What are Parabens and where are they found?
Parabens and para-hydroxybenzoic acid are synthetically produced preservatives used in personal care products, food and drink, medicines and pharmaceutical products. Parabens are also known as "para-hydroxybenzoic acid esters".
In the EU, eighteen different parabens are permitted for use in cosmetics and personal care products, the most common being ethyl paraben, methyl paraben, propyl paraben and butyl paraben (1). Parabens are also used in some food products. In the EU, ethyl paraben, methyl paraben and their sodium salts are permitted for use as preservatives in processed and precooked meat, cereal and potato based snacks, coated nuts, and confectionery. On food labels parabens may be listed as E214 (ethyl paraben), E215 (sodium ethyl paraben), E218 (methyl paraben), and E219 (sodium methyl paraben) (2).
Why should we be concerned?
Many people are exposed to parabens and para-hydroxybenzoic acid on a daily basis, particularly through the use of personal care products. These compounds are readily absorbed through the skin and the gut and excreted in urine (3). However, some of these compounds may be retained in the body (4). Parabens have been measured in blood and urine including that of pregnant women, amniotic fluid, placental tissue, cord blood and breast tissue (5, 6, 7). Parabens are also widespread in our environment (8, 9).
How are parabens linked to breast cancer?
There is evidence that parabens and para-hydroxybenzoic acid may act as oestrogenic endocrine disruptors (10). Parabens may increase breast cancer risk (11), particularly if exposure occurs during critical periods of development (12). Parabens may also be implicated in the proliferation of breast cancer (13, 14).
Breast Cancer UK position
Breast Cancer UK supports efforts to reduce the amounts of parabens permitted in products designed to be applied to the skin or used in food (15, 16).
Breast Cancer UK supports the long-term phase out of parabens in products designed to be applied to the skin or used in food.
Breast Cancer UK asks that cosmetics and personal care products no longer be exempt from the EU Regulation on Classification, Labelling and Packaging (EC) No 1272/2008, in order that they display hazard warnings if applicable.
1. Commission Regulation (EU) No 1004/2014 of 18 September 2014 amending Annex V to Regulation (EC) No 1223/2009 of the European Parliament and of the Council on cosmetic products (EC) No 1004/2014 Annex V/12. http://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?uri=CELEX:32014R1004 (accessed September 25, 2017)
2. Directive 2006/52/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 5 July 2006 amending Directive 95/2/EC on food additives other than colours and sweeteners and Directive 94/35/EC on sweeteners for use in foodstuffs. https://publications.europa.eu/en/publication-detail/-/publication/c5234caa-cfee-4e9e-8479-b174798b0b20/language-en (accessed September 25, 2017)
3. Jiménez-Díaz, I. et al. (2016) Urinary levels of bisphenol A, benzophenones and parabens in Tunisian women: A pilot study. Science of the Total Environment 562: 81–88. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27096629
4. Barr, L. et al. (2012) Measurement of paraben concentrations in human breast tissue at serial locations across the breast from axilla to sternum. Journal of. Applied Toxicology 32: 219–232. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22237600
5. Pycke, B. F. G. et al. (2015) Maternal and fetal exposure to parabens in a multiethnic urban U.S. population. Environment International 84: 193–200. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26364793
6. Towers, C. V. et al. (2015) Transplacental passage of antimicrobial paraben preservatives. Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology 25: 604–607. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25944699
7. Vela-Soria, F. et al. (2017) Assessment of parabens and ultraviolet filters in human placenta tissue by ultrasound-assisted extraction and ultra-high performance liquid chromatography-tandem mass spectrometry. Journal of Chromatography A 1487: 153–161. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28129936
8. Xue, J. et al. (2015) Elevated accumulation of parabens and their metabolites in marine mammals from the United States coastal waters. Environmental Science and Technology 49: 12071−12079. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26379094
9. Xue, X. et al. (2017) Trophic magnification of parabens and their metabolites in a subtropical marine food web. Environmental Science and Technology 51: 780−789. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27959523
10. Pugazhendhi, D. et al. (2005) Oestrogenic activity of p-hydroxybenzoic acid (common metabolite of paraben esters) and methylparaben in human breast cancer cell lines. Journal of Applied Toxicology 25(4):301-319. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16021681
11. Darbre, P. D. et. al. (2014) Parabens can enable hallmarks and characteristics of cancer in human breast epithelial cells: a review of the literature with reference to new exposure data and regulatory status. Journal of Applied Toxicology 34: 925–938. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25047802
12. Gopalakrishnan, K. et al. (2017) Changes in mammary histology and transcriptome profiles by low-dose exposure to environmental phenols at critical windows of development. Environmental Research 152: 233–243. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27810681
13. Pan, S. et al. (2016) Parabens and human epidermal growth factor receptor ligand cross-talk in breast cancer cells. Environmental Health Perspectives 124: 5 563-569. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26502914
14. Lillo, M. A. et al. (2016) Methylparaben stimulates tumor initiating cells in ER+ breast cancer models. Journal of Applied Toxicology 37: 417–425. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27581495
15. Commission Regulation (EU) No 1004/2014 of 18 September 2014 amending Annex V to Regulation (EC) No 1223/2009 of the European Parliament and of the Council on cosmetic products (EC) No 1004/2014 Annex V/12. op cit.
16. Directive 2006/52/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 5 July 2006 amending Directive 95/2/EC on food additives other than colours and sweeteners and Directive 94/35/EC on sweeteners for use in foodstuffs. op cit.
We would like to thank Professor Philippa Darbre, School of Biological Sciences, University of Reading, for her assistance in putting together this information.
Page last updated October 4, 2017