Parabens in Cosmetics: Toxicology Misinterpretation Gone Wild￼
Breast cancer is a terrible disease. According to the World Health Organization, 2.3 million women were diagnosed with breast cancer in 2020. About 685,000 of those women died. It is the world’s most prevalent cancer and affects women of all ages, in every country.
Given this, it is normal for women to feel very concerned after hearing or reading there might be a connection between breast cancer and everyday cosmetic or personal care products. Driving some of this worry is a 2004 study published in the Journal of Applied Toxicology, which had found intact parabens in the tissue from 20 breast tumors.
Parabens are man-made chemicals that are used as a preservative in many products, from foods to deodorants (which is applied to skin near the breast). The study authors, and many commenters in the journal, called for further research to get more detailed information, especially a larger sample size and a comparison with breast tissue samples from women who did not have cancer. This is the way science should work. But it’s not exactly what happened.
Instead, the findings of the study went viral online among non-scientific sources and became the focus of a big public scare that told women the deodorant and other personal care products they use could cause breast cancer. Today there are hundreds of paraben-free products on the market and stores like Target even have a “clean” beauty aisle to display them.
Is there reason to be afraid of parabens in our products? Probably not. In the amounts of parabens identified in these and other products, there is no evidence that we should worry.
Many groups who study these issues are satisfied that there is not likely a link between parabens in cosmetics or personal care products and breast cancer in women. The National Cancer Institute at NIH says on their website, “It has been reported that parabens are found in breast tumors, but there is no evidence that they cause breast cancer.”
The Institute also mentions the conflicting findings of studies that have been done since 2004, and states that more research would be needed to explore any possible links. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration also investigated the issue of parabens in cosmetics and concluded, “At this time, we do not have information showing that parabens as they are used in cosmetics have an effect on human health.”
What has been the result of this big public scare? Products that become saturated with mold and bacteria that may be more harmful than parabens, according to a recent story in The Washington Post. In other words, products that don’t last as long, and might be unsafe.
The chemicals used to replace parabens have not been investigated as extensively, and may actually cause health harms. It is known that one of the replacement chemicals, methylisothiazolinone (MIT) has a greater likelihood of causing severe allergic reaction.
What concerns us most at the Center for Truth in Science is not the small study that was published showing parabens in breast tumors. It is not a “flawed” study or “shaky science” as The Washington Post reporter incorrectly labeled it.
Rather, it is the type of preliminary work that needs to be done and published in scientific literature so it can be built upon by the original investigator and other scientists to determine if there are any real health hazards. This is exactly what the authors of the 2004 study wrote in their conclusions, as good scientists do:
“These measurements of paraben concentrations in breast tumours open the way technically to more detailed determinations of paraben levels in human body tissues. This study used 20 breast tumour samples because of the availability of the material. However, it will now be important to measure levels in corresponding normal tissue to determine whether there is any difference between normal and cancer tissues. Larger studies also are needed to give more representative values for body burdens in different tissues and across the human population.”
The other big question raised by the study that needs to be carefully explored is whether or not the presence of parabens, in the concentrations they were discovered, is tied to any health issue.
What does concern the Center, however, is the exploitation of these preliminary findings by overzealous advocates and media outlets to create unnecessary panic over the use of deodorant and cosmetics. This does not help women around the globe who are rightly conscientious about reducing risk for a serious and prevalent disease like breast cancer.
Instead, let the science play out as it is supposed to. Further studies since the 2004 publication have not established a causal connection between using products with parabens and breast cancer. Until this changes, women can instead focus on breast health by having regular checkups and screenings, moderating their alcohol use, maintaining a healthy body weight, and exercising.