Organic Consumers Association

Beware of Paraben Preservatives in Body Care Products

Cosmetic chemicals found in breast tumours
12:24 12 January 04
New news service

Preservative chemicals found in samples of breast tumours probably came from
underarm deodorants, UK scientists have claimed.

Their analysis of 20 breast tumours found high concentrations of
para-hydroxybenzoic acids (parabens) in 18 samples. Parabens can mimic the
hormone estrogen, which is known to play a role in the development of breast
cancers. The preservatives are used in many cosmetics and some foods to
increase their shelf-life.

"From this research it is not possible to say whether parabens actually
caused these tumours, but they may certainly be associated with the overall
rise in breast cancer cases," says Philip Harvey, an editor of the Journal
of Applied Toxicology, which published the research.

"Given that breast cancer is the largest killer of women and a very high
percentage of young women use underarm deodorants, I think we should be
carrying out properly funded, further investigations into parabens and where
they are found in the body," Harvey told New Scientist.

Chemical cousins

The new research was led by molecular biologist Philippa Darbre, at the
University of Reading. She says that the ester-bearing form of parabens
found in the tumours indicates it came from something applied to the skin,
such as an underarm deodorant, cream or body spray. When parabens are eaten,
they are metabolised and lose the ester group, making them less strongly

"One would expect tumours to occur evenly, with 20 per cent arising in each
of the five areas of the breast," Darbre toldNew Scientist. "But these
results help explain why up to 60 per cent of all breast tumours are found
in just one-fifth of the breast - the upper-outer quadrant, nearest the

However, Chris Flower, director general of the Cosmetic, Toiletry and
Perfumery Association, challenged the study's findings. "There are almost no
deodorants and body sprays that contain parabens," he says. "Although they
are in most other creams and cosmetics, the safety margin is huge and they
would not have any effect on enhancing growth of new tumours."

Darbre replies that deodorants and antiperspirants have only stopped
containing parabens in the last few months and that the tumours she studied
occurred prior to this.

A small survey by New Scientist of three British high street shops and one
supermarket found deodorants in each that contained parabens, although most
of these products did not. However, many other products used under the arm
commonly contained parabens, such as body sprays, hair removal creams and
shaving gels. Body lotions, face creams, cleansers and shampoos also
frequently contained parabens.

Skin deep

Previously published studies have shown that parabens are able to be
absorbed through the skin and to bind to the body's estrogen-receptors,
where they can encourage breast cancer cell growth.

But Flower maintains that the amount of parabens absorbed by the skin is
very low and the parabens are "metabolised by the skin cells to produce
products that have no estrogenic activity".

Darbre's research did not look at the concentrations of parabens in other
areas of the breast or body tissues and Harvey cautions that the
significance of the chemicals in tumour tissue should not be

Darbre says she has not used cosmetic products, including underarm
deodorants, for eight years. She recommends that other women do the same
"until their safety can be established".

Journal reference: Journal of Applied Toxicology (vol 24, p5)

Gaia Vince

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