There are literally thousands of anti aging skin care creams and lotions on the market and many of them contain parabens to prolong their shelf life. The beauty industry has used them for years, but are they really safe? Recent controversy suggests that there may be a darker side to this popular ingredient that has been linked by some to hormone changes, cancer, rashes and allergic reactions. Read about what parabens are, why they’re in the cosmetics we buy everyday and the battle of the scientists for the facts surrounding their safety. This should give you information to begin deciding whether its safest to ditch products containing parabens, or carry on using them as normal. How big is the topic? Here’s how the media is handling the issue, courtesy of You Tube:

Parabens are chemicals the cosmetics industry put into anti aging skin care products to quite simply extend their shelf life, maximising profits for both manufacturers and resellers. If a cream goes out of date within 12 weeks, for example,  its going to be hard to convince retailers to stock it– when the cream goes out of date, the retailer has wasted their money  on it. The good news for consumers is parabens have anti fungal and antibacterial properties, so the creams stay fresher longer and less likely to become harmful through microbial or mitotic colonisation. Chemically speaking, the ones used in cosmetics are all synthetic, laboratory produced esters from para-hydroxybenzoic acid. They are a low cost ingredient for manufacturers. To recognise them on cosmetics labelling, look out for methylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben, or benzylparaben, the most commonly used (1). There’s often more than one kind in anti aging skin care products, or other cosmetics come to that.  The furore over their inclusion in cosmetics centres on whether or not they cause cancer.

The cosmetics industry has used them for years but recently scientific debate has turned to  their effects on hormones and even concerns they may be carcinogenic agents. America’s Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has its hands tied, with no power to regulate what goes into cosmetics unless those ingredients are an already known poison or toxin.  Instead, the safety of parabens was reviewed in 1984 by the “industry sponsored organisation” Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) and declared safe up to a concentration of 25% in cosmetic products. They are most likely today to be found at concentrations of 0.01 -0.03% (1). Here the picture becomes murky, because having passed safety tests with flying colours, the CIR then reopened the case for parabens in 2003. It began investigating the safety of   methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben, and butylparaben so that “interested parties” could submit fresh evidence (1). Then, in 2005, the same agency re-opened the safety data files on parabens in cosmetics. Within a year they decided that the original evaluation was correct. Yet there were reports emerging of parabens playing some kind of role in the formation of breast cancers.

Dr Phillipa Dabre, Reading University (UK)

One scientist ringing alarm bells about parabens for almost a decade now is Phillipa Dabre, a senior oncology lecturer and cancer researcher at the UK’s University of Reading.  Dabre began working at Reading after 5 years as a researcher with the UK’s Imperial Cancer Research Fund (which later changed its name to Cancer research UK). She suggested a link between cancer and cosmetics as early as 2001 (2) , and her 2004 study in the Journal of Applied Toxicology found parabens within the tissues of confirmed breast tumours, with fellow scientists calling for more research to determine what this meant for health (3).

Parabens exert an osetrogenic effect – anything which behave like an oestrogen (a naturally occurring hormone) encourages cellular growth. Cancers can be crudely characterised as collections of cells which grow in a totally uncontrolled way, without following the rules of what shape to become and when to stop growing. By contrast, healthy cells follow a regular lifecycle and grow in a pre-programmed way to result in a certain cellular structure.  Oestrogens have been proven in vitro to make breast cancer cells grow. Hence the concern that parabens in cosmetics might have the same effect if absorbed through the skin in people (3). The focus for Dabre was underarm deodorants and anti-perspirants, applied to the skin next to the upper right outside quadrant of the breast – the portion of the breast where most cancers were being found. From looking at aluminium in deodorants, she has extended her studies to include parabens and has now published over a dozen research articles since 2001 (2 – 15).The response by the scientific community and cancer organisations has been mixed, with others following her leads, and then again, some scientific teams totally rebuffing all her work.

