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Parabens and Breast Cancer

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Updated August 12, 2012

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Breast Tumors and Parabens:

While some research has found parabens in breast tumors, there is currently no definite link between parabens and breast cancer. Parabens have weak estrogen-like properties, and this is why they cause so much concern. The majority of breast tumors are dependent on estrogen in order to develop, grow, and spread. Many breast cancer treatments suppress your estrogen levels and hormonal therapies keep estrogen from rebounding after your primary treatments have been completed.

Parabens - A Common Preservative:

Parabens have been used in antiperspirants, deodorants, and cosmetics. This class of chemicals is used as preservatives because they are effective, inexpensive and prevent the growth of microorganisms in many consumer products. According to the Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR), parabens are typically used at levels ranging from 0.01 to 0.3%.

If you read the product labels in your kitchen and bathroom, you'll see one or more different parabens listed on items such as shampoo, shaving cream, skin cream, toothpaste, personal lubricants, or baked goods, jellies, cereals and nutritional drinks. Some common parabens are methylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben, or benzylparaben.

How We Absorb Parabens:

We use paraben-preserved products almost every day. Since we use a greater amount of food products than we use cosmetics, most of these chemicals enter our bodies as we eat. When we use cosmetics, creams and topical drugs, parabens may soak in through our skin.

Breast Cancer and Antiperspirants:

Most antiperspirants and deodorants no longer contain parabens. Antiperspirants are composed of ingredients that are self-preserving, so parabens are not really needed. Since we use antiperspirants and deodorants in the underarm area of our skin, and many breast tumors originate in the upper quadrant of the breast that is closest to the axilla, there has long been a concern that parabens or aluminium salts are responsible for breast cancer. Dr. Philippa Darbre has studied this issue since 2003 and says that science doesn't show a clear link between parabens and cancer, but that, "The fact that parabens were present in so many of the breast tissue samples does justify further investigation."

Avoiding Parabens:

Should you avoid parabens? Right now, that depends on you. If you are allergic to parabens, and develop contact dermatitis from using products that contain these chemicals, then start reading all your product labels carefully. There are many paraben-free cosmetics, personal lubricants, toothpastes, and food products that you can use as substitutes. If you have a strong family history of estrogen-sensitive breast or ovarian cancer, ask your doctor if you should avoid parabens or be careful about your diet. There's no reason to live in fear of parabens, but it is still a good idea to take charge of your health and take steps to lower your risk for breast cancer.

Sources:

Antiperspirants/Deodorants and Breast Cancer. Fact Sheet, National Cancer Institute. Reviewed: 01/04/2008.

Concentrations of parabens in human breast tumours. Darbre PD, Aljarrah A, Miller WR, et al. Journal of Applied Toxicology 2004; 24(1):5-13.

Factors with uncertain, controversial, or unproven effect on breast cancer risk. Breast Cancer: Early Detection, American Cancer Society. Last Revised: 10/04/2011.

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

Parabens in deodorants and antiperspirants linked to breast cancer. NICNAS Matter, November 2004. National Industrial Chemicals Notification and Assessment Scheme of Australia.

Selected Cosmetics: Parabens. Food and Drug Administration. Updated October 31, 2007.

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