Myth or Fact: Parabens and Cancer

This is another archive repost to explain why parabens are used as a preservative widely and are not seen or classified  as dangerous.  

The accompanying picture is that of a natural paraben source that some of us may regularly consume - blueberries. 

Originally posted - 3/10/2009

What are parabens and how were they related to cancer?
These are preservatives used in hair products to retard bacterial and fungal growth. The most common are methylparaben, ethylparaben and butyl paraben. A research group reported finding parabens in breast cancer tumours ( J Appl Toxicol, pg 5-13, 2004).

What is the controversy?
1. This paper did not report if parabens can be found in normal non-diseased tissue. Why is this important? If parabens are present in both normal and diseased tissue, then it could be likely that the presence of parabens in diseased tissue is because of normal use of cosmetics rather than a reason for disease.

2. Some people (not the author - Darbre) stated parabens could cause breast cancer. The author of this paper officially refuted this (Reply to Robert Golden and Jay Gandy - Journal of Applied Toxicology, 2004)
'Nowhere in the manuscript (her published paper on parabens found in breast tumours) was any claim made that the presence of parabens had caused the breast cancer, indeed the measurement of a compound in a tissue cannot provide evidence of causality.'

Do Parabens cause cancer?
The direct answer is nobody knows. Scientifically this has not been shown by any group. The long history of safe use of parabens, the fact that many occur naturally and can be consumed without adverse effects also adds reason as to why its use is so widespread. 

A study in 2002 specifically stated that methyl paraben is not carcinogenic or mutagenic  meaning it does not cause cancer and it does not cause DNA in cells to change ( Food and Chemical Toxicology, pp 1335-1373, 2002).

What about parabens mimicking hormones?
Well if you are on the contraceptive pill, your oestrogen (estrogen) dose is incredibly much higher than you could ever receive by using parabens in cosmetics. Parabens are also known as 'weakly estrogenic'. This means oestrogen is 10,000 to 100,000 times more likely to bind to a tissue compared to paraben.

As a side note, remember that the contraceptive pill carries a small risk of developing certain cancers (such as cervical) but equally protects from other cancers (ovary, uterine, colon).

What are the alternatives to parabens?
The other proven preservative are formaldehyde releasers. Formaldehyde is one of those chemicals with a terrible view with consumers and is a known carcinogen.
Grapeseed extract and Vitamin E oil are proposed as preservatives but not well researched at this point. There is also some controversy about whether grapeseed extracts are contaminated with parabens which then actually have the preservative effect.

Are you currently avoiding parabens, if so why, if not why?


  1. I was avoiding them until I read your post! This is exactly the reason why I love to rely on science and the plain facts lately. It's way better than being forced to believe the media hype. You're my favourite mythbuster, JC. ;-)

    1. i hope that you read this article again, as there was nothing written here to say parabens are safe. The exact words were "no body knows" in regards to whether they cause cancer. The biggest thing that is not addressed is the very widespread use and how people's exposure is very varied. If you avoid it mostly, you're still going to be ingesting it through your skin when you use soap in a bathroom out, or borrow someone's sunscreen, or use a hotel's lotion/shampoo/conditioner. When studies are done, what concentration are they testing? What level is safe? The sad fact is no one has done studies to show what are safe levels, and even if they did, how would you know what your exposure is? There isn't any quantitative amount listed on cosmetic supplies (nor are any regulations in the works). I personally hope you go back to avoiding it when possible.
      Wishing you health-

    2. I stopped using Cetaphil and its generic brands because I was using them everyday and many times on my hands because I get eczema from harsh soaps. But I bought some foundation makeup which has it in it. I read that if a product has different types of paraben in it that there are less amounts than if only one type of paraben is in it. So I may keep the foundation makeup I thought didn't have parabens in it, but there are different kinds of parabens so it may be fine. Anyway, it would be expensive making a trip to return it. If parabens are in blueberries I still will be eating them and not worry about the "risk".

  2. No-because I was never on the look out for them! :)

  3. Thank you for explaining parabens! I've never had any explain it so easily.

  4. I was avoiding parabenes for a while, after a friend made me aware of their bad reputation. Then I read an article about this whole controversy, and it made me realize it was just a hypothesis. I could be mistaken but weren't people suggesting particularly the estrogen activity of the parabenes in deodorants might cause breast cancer? The risk just seems too fractional to me to take all the pains to avoid them.
    Still, in a way I like the fact that (by accident) my deodorant doesn't have parabenes. Just in case :)

  5. Gerlinde - some people did suggest that parabens mimicking oestrogens is a potential reason for breast cancer. However parabens are very weakly similar to oestrogens and therefore are much less likely to bind to tissue.

    In my own view, women should be more concerned about the contraceptive pill than parabens. The oestrogen dose in the pill is much higher and not only that, it is a very good mimic which means it is much more effective at binding to tissue.

    On the subject of deoderants and parabens, actually many of them do not have parabens as a preservative - another flaw of the suggestion.

