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Chemicals & You

Beware of Paraben Preservatives in Body Care Products

Cosmetic chemicals found in breast tumours
12:24 12 January 04
New news service

Preservative chemicals found in samples of breast tumours probably came from underarm deodorants, UK scientists have claimed.

Their analysis of 20 breast tumours found high concentrations of para-hydroxybenzoic acids (parabens) in 18 samples. Parabens can mimic the hormone estrogen, which is known to play a role in the development of breast cancers. The preservatives are used in many cosmetics and some foods to increase their shelf-life.

"From this research it is not possible to say whether parabens actually caused these tumours, but they may certainly be associated with the overall rise in breast cancer cases," says Philip Harvey, an editor of the Journal of Applied Toxicology, which published the research.

"Given that breast cancer is the largest killer of women and a very high percentage of young women use underarm deodorants, I think we should be carrying out properly funded, further investigations into parabens and where they are found in the body." Harvey told New Scientist.

Chemical cousins

The new research was led by molecular biologist Philippa Darbre, at the University of Reading. She says that the ester-bearing form of parabens found in the tumours indicates it came from something applied to the skin, such as an underarm deodorant, cream or body spray. When parabens are eaten, they are metabolised and lose the ester group, making them less strongly estrogen-mimicking.

"One would expect tumours to occur evenly, with 20 per cent arising in each of the five areas of the breast," Darbre told New Scientist. "But these results help explain why up to 60 per cent of all breast tumours are found in just one-fifth of the breast - the upper-outer quadrant, nearest the underarm."

However, Chris Flower, director general of the Cosmetic, Toiletry and Perfumery Association, challenged the study's findings. "There are almost no deodorants and body sprays that contain parabens," he says. "Although they are in most other creams and cosmetics, the safety margin is huge and they would not have any effect on enhancing growth of new tumours."

Darbre replies that deodorants and antiperspirants have only stopped containing parabens in the last few months and that the tumours she studied occurred prior to this.

A small survey by New Scientist of three British high street shops and one supermarket found deodorants in each that contained parabens, although most of these products did not. However, many other products used under the arm commonly contained parabens, such as body sprays, hair removal creams and shaving gels. Body lotions, face creams, cleansers and shampoos also frequently contained parabens.

Skin deep

Previously published studies have shown that parabens are able to be absorbed through the skin and to bind to the body's estrogen-receptors, where they can encourage breast cancer cell growth.

But Flower maintains that the amount of parabens absorbed by the skin is very low and the parabens are "metabolised by the skin cells to produce products that have no estrogenic activity".

Darbre's research did not look at the concentrations of parabens in other areas of the breast or body tissues and Harvey cautions that the significance of the chemicals in tumour tissue should not be over-interpreted.

Darbre says she has not used cosmetic products, including underarm deodorants, for eight years. She recommends that other women do the same "until their safety can be established".

Journal reference: Journal of Applied Toxicology (vol 24, p5)
Sourced from New Scientist

In 2013 Darbre published an updated paper based on more research about this topic.  Her paper is Combinations of parabens at concentrations measured in human breast tissue can increase proliferation of MCF‐7 human breast cancer cells, Charles, AK, Darbre, PD, 31 January 2013

Personally, I find this latest information very interesting. I stopped using commercial products 10 years ago when I discovered I had allergies to Parabens, Sulphates and Retinol as well as sensitivities to high concentrations of AHA’s and petroleum based products… mineral oil and Vaseline are two examples. In 1998 I discovered my first lump, and I now have four lumps (I used to have 5, however my Stage 1 lump (2005) was picked up early and has never returned). I haven’t used a commercial deodorant or anti-perspirant since my mid-20’s, however my condition could be caused by my body producing higher than normal oestrogen levels…


Allergy to parabens

What is paraben mix and where is it found?

Paraben mix is a mixture of 5 different paraben esters; methyl-, ethyl-, propyl-, butyl- and benzyl-parahydroxybenzoic acids. Parabens are the most commonly used preservatives in topical pharmaceutical preparations. They are also used in cosmetics, skin care products, medications, foods, and industrially in oils, fats, shoe polishes, textiles and glues. Two or more paraben esters are often found in the one product so it is useful to test paraben sensitivity with paraben mix, as there is a high incidence of cross-reactions between the esters.

