Cosmetics, Parabens, and Cancer: What Are the Facts?

If you're confused about the potential link between parabens and cancer, you're not alone. The evidence is inconclusive and professional opinions vary widely about whether there is, in fact, a connection.

Parabens are chemicals that manufacturers use to inhibit the growth of bacteria, yeast, and mold in lotions, sunscreens, cosmetics, toothpaste, pharmaceutical drugs, shampoos and conditioners, and shaving gels. They're especially prevalent in deodorants and antiperspirants.

The Environmental Protection Agency links methyl parabens (one form of parabens), in particular, to metabolic, developmental, hormonal, and neurological disorders, as well as various cancers.

Some studies have found signs of parabens in the breast tissue of women with breast cancer. For example, a study published in Journal of Applied Toxicology examined 160 breast tissue samples from 40 women who had mastectomies. Ninety-nine percent of the samples had traces of at least one paraben; 60 percent had traces of five parabens. Seven of the women reported never having used an underarm product.

This study, and others like it, did not investigate a causal relationship between parabens and cancer, and the researchers don't claim that parabens or underarm products actually cause cancer. However, parabens have estrogen-like properties, and estrogen is involved in many breast cancers.

Breast tissue is increasingly exposed to low doses of environmental chemicals with estrogenic compounds. Some experts suspect that these chemicals could act together to stimulate estrogen activity, even in concentrations at which each alone would be ineffective. Unfortunately, most studies generally evaluate only one group of chemicals at a time, which doesn't help us understand how chemicals interact and potentially cause harm.

In October 2007, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) concluded there was no reason for consumers to be concerned about the use of cosmetics containing parabens. You should know, however, that the FDA has little or no authority to require companies to test personal products for safety. According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), more than 500 products sold in the U.S. contain ingredients banned in cosmetics in Japan, Canada, or Europe.

It's not difficult to reduce your exposure to parabens.

  • Eliminate (or streamline) as many personal care products as you can, especially those left on the skin around the breast.
  • Read product ingredient labels. You'll find parabens listed as methyl parabens, ethyl parabens, propyl parabens, butyl parabens, isobutyl parabens, or E216.
  • Finally, check the EWG's Skin Deep Cosmetics database ( to see how your products rate on safety, or to identify alternative, safer products.



Mercola, Joseph, MD. "40 Women With Breast Cancer Had This 'Cosmetic Ingredient' in Their Tissues." Web. 2 April 2012.

Environmental Working Group. "Myths on Cosmetics Safety." Web.

Environmental Working Group. "Skin Deep Cosmetics Database." Web.

Nelson, Roxanne. "Link Between Parabens and Breast Cancer?" Medscape Medical News. Web. 26 January 2012. January 26, 2012

Food and Drug Administration. "Cosmetics." Web. 21 June 2011.