interview with the New Scientist
(January 12, 2004) that: "One would expect tumors to occur evenly, with
20 percent arising in each of the five areas of the breast. But these
results help explain why up to 60 percent of all breast tumors are
found in just one-fifth of the breast, the upper-outer quadrant,
nearest the underarm." This fact has never been adequately explained.
A few years back Darbre presented a hypothesis regarding the possible
biological mechanisms by which the chemical present in
deodorants/antiperspirants might contribute to breast cancer. Aluminum
zirconium salts are almost always present in these products and
aluminum is known to bind to DNA and had been linked to the development
of granulomas. One simple scenario would be that the aluminum could
damage the DNA of breast cells and the parabens could then promote the
growth of damaged cells. This could explain the disproportionate
number of breast cancer in the upper-outer quadrant of the breast.
Furthermore, it is known that the left breast is more prone to the
development of breast cancer than the right breast. Darbre suggests
that this could be due to the fact that the majority of population is
right-handed which would result in more chemicals applied to the left
underarm area.

Philip Harvey, an editor of the Journal of Applied Toxicology, in the
same issue of the journal where the research appeared, discussed the
significance of the 2004 study. He pointed out that there is logic to
Darbre's hypothesis and that because of the huge size of the population
exposed and because of the direct application of the compounds to the
skin, further research regarding the possible harm of parabens is
warranted. He also wrote that in 2002 a widely quoted study that
examined antiperspirant use and the risk of breast cancer found no
association based on retrospective interviews. But the question of
specific ingredients and not simply antiperspirants was not
investigated and he proposed that research should be designed that is
sensitive to "any effects of long-term, low-level exposure to
mixtures." Plus, Harvey and Darbre also raise the issue of the effects
of estrogen-like compounds on children and those at higher risk of
breast cancer.

After reading all these articles, I was glad that I had stopped using
deodorants/antiperspirants many years back. So, I naturally started
checking my shampoo, bath gel, and the cream that I used for my dry
aging skin. They all contained parabens. Of the 6 most common
parabens, methylparabens was ubiquitous. My bath gel had it along with
three other parabens. Next, I went to my local drugstore armed with
pen, paper, and a magnifying glass, to be able to read the ingredients
of the cosmetics, which are usually written in microscopic characters.
I was surprised to see how many products did not list their ingredients
and for those that did how little I knew about them. Shampoos,
conditioners, lotions, creams, body sprays, sun blocks, sun tanning
lotions, foundations, facial masks, hair-grooming aids, nail creams,
baby products, etc., all contained one or more parabens. Check it out
and see for yourself how incredibly widespread their use is.

Granted, shampoos and soaps are rinsed off so exposures are probably
lower than for lotions, creams, deodorants, etc., that are applied and
purposely left on the skin. But since nobody knows the health effects
of long-term low-level exposures, as a woman living with metastatic
breast cancer for many years I am not taking any chances. My next step
was: how do I find products that do not contain parabens?

Luckily, Breast Cancer Action (BCA) from San Francisco
( an organization that is at the forefront of the
movement developing critical analysis and recognition of the politics
of breast cancer, has done a lot of work on cosmetics and breast
cancer. Their project "Think Before You Pink,", raises excellent questions regarding the
cosmetics industry, breast cancer, and their obsession with pink
paraphernalia. BCA points out that a huge number of personal care
products contain ingredients that may raise the risk of breast cancer
but that the companies that produce them, nevertheless present
themselves as committed to the eradication of breast cancer. They do
so by running "cause-related marketing campaigns," exploited the good
will of customers but making pitiful contributions to breast cancer
research. (See the NY Times ad "Philanthropy or Hypocrisy," October
24, 2003 on the BCA webpage). Very helpfully, BCA has a section
providing a list of companies that do not use parabens in their
products (see box on page 9). Information about phthalates in
cosmetics, another set of compounds we also need to worry about, is
available there too. Phthalates seem to have reproductive effects on
males leading to infertility, and high levels of them have been found
in women too.

Though I will certainly look for products without parabens, my
individual solution is not going to make much of a difference to the
huge cosmetic industry and the millions of women who buy their
products. Like in so many other areas of our lives, the impulse for
change will come from organizing and uniting with others to demand an
end to practices that put our health at risk. The Precautionary
Principle, a public health principle brought o the foreground in the
U.S. in a statement drafted by a group of scientists, activists,
government officials, and lawyers dedicated to prevent harm to the
environment and to our health, states that "When an activity raises the
threat of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary
measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships
are not established scientifically."