  6. Again I find a happy medium. Since I cannot be 100% sure of their causality I avoid parabens if it is easy to do so. Hence I use an effective parapen free deodorant. If it was ineffective, I would head right back to my paraben containing one, LOL!
    I love Body shop body butters - they are virtually the only moisturisers which keep my skin non-ashy. So though they have parabens, I still use them.

  7. There is one company which has a patented process for preserving cosmetics without parabens or any other chemical additive —USANA Health Sciences. You can check it out on the web at

  8. I looked at the patent (

    I can see its claims but I don't see any papers published to actually substantiate them. They refer to research done by others which can in part justify their work but I would like to see them actually test and produce a scientific paper that shows how effective the product is.

  9. surely it is safest to avoid them altogether as there are ranges that are paraben & SLS free and don't cost that much. Let's try and discourage chemicals as a whole unless strictly necessary. Boots do an organic option in their Botanics skin care range now and it's worth looking at Be Naked and the Body Shops Aloe range, all paraben and SLS free and sffordable.

  10. For pedagogic reasons. Do you know if there has been some comparison made between estrogenic effect of parabens and, for instance, phytoestrogens? That would be kind of interesting since people are afraid of parabens, but not of phytoestrogens.

    I realise it's a long time since you wrote this post, but can you suggest any reading on the level of estrogenicity? You write "This means oestrogen is 10,000 to 100,000 times more likely to bind to a tissue compared to paraben", and I guess that refers to affinity to the receptor. Do you remember who made that study?

  11. What a question kontakt! Oestrogen is not my subject of research but I did google some answers for you.

    There is no real conclusive evidence on phytoestrogens. There is some evidence that they may not be strongly oestrogenic as the incidence of breast cancer in japan is low despite high uptake of soy which is rich in phytoestrogens.

    Ref: Endocrine-Related Cancer (2006) 13 995–1015

    There are references in this particular paper on paraben oestogenic activity or lack thereof

    J. Appl. Toxicol. 24, 297–306 (2004)

  12. My thick hair (3c4a4b)loves Trader Joes Nourish Spa Conditioner. The cost is nice too-just finished graduate school and am job hunting. TJ's use a paraben for a preservative. However, having PCOS and taken the pill for so many years Im conserned if it will be an issue...I don't know what to think.

  13. i started avoiding parabens around the same time that i decided to no longer take the pill (about 3 years ago now). Having said that, i am not as strict with the parabens avoidance as i am with the pill's avoidance, i do believe that there are higher risks with the pill than the use of parabens in cosmetics.
    If i can, i do however stay away from parabens, but if i really like a product and it contains some parabens, well, i still use it. There simply isn't enough proof out there yet, but at the same time, i like to err on the side of caution!

  14. hybridomatech - I like your comment because you have made an informed decision that you are happy with.

    I think my issue is with the common labelling of parabens as dangerous without really examining the evidence or indeed telling women that the contraceptive pill is really of significantly greater concern.

    I regard avoiding parabens while taking the contraceptive pill like complaining that a room is hot when the whole house is on fire.

    Naturals are increasingly demanding non-synthesised ingredients which is not necessarily bad. I just think that manufacturers can easily mislead them simply because we are not putting enough effort into analyzing how bad a specific substance is and more effort into crossing it out if it did not come from a plant (though technically parabens can be plant derived).

    I actually wonder if people would be less alarmed if they read blueberry extract or paraben.

  15. I don't know if it's the same in the US, but here in Europe many manufacturers have substituted parabens with sodium benzoate. I guess it's because they fear people won't buy their products otherwise. The problem is that I and many others react allergically to sodium benzoate on the skin. I know sodium benzoate is safe to eat for example, and considered safe, but it still makes my skin red and itchy. All this paraben craze has drastically limited the range of products I can use anymore. After reading about natural paraben in blueberries my own fear of parabens went away. Until someone shows clear and obvious proof that they are dangerous I will rather use them than other skin irritating and skin sensitizing conservatives. Thankyou for writing the truth about what is known and what is not. :)

    1. Interesting, I was not aware of this substitution. Thanks for the comment, I will have some more research to do.

  16. I have noticed that a lot of products seem to be containing phenoxyethanol now, and wondered if that is a substitution to avoid parabens controversy. It worries me a bit as I have heard bad things about phenoxyethanol too.

    1. I have the same question as Lucy. How safe or unsafe is phenoxyethanol?

  17. I do know one of the alternatives being used now is PHENOXYETHANOL. This is a neurotoxin and the FDA warns it can be dangerous. As a woman who already has estrogen inside of me, I think I'll stick with parabens.

  18. The lead researcher of the UK study, molecular biologist Philippa Darbre, reported that the ester-bearing form of the parabens found in the tumors indicate that they came from something applied to the skin, such as an underarm deodorant, cream or body spray, and stated that the results helped to explain why up to 60% of all breast tumors are found in just one-fifth of the breast - the upper-outer quadrant, nearest the underarm

    1. The article above does reference Dr. Darbre's article - i.e the one without a control to show whether healthy breast tissue would also have parabens (highly likely).This entire article is explaining why that research is generally not accepted as proof that parabens are causative of cancer. Even Dr. Darbre herself did not make that statement.


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