The Myths about Parabens

 Parabens are used as preservatives in cosmetics, food and pharmaceutical products. They basically give products a longer shelf life.

Consumers today are much more aware of ingredients and products that they buy. The media are also more tuned into publicising information about these ingredients. Often, people do not understand the full extent of studies done and only remember one or two aspects of scientific studies – mostly because these studies are too comprehensive and difficult for the average person to understand.

 There has been some increasing negative publicity and panic regarding parabens in recent years. Annique would like to bust some myths regarding parabens, by providing you with the real facts about these ingredients.

Myth #1: Parabens cause breast cancer

Origin of myth: A study1 completed by Darbre, Aljarrah, Miller, et al. in 2004 in the Journal of Applied Toxicology that found parabens in human breast tumours.

Actual conclusion in the Darbre et al. Study: Parabens were found in breast tumours. There was no evidence at all that parabens cause breast cancer or that they are harmful in any way.

Flaws in the study:

  1. The study was only done on breast cancer tissue. No studies were done on normal breast tissue to determine if levels of parabens differ between the two.
  2. Only 20 breast tumour samples were used in the study.  Harvey and Everett say that there needs to be more studies that are more representative for body burdens and across the human population.
  3. The tissue donors’ general history was not investigated to determine if they took anti-cancer medication containing parabens, to mention only a few.
  4. There were no studies done on the donor’s exposure to other consumer products that contain parabens.

Myth busted:  There is no scientific evidence that parabens cause breast cancer. This study proves that parabens were present in breast cancer tumours, NOT THAT THEY CAUSED breast cancer.   Some medication also contain parabens and that could also be the cause of parabens found in tissue. 

Myth #2: Parabens in underarm cosmetics cause breast cancer

Origin of myth: The Darbre study and an editorial letter by Harvey and Everett2 in the Journal of Applied Toxicology in 2004 about the link between parabens in underarm cosmetics and breast cancer.

Actual conclusion in the Harvey and Everett editorial:  There are unanswered questions in Dardre’s study and “The results alone, however, do not suggest that these chemicals caused the tumours in these patients.”

Flaws in the study: all the above mentioned flaws in Darbre’s study are also valid here.

Myth busted: The Scientific Committee of Consumer Products (SCCP) published their opinion3 in 2005: “..there is no evidence of demonstrable risk for the development of breast cancer caused by the use of paraben-containing underarm cosmetics” (p.6). There has been no link found between using underarm cosmetics containing parabens and breast cancer.

 More evidence:  The US National Cancer Institute also said the following on cancer and underarm cosmetics on their website4

Can antiperspirants or deodorants cause breast cancer?

Articles in the press and on the Internet have warned that underarm antiperspirants (a preparation that reduces underarm sweat) or deodorants (a preparation that destroys or masks unpleasant odours) cause breast cancer (1). The reports have suggested that these products contain harmful substances, which can be absorbed through the skin or enter the body through nicks caused by shaving. Some scientists have also proposed that certain ingredients in underarm antiperspirants or deodorants may be related to breast cancer because they are applied frequently to an area next to the breast (2, 3).

However, researchers at the National Cancer Institute (NCI), a part of the National Institutes of Health, are not aware of any conclusive evidence linking the use of underarm antiperspirants or deodorants and the subsequent development of breast cancer. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which regulates food, cosmetics, medicines, and medical devices, also does not have any evidence or research data that ingredients in underarm antiperspirants or deodorants cause cancer.”

Myth #3: Parabens mimic estrogen in the body and that causes cancer

Origin of myth: Parabens act similarly to estrogen in the body and it is believed that too much estrogen can cause cancer. Estrogen is a female hormone known to cause breast cells (normal and cancerous) to grow and divide. Some conditions that increase the body’s exposure to estrogen (not having children, late menopause, obesity, etc.) have been linked to an increased risk of breast cancer.

Myth busted: The US Food and Drug Administration says on their website that parabens have a much smaller effect in the body than its own estrogen and that the amounts of parabens in cosmetics are so small that is most unlikely that parabens can increase the risks associated with estrogenic chemicals.

