Skin Health
Mythfoliation: Do Parabens Cause Cancer?
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Paraben Panic. At VMV HYPOALLERGENICS®, we do not use parabens because they’re top allergens, not because they “cause cancer”.What is this scare based on?

First, that some parabens can be absorbed through the skin. Second, that parabens have “weak estrogen-like qualities”[1] and estrogen is linked to certain types of breast cancer. Third, that a 2004 study[2] found traces of parabens in breast tumors. These facts are true but they do not add up to “parabens cause cancer”.

Both the US FDA and American Cancer Society (ACS) independently point out that the study that found parabens in breast tumors does not conclude that parabens caused the tumors. The ACS states, “The study did not show that parabens caused or contributed to breast cancer development in these cases—it only showed that they were there. What this means is not yet clear.”

The FDA writes, “the study did not show that parabens cause cancer, or that they are harmful in any way, and the study did not look at possible paraben levels in normal tissue.”[3]

Parabens are not only found in cosmetics; they are widely used in food and drugs, too. The ACS notes, “This study did not contain any information to help find the source of the parabens found in breast tissue”, so it is unclear as to where the parabens in the breast tissue came from. They could have come from food or drugs which, being ingested, could result in more direct absorption into the body than when applied topically on the skin.

Furthermore, just as there is frequently more lead in the water we drink or the air we breathe than in most lipsticks, there is considerably more estrogen in other sources than in parabens. The ACS writes, “Although parabens have weak estrogen-like properties, the estrogens that are made in the body are hundreds to many thousands of times stronger. So, natural estrogens (or those taken as hormone replacement) are much more likely to play a role in breast cancer development.” The FDA echoes this, citing a study that “found that the most potent paraben tested in the study, butylparaben, showed from 10,000- to 100,000-fold less activity than naturally occurring estradiol (a form of estrogen).”

Moreover, cosmetics that do contain parabens usually use little of them. The Cosmetic Ingredient Review specified in toxicology reviews from 1985[4], 1986[5], 1995[6], and 2005[7] that parabens are safe to use in concentrations of up to 25%; yet most cosmetics use them at 0.01 to 0.3%.

The ACS concludes: “So far, studies have not shown any direct link between parabens and any health problems, including breast cancer. What has been found is that there are many other compounds in the environment that also mimic naturally produced estrogen.”
While the link between parabens and cancer is weak, the link between parabens and contact dermatitis is very strong. A 2001 review of the published literature on paraben safety[8] states, “Propyl paraben is not carcinogenic, mutagenic or clastogenic … (but) parabens have been implicated in numerous cases of contact sensitivity associated with cutaneous exposure.” This is corroborated by extensive published medical articles[9] and by their consistent inclusion in top allergen lists.[10]

Clearly it works in our favor to have hordes of “parabenighted” folk flock to our paraben-free products. But it would not be right to promote something as serious as a (still unproven) cancer scare. So, by all means, try our paraben-free topical products. But do so to reduce the risk of irritations—not for fear for anything more sinister.


2 Darbre et al. Concentrations of Parabens in Human Breast Tumours. Journal of Applied Toxicology 2004, 24, 5-13.


4 CIR (Cosmetic Ingredient Review). 1984. Final report on the safety assessment of methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben, and butylparaben. J Am Coll Toxicol, 3:147-209.

5 CIR. 1986. Final report on the safety assessment of benzylparaben. J Am Coll Toxicol, 5:301-7.

6 CIR. 1995. Final report on the safety assessment of isobutylparaben and isopropylparaben. J Am Coll Toxicol, 14:364-372.

7 Bergfeld WE, Belsito DV, Marks JG, Anderson FA 2005. Safety of ingredients used in cosmetics J Am Acad Dermatol 52:125”“132.

8 Soni MG, Burdock GA, Taylor SL, Greenberg NA. Safety assessment of propyl paraben: a review of the published literature. Food Chem Toxicol. 2001 Jun;39(6):513-32.

9 Just a few examples: Warshaw, E et al. Allergic patch test reactions associated with cosmetics: Contact Dermatitis Group, 2001-2004. J AmAcadDermatol 2009;60:23-38.
Cashman AL, Warshaw EM. Parabens: a review of epidemiology, structure, allergenicity, and hormonal properties Dermatitis; Mowad CM. Allergic contact dermatitis caused by parabens: 2 case reports and a review. Am J Contact Dermat. 2000 Mar;11(1):53-6; Shaffer MP, Williford PM, Sherertz EF. An old reaction in a new setting: the paraben paradox. Am J Contact Dermat. 2000 Sep;11(3):189; Verhaeghe I, Dooms-Goossens A. Multiple sources of allergic contact dermatitis from parabens. Contact Dermatitis. 1997 May;36(5):269-70.

10 Zug KA, Warshaw EM, Fowler JF, Maibach HI, Belsito DL, Pratt MD, et al. Patch-test results of the North American Contact Dermatitis Group 2005-2006. Dermatitis. 2009;20(3):149-60 ; and Uter W, Ramsch C, Aberer W, Ayala F, Balato et al. The European baseline series in 10 European countries. 23005/2006 – Results of the European Surveillance System on Contact Allergies (ESSCA). Contact Dermatitis. 2009;62:31-38

Click here to learn if more about parabens.

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Click here to learn more about the VH-Rating System.