This is the old common sense approach, "better safe than sorry," that
many of us follow intuitively. The Precautionary Principle is not
pie-in-the-sky, wishful thinking on the part of naive people. It has
been widely adopted in Europe and in 2003 the city of San Francisco
issued a Precautionary Principle Ordinance designed as "its policy
framework to develop laws for a healthier and more just San Francisco."
The essential elements of the Precautionary Principle approach to
decision-making about introducing new chemicals include:
Anticipatory Action--the duty to take anticipatory action to prevent

Right To Know--the right of the community to have complete and
accurate information on health and environmental impacts of products,
services, etc.

Alternative Assessment--the obligation to examine a full range of
alternatives regarding new chemicals including the alternative to do

Full Cost Accounting--the duty to consider all reasonably forseeable
costs at all levels of organization.

Participatory Decision Making Processes--decisions applying the
principle must be transparent, participatory, and informed by the best
available information. For more on the Precautionary Principle go to
the web and google it or look at Rachel's Environment & Health Weekly,
#586, at the website For the San Francisco ordinance
go to and write Precautionary Principle in the Search

To implement the Precautionary Principle in the case of parabens we
can start by demanding that cosmetics companies eliminate suspected
cancer causing substances from their products. After the research
discussed in this article came out, the UK's department of Trade and
Industry and Britain's Cosmetic Toiletry and Perfumery association
decided to re-examine the data on parabens. That is a necessary first
step but does not go far enough. Unless and until they are established
as safe, parabens should be withdrawn from cosmetics. The burden of
proof should be on the companies that use them and not on the bodies of
breast cancer victims.

A campaign seeking the removal of toxic chemicals from cosmetics has
been recently launched by Women's Voices for the Earth, a women's
environmental justice group from Montana
( As a result of their initiative, a
coalition of environmental and public health groups has emerged, the
Campaign for Safe Cosmetics (, working to
pressure the health and beauty industry to phase out the use of
chemicals that are known or suspected carcinogens, mutagens, or
reproductive toxins. In January 2003 the European Union banned the use
of these chemicals. By September 2004, all cosmetics and personal care
products sold in the member states of the European Union will have to
be free of substances considered CMR I and CMR II (carcinogens,
mutagens, or reproductive toxins). Accordingly, the Campaign for Safe
Cosmetics is asking the U.S. cosmetics companies to sign the "Compact
for the Global Production of Safer Health and Beauty Care Products"
committing themselves to comply with those principles in the products
they sell in the U.S. and other non-European markets.

The slogan of the campaign, "Because We're Worth It!" sends a clear
message to those who disregard women's health concerns in the pursuit
of profit.

* Keep an eye on the campaign, have your organization join it, and
monitor the follow up that will ensue.

* Spread the word about cosmetics, parabens, and cancer.

* Go to the webpage of the Environmental Working Group,
and read their report, Skin Deep, a safety assessment of the
ingredients in personal care products.

* Visit the webpage of Breast Cancer Action,, and keep
yourself informed of new developments regarding corporate interests and

We are part a national and international movement to clean up the
earth and out bodies. Think of the power we could have if millions of
women demanded safe products for themselves and their families!

Paraben-free cosmetics from

AnneMarie Borlind Natural Beauty
Aubrey Organics Skin, Body & Hair Care Products
Caribbean Pacifics Suncare Products Dr. Hauschka
Earths Beauty Cosmetics
Honeybee Gardens
Kettle Care herbal Body Products
Living Nature Products
Logona Cosmetics
Martina Gebhardt Naturkosmetiks
Natural Solutions-Holistic Beauty&Health
Organic Essentials Skincare (and Nutritional Product)
Organic Excellence Hair Care Products
Real Purity Cosmetics
Restored Balance Herbal Products
Sante Kosmetics
Suki's Naturals

Web Note: Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps and all Terressentials products, among
others, are also paraben-free as well as made from organic ingredients.

The research work on parabens discussed in this article,
"Concentrations of Parabens in Human Breast Tumors by P.D. Darbre, A.
Alijarrah, W.R. Miller, N.G. Coldham, M.J. Sauer and G.S. Pope appeared
in the Journal of Applied Toxicology, 24, 5-13 (2004)