Products commonly containing paraben preservatives 


Pharmaceutical/self-hygiene products 

Food products 

  • Foundations, powders, concealers
  • Eye makeup (liners, shadows, mascara)
  • Facial makeup (blushes)
  • Bronzes
  • Makeup removers
  • Lipstick
  • Quick-dry nail products
  • Topical dermatological medications
  • Eye, ear and nose drops
  • Rectal and vaginal medications
  • Bandages
  • Local anaesthetics
  • Moisturizing lotions and creams
  • Dentifrices
  • Sunscreens
  • Cleansers and other skin care products
  • Antiperspirants and deodorants
  • Soaps and toothpastes
  • Marinated fish products
  • Salad dressings
  • Mayonnaise
  • Mustard
  • Spiced sauces
  • Processed vegetables
  • Frozen dairy products
  • Jams and jellies
  • Soft drinks and fruit juices
  • Baked goods and candies

What are the reactions to paraben mix allergy?

Paraben mix sensitivity produces classic allergic contact dermatitis reactions. Sometimes it may be seen as a flare or spread of an existing treated rash. Paraben allergic hypersensitivity is not uncommon although rare in relation to its widespread use. It appears that repeated applications of relatively low concentrations of parabens in medications and cosmetics may lead to sensitivity. Allergic reactions to orally ingested paraben-containing foods are rare.

Am I allergic to paraben mix?

Paraben mix allergy is diagnosed from the clinical history and by performing special allergy tests, i.e. patch tests. Patch testing with 15% paraben mix in petrolatum is used.

Self-testing a product for parabens is possible but should be done only after first talking with your doctor. This should be done only with products that are designed to stay on on the skin such as cosmetics (not including eyeliners or mascaras) and lotions. Apply a small amount of the product to a small tender area of skin such as the bend of your arm twice a day for 1 week. Examine the area each day and if no reaction occurs, you are unlikely to be allergic to it. Even so, you should still be cautious if you are intending to use it over large areas as it may still be an irritant.

Products such as shampoos, soaps and cleansers should not be tested in this way as they frequently cause an irritant dermatitis.

Treatment of contact dermatitis due to parabens exposure

If you are diagnosed with paraben mix allergy then avoid exposure to paraben-containing products. Once the dermatitis appears on the skin, treatment is as for any acute dermatitis/eczema, i.e. topical corticosteroids (those not containing paraben preservatives), emollients, treatment of any secondary bacterial infection (Staphylococcus aureus), etc.

What should I do to avoid paraben mix allergy?

Once paraben sensitivity is confirmed you should try to avoid exposure to any products containing paraben preservatives. This can be difficult because of its widespread use across many products. Read product labels and avoid products that contain any paraben preservatives or any of its alternative names. If unsure, ask your pharmacist for advice or a suitable alternative. Other related substances you may also react to include para-aminobenzoic acid (PABA) esters and paraphenylenediamine.

Alert your doctor and dentist to the fact that you have an allergy to parabens. Your dermatologist may have further specific advice, particularly if you are highly sensitive.

Alternative names/components of parabens

  • Methylparaben
  • Ethylparaben
  • Propylparaben
  • Butylparaben
  • Benzyl-parahydroxybenzoic acid (p-hydroxybenzoic acid)
  • Methyl-parahydroxybenzoic acid (p-hydroxybenzoic acid)
  • Ethyl-parahydroxybenzoic acid (p-hydroxybenzoic acid)
  • Propyl-parahydroxybenzoic acid (p-hydroxybenzoic acid)
  • Butyl-parahydroxybenzoic acid (p-hydroxybenzoic acid)
  • Parahydroxybenzoic acid (p-hydroxybenzoic acid)
  • Parahydroxybenzoate (p-hydroxybenzoate)

Avoid all of these. At work, request a material safety data sheet to help identify potential sources of exposure.

Further information


Chemical formula 

CAS number




Food: E210-219

Cross reactions: 

  • Para-aminobenzoic acid (PABA) esters
  • Paraphenylenediamine

Sensitiser: paraben esters

Patch Test: paraben mix 15% in petrolatum (3% each of methyl-, ethyl-, propyl-, butyl- and benzyl-parahydroxybenzoic acids)

Notes: topical parabens have recently been reported to have weak oestrogenic effects leading to concerns about breast cancer. Research is on-going.


Book: Fisher's Contact Dermatitis. Ed Rietschel RL, Fowler JF. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins 2001