You can read what the US Food and Drug Administration said about parabens in 2006 on their website5:

“FDA is aware that estrogenic activity in the body is associated with certain forms of breast cancer. Although parabens can act similarly to estrogen, they have been shown to have much less estrogenic activity than the body’s naturally occurring estrogen. For example, a 1998 study (Routledge et al., in Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology) 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). Further, parabens are used at very low  levels in cosmetics. In a review of the estrogenic activity of  parabens, (Golden et al., in Critical Reviews in Toxicology, 2005) the  author concluded that based on maximum daily exposure estimates, it  was implausible that parabens could increase the risk associated with exposure to estrogenic chemicals.”

FDA believes that at the present time there is no reason for consumers to be concerned about the use of cosmetics containing parabens.  However, the agency will continue to evaluate new data in this area.

If FDA determines that a health hazard exists, the agency will advise the industry and the public, and will consider its legal options under the authority of the FD&C Act in protecting the health and welfare of consumers.”


 Myth #4: The more products you use that contain parabens, the greater your risk

 Origin of myth: Studies done on animals using large amounts of concentrated parabens.

Myth busted: Parabens are permitted in concentrations of 1% or less in cosmetics. Most of the Annique products we all use daily only contain paraben levels of <0.01-0.3% accordingly.  An extremely minute amount is only used to preserve a formulation and in no way should scare you from using your favourite Annique products simply because parabens are listed among the ingredients.

Arendt and Schiller were two scientists awarded with the Nobel Prize for their work to validate the ideas of Paracelsus that there were no poisonous chemicals – only poisonous doses – this is true for natural ingredients as well. This is even applicable to water – if you drink too much water, it will harm you.

 As a matter of interest, Martha Molete answers the question about the possibility of deodorants causing cancer on CANSA’s website6 as follows:

 “No. This is a myth that was spread anonymously on the Internet.

There is no scientific evidence to support this claim. If the claim were true the incidence of breast cancer would have increased significantly after the advent of antiperspirants. This is not the case. The incidence of breast cancer has not changed much between 1930 (before antiperspirants) and 1980 (after antiperspirants). It is claimed that there are toxins in perspiration that are deposited in lymph nodes under the arm if one does not perspire and that these toxins can then cause breast cancer.

This is Not True. Toxins are metabolized in the liver and excreted through the kidneys. Men also get breast cancer but the incidence is 100 times less than women. Men use more antiperspirants than women do. One would thus have expected an explosion of breast cancer in men after the advent of antiperspirants. This has simply not happened. The incidence of breast cancer in men has remained stable over many years.”

Myth #5: Parabens are manmade chemicals

Origin of myth: Parabens are found in thousands if not tens of thousands of products. It is effective in preventing microbial activity. They are chemicals – thus they are bad for you.

Myth busted: Parabens are also components of a vast number of fruits and vegetables in order to naturally preserve them. Many fruit even produce their own pesticides! The more resistant fruit are to pests and deterioration, the more natural preservatives they contain. No one has studied these natural pesticides and how they affect our lives and health. So, we have no idea how many of these natural parabens are ingested when eating these fruits and vegetables.


The negative hype about parabens has been misconstrued into something that really has no scientific evidence. The two main studies conducted in recent years about parabens, have not proven that they are harmful to humans at all. Darbre et al.’s study found parabens in breast tumours, not that parabens cause cancer. Harvey and Everett’s study found no link between parabens and the use of underarm cosmetics. The irony is that these are the two studies that are used in the argument against parabens!

 Consumers need to be educated, and in fact educate themselves about issues like these. Believing the media without doing your own research is dangerous and can cause negativity exactly like the paraben myths.

 Parabens are not proven to cause cancer or to be harmful to humans – this view is supported by the American Cancer Society and the FDA.


  1. Darbre PD, Aljarrah A, Miller, WR, et al. 2004. Concentrations of

parabens in human breast tumours. Journal of Applied Toxicology 24(1): 5-13.

  1. Harvey PW, Everett DJ. 2004. Significance of the detection of esters of p-hydrobenzoic acid (parabens) in human breast tumours. Journal of  Applied Toxicology 24(1):1-4
  2. SCCP. 2005. Extended Opinion on the Safety Evaluation of Parabens, Underarm Cosmetics and Breast Cancer. (SCCP/0874/04)
  3. (American Cancer Society)
  4. (FDA)
  5.  (CANSA)
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