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Parabens and Breast Cancer Controversy Continues

By January 12, 2012

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Woman Using Lipstick
Woman Using Lipstick
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Since around 2004, when Dr. Philippa Darbre published research on finding parabens in human breast tumors, scientists and cosmetics producers have wondered how those substances got there and if they caused breast cancer. Dr. Darbre and others theorized that antiperspirants and deodorants that contained parabens - a common preservative - might have soaked into breast tissue through armpit skin. At the same time, the idea that antiperspirants sometimes contain aluminum salts - and that this metal might be carcinogenic - was also a subject of interest.

Dr. Darbre has teamed up with a surgeon, Mr Lester Barr, to study tissue samples from 40 women who has mastectomies between 2005 and 2008. A total of 160 tissue samples were taken from all areas of the breast, from armpit to breast bone. Most breast tumors had originated in the upper outer quadrant of the breast, nearest the axillary region. Even though few of these women had used antiperspirants or deodorants, 99% of the samples contained one or more paraben, while 60% of the tissue samples contained traces of all five of the most commonly used parabens. But this research doesn't nail down parabens as a cause of breast cancer.

"The fact that parabens were detected in the majority of the breast tissue samples cannot be taken to imply that they actually caused breast cancer in the 40 women studied," said Dr Philippa Darbre, Reader in Oncology at the University of Reading, who also led the 2004 study. "However, the fact that parabens were present in so many of the breast tissue samples does justify further investigation."

Parabens are used as preservatives in food, drugs, and cosmetic products such as shampoos, shaving cream and skin creams. They are usually used to prevent the growth of microorganisms in consumer products. Methylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben, or benzylparaben may be found in many products that are already on your shelves, but unless you read the complete list of chemicals on every label, you may not realize that they are so common. While nobody wants to use moldy makeup or slimy shampoo, there are paraben-free products available, if you want more choices.

Parabens do have estrogen-like effects in the body, which cause some concern because 80% of all breast tumors are fueled by this key female hormone. Estrogen-receptor positive breast tumors require this hormone in order to develop, grow, and spread. Many breast cancer treatments act by lowering the circulating levels of estrogen during and after primary therapy.

The jury is still out as to whether or not parabens can cause breast cancer. "Our study appears to confirm the view that there is no simple cause and effect relationship between parabens in underarm products and breast cancer" said Mr Lester Barr, consultant surgeon at the University Hospital of South Manchester and Chairman of the Genesis Breast Cancer Prevention Appeal, which partly sponsored the study.

Source: Barr. Lester, Metaxas. George, Harbach. Christopher, Savoy. Luc-Alain, Darbre. Philippa, "Measurement of paraben concentrations in human breast tissue at serial locations across the breast from axilla to sternum", Journal of Applied Toxicology, Wiley- Blackwell, Janurary 2012, DOI: 10.1002/jat.1786.

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January 18, 2012 at 1:59 pm
(1) AliciaCH says:

Wow, this is a really interesting and disturbing study. Makes me wanna rush to my make-up table and check the ingredients. I’m definately interested in reading further results. Thanks, Pam, for bringing this to our attention.

January 19, 2012 at 6:58 pm
(2) MMF says:

I think you should also check those who do not have cancer. If they have parabens, then it is not parabens that is causing the cancer.

January 19, 2012 at 8:53 pm
(3) breastcancer says:

@ MMF: Good point! Research has to date focused entirely on breast tissue that had already been diagnosed as cancerous. Tissue from healthy breasts has not been studied in comparison to these samples. I don’t know if biopsy samples from healthy women are available for study – so that might present a problem. Most healthy women might not be willing to have a breast biopsy just in the interests of science!

February 10, 2012 at 9:50 pm
(4) Emilee says:

That’s not necessarily true. Cancer is complex. My husband had it twice – no family history. You cannot say if somebody else has parabens in their system it must not cause cancer. Some people just aren’t prone to cancer – their body repairs their system accordingly. Just like you can’t say “sun exposure WILL cause skin cancer” because for some it won’t – EVER, but for some it will. We don’t know who is prone to it and who isn’t. So to say if somebody has parabens and not cancer it’s not the parabens is TOTALLY inaccurate. I honestly, at this point, have been staying away from parabens for the sheer point that they, for a fact, mimic estrogen.

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