Instead of a role for underarm products,  it was proposed that most cancers occur close to the arm pit in the upper right breast quadrant simply because that is where the breast tissue is most dense (16). The FDA points out on its website that no comparison was made to levels in healthy tissues and that the oetsrogenic effects of parabens were between 10,000 – 100,000 less potent than naturally occurring oestrogens (1). Another example is a 2008 article, stating clearly no link between underarm deodorants and antiperspirants and breast cancer (17). One example of how mainstream professional cancer research organisations are dealing with the information is Dabre’s former workplace, Cancer Research UK. Their website has a clear denial of a link, suggests the whole thing was started by hoax emails and the studies have not proved a link since. It also points out most modern underarm products are now paraben free (18). The picture then becomes more confusing.

Anti aging creams may contain parabens

On the other hand, Breast Cancer Action, an organization with its roots in a patients support group, devotes a page to finding paraben-free cosmetics (brands listed) and states parabens are both eostrogenic and “disruptive of hormone function”, along with the line “exposure to external oestrogens has been shown to increase the risk of breast cancer” (19). The USA’s National Cancer Institute, however, denies any such proof has been found, although it does appear in favour of more robust research as studies have provided “conflicting” evidence on breast cancer and antiperspirant/deodorant products (20). The picture is conflicting to say the least, with high profile institutes refuting any such link, it is interesting to note meantime, with her professional reputation on the line, Dabre has certainly not fallen silent.

In 2009, she published a further article entitled ‘Underarm Antiperspirants/Deodorants And Breast Cancer’, pointing out the location of cancers in the upper right quadrant of the breast had increased through the 1980s and 1990s (18). She hypothesises this is totally at odds with the theory of more tissue available for cancer to invade in that quadrant – the body does not change its anatomical structure, so surely something else must be at play. Dabre’s line of enquiry points to women today applying a huge range of products to the breast and underarm area, such as body lotions, sprays, moistursising creams, bust firming creams, and so on. Nothing is rinsed away and unlike anything we eat, the stuff absorbed by skin doesn’t have toxins filtered out by our digestive processes (metabolic). Dabre points to several studies which found that chemicals absorbed through the skin had at least an effect on the hormonal system and earlier incidence of diagnosed breast cancer linked to more frequent anti perspirant use (22). Her concern appears consistent, pointing out that no long term studies have been done on the effects of using a ‘cocktail’ of chemicals, such as those found in cosmetics, directly onto the skin over a number of years. Her explanation of the apparent safety of the ingredients is that they are researched in isolation, not in the mixes that are found in products and not with overlapping product use, as happens in real life (20). Dabre has repeatedly called for more research into the subject, with reference to the effects of parabens and paraben mixtures on increased growth of cancer cell lines in vitro (20).

Today, the FDA is still sticking to the line that cosmetics containing parabens are safe for everyday consumer use and that it will monitor and update the public as necessary (1). Cosmetics companies are divided, with some being quick to realise that a market exists for concerned consumers and launching high profile ‘paraben free’ products. Many other companies continue to use them, as there is no law to stop them and as yet, any theories of harm are not yet accepted 100% by the scientific community by any means. Our bottom line is as always, to play safe until such time as there has been a thorough agreement on what hazards, if any, parabens pose. There are plenty of creams, lotions and so on in today’s market that are paraben free, the downside is, this may increase the price tag compared to the very cheapest brands. Then again, given the eye watering prices of some of the higher end anti aging skin care products, you may find that switching to a ‘middle market’ paraben free brand actually saves you money.


1. FDA. Parabens. FDA [online]. Available at:

2. Darbre P, D, (2001).  Underarm cosmetics are a cause of breast cancer. European  Journal of  Cancer Prevention. 10:389-393.

3. Harvey, P.W. & Everett, D.J. (2004). Significance of the Detection of Esters of p-Hydroxybenzoic Acid (Parabens) in Human Breast Tumours. Journal of  Applied Toxicology. 24, 1–4.

