Do Parabens cause Cancer?

According to the CDC, methyl-paraben is found in 99% of the population. It’s used widely as a preservative in cosmetics and personal hygiene products like shaving creams, lotions, underarm deodorants, and hair care products like shampoo. That’s how it gets into most of us, although a few plants make this chemical naturally, too. Any of you out there eating loads of granadillas, birthworts, guan peppers, and thale cress?

That some plants make parabens is often used as proof of their safety in cosmetics, but ingested parabens are rapidly degraded by the blood’s first pass through the liver after ingestion. Rubbing parabens into the skin is a different story. It puts them right at the tissue level immediately. Depending on blood flow and other factors, they’ll have to eventually be absorbed into the blood stream before they’re carried off for rapid metabolism and excretion.

What happens when chronically high levels of parabens are absorbed into the skin from frequent application?

We don’t really know.

Even the CDC admits we don’t. According to this government agency, women, because they use more personal care products than men, have three times the level of methyl-paraben in their bodies, and they have seven times the amount of propyl-paraben compared to men.

Black women have three times the amount of exposure to methyl-paraben as white women. Black women also tend to get breast cancer at a younger age than white women. African American women between the ages of 35 and 44 have a death rate from breast cancer that is twice that of white women in the same age group. Their breast cancer is more aggressive and harder to treat, and we don’t really know why that is.

We do know that about 90% of breast cancer is environmental. It’s lifestyle and how we live – what we choose to eat (and not to eat), whether we exercise, how we handle stress, and what types of chemicals we’re exposed to in amounts high enough to cause problems.

2012 article published in the Journal of Applied Toxicology showed for the first time that parabens, specifically methyl-paraben and propyl-paraben, can induce changes in human breast cells in a petri dish, changes that are a typical predictor of tumor growth in the body. Earlier work by the same team of researchers in the United Kingdom revealed that parabens are found within human breast tumors – most of it methyl-paraben. Propyl-paraben was found at the highest levels closest to the armpit, an area that gets more breast cancers than other breast regions.

Several of the women in the study reported never using underarm deodorants. Maybe they were worried about the previous linkage of parabens in underarm deodorants with human breast cancer. But the lymphatics of breast tissue drain to the arm pit. That means any topical lotion, soap, or shampoo applied to the breasts may play a role.

Can parabens cause cancer? I don’t know. Maybe. I don’t care to take the risk.

The marketing machine would have us believe we need sweet smelling lotions, fancy soaps, and shaving cream, but we don’t. Water works great for cleansing, and there are soaps made without parabens or other synthetically produced preservatives. You can even make your own. The same soap doubles as a shaving cream, and natural oils are the best bet for moisturizing. Try a little almond oil or coconut oil after a shower instead of a brand name lotion. And if you’re attached to the brands and a ritual application of commercial sweet smelling products, at least remember that less is best.

What do you think? Can parabens cause cancer? Are they and the other “harmless” chemicals we’re exposed to every day partially responsible for such a dreadful diagnosis? Share your thoughts in a comment below.

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The Yoga Doctor
My name is Kathleen Summers and I’m a board-certified internist specializing in natural Yoga-based care. Over the years I’ve dedicated much time and energy to exploring Yoga in southern Asia– its ancient texts, its traditional word-of-mouth teachings from respected leaders, and its in-depth practices. Now, I integrate the healing concepts of Yoga with modern evidence-based medicine, sharing the wonderful tools within Yoga that have been scientifically validated to optimize health and even to prevent disease.

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  • Dana Lee

    Compared to parabens, what other preservatives have had the same level of safe historic track record and the scientific studies done over the last decade that’s accepted by the global scientific community and known to be safe or equally effective as parabens?
    Just because the alternative preservative is not parabens, how do consumers know that the alternative preservative used in their product of choice is proven to be more safe and equally as or more effective than parabens?
    That’s the question that should be asked – avoidance based on fear or precaution can lead consumers into accepting something that is not as safe and worse, not effective. Parabens are found naturally – blueberries produce it to protect their skin from decay – if the logic that something is natural so it must be safe is applied, then parabens must be safe because blueberries use it naturally. Besides, just because something is natural does not mean its safe (it can be deadly) nor effective.

  • guest

    Since parabens is present in almost everyone, I think the question is how much parabens are detected in the breast tumors. Is it significantly more than that detected in the normal breast tissue?