4. Darbre, P.D. (2001).  Underarm cosmetics are a cause of breast cancer. European  Journal of  Cancer Prevention.  10:389-393.

5. Darbre, P.D. (2003). Underarm cosmetics and breast cancer. Journal of  Applied Toxicology. 23:89-95.

6. Darbre,  P.D. (2005).  Recorded quadrant incidence of female breast cancer in Great Britain suggests a disproportionate increase in the upper outer quadrant of the breast. Anticancer Research.  25:2543-2550.

7. Darbre, P.D. (2006).  Environmental oestrogens, cosmetics and breast cancer.Best Practice & Research Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism 20:121-143.

8. Harvey, P.W. & Darbre, P. (2004). Endocrine disrupters and human health: could oestrogenic chemicals in bodycare cosmetics adversely affect breast cancer incidence in women? A review of evidence and call for further research.  Journal of  Applied Toxicology. 24:167-176.

9. Darbre,  P.A., Harvey P.W. (2008).  Paraben esters: review of recent studies of endocrine toxicity, absorption, esterase and human exposure, and discussion of potential human health risks. Journal of  Applied Toxicology. 28:561-578.

10. Darbre, P. D., Aljarrah, A., Miller, W.R., Coldham, N.G., Sauer, M.J. & Pope, G.S. (2004).  Concentrations of parabens in human breast tumours. Journal of  Applied Toxicology. 2004, 24:5-13.

11. Darbre, P.D. (2005).  Aluminium, antiperspirants and breast cancer. Journal of  Inorganic Biochemistry. 99:1912-1919.

12. Exley, C., Charles L.M., Barr, L., Martin, C., Polwart, A. & Darbre, P.D. (2007).  Aluminium in human breast tissue. Journal of  Inorganic Biochemistry 2007, 101:1344-1346.

13. Byford J.R., Shaw L.E., Drew M.G., Pope G.S., Sauer M.J. & Darbre P.D. (2002). Oestrogenic activity of parabens in MCF7 human breast cancer cells. Journal of  Steroid Biochemeistry &  Moecularl Biology.  80:49-60.

14. Darbre P.D., Byford J.R., Shaw L.E., Horton R.A., Pope G.S. & Sauer M.J. (2002). Oestrogenic activity of isobutylparaben in vitro and in vivo. Journal of  Applied Toxicology. 22:219-226.

15. Darbre P.D.,  Byford J.R., Shaw L.E., Hall S., Coldham N.G., Pope G.S. & Sauer M.J. (2003)   Oestrogenic activity of benzylparaben. Journal of  Applied Toxicology. 23:43-51.

16. Lee, H.S. (2005). Why is carcinoma of the breast more frequent in the upper outer quadrant? A case series based on needle core biopsy diagnoses.  The Breast
Volume 14, Issue 2, P.  151-152.

17. Namer M., Luporsi, E., Gligorov, J. , Lokiec, F. , Spielmann, M. (2008). The use of deodorants/antiperspirants does not constitute a risk factor for breast cancer. Bulletin du  Cancer.  95 (9) : 871-80. Available at:

18. Cancer Research UK. (2009). Deodorants and Cancer. [online]. Cancer Research UK Available at:

19. Breast Cancer Action. Paraben Free Cosmetics. Breast Cancer action [online]. Available at:

20. National Cancer Institute. (2008). Antiperspirants/Deodorants and Breast Cancer: Questions and Answers. US National Institutes of Health [online]. Available at:

21. Dabre, P. (2009). Underarm Antiperspirants/Deodorants And Breast Cancer. Breast Cancer Research.  11(Suppl 3):S5. Available at:

22. McGrath,  K.G. (2003). An earlier age of breast cancer diagnosis related to more frequent use of antiperspirants/deodorants and underarm shaving. European Journal of Cancer Prevention. 12:479-485.

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