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Can Cosmetics Cause Breast Cancer?
A small study from several years ago sparked concerns that parabens, preservatives found in cosmetics, could be linked to breast cancer.
By Diana Rodriguez
Medically Reviewed by Lindsey Marcellin, MD, MPH
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Cosmetics and many skin care products, including lotions, sunscreens, and deodorants, contain chemicals called parabens. Parabens are preservatives, which help to prevent bacterial growth in your bottle of lotion or tube of mascara. Though their intention is to keep you healthy, a study from a few years ago sparked alarm about parabens and the possibility that they might increase breast cancer risk.
Since that study, there has been much concern over — and evaluation of — the safety of parabens in relation to breast cancer. Upon further review and analysis, researchers have made many discoveries about parabens. To start off, they don't build up in the body from the use of cosmetics. Parabens were found to be non-toxic and, in animals, they were non-carcinogenic — they didn't cause cancer. And although researchers did measure some estrogen-like activity of parabens, it was significantly weaker than the natural estrogens found in the body, which do have a role in breast cancer risk.
Parabens: Why the Concern?
The small 2004 study examined breast cancer cells and discovered small amounts of parabens within those tissues. Researchers speculated that parabens in deodorant reached breast cells and tissues because deodorant is applied close to the breasts.
Previous studies showed that parabens have some characteristics similar to the hormone estrogen, which is known to promote breast cancer cell growth. The more estrogen a woman encounters — from taking estrogen medications, being obese, or experiencing menopause late in life — the greater her risk of breast cancer.
So it seemed plausible that parabens, with their estrogen-like properties (albeit weak), could also increase breast cancer risk in the way that estrogen does. However, the study neglected to resolve some outstanding questions. For instance, researchers didn't prove that parabens caused breast cancer. The study simply found that parabens were present, without explanation of what caused them to appear in breast cancer cells.
These researchers also didn't examine levels of parabens found in healthy cells or compare them to the levels of parabens in breast cancer cells. Nor did they determine where the parabens in the breast cancer cells came from — parabens are found in a number of different makeup and skin care products, and even some foods.
No study has been able to show that parabens or the use of deodorants, skin care products, or cosmetics that contain parabens directly cause or increase the risk of breast cancer. To determine if parabens really do increase breast cancer risk, many more large studies need to be conducted.
If You Prefer to Avoid Parabens
The fact that there is no study proving that parabens influence breast cancer risk may not be comfort enough for a woman concerned about breast cancer.
If you're worried that someday parabens will be shown to be linked to breast cancer or if you're already at an increased risk for breast cancer, you may want to avoid using cosmetics and skin care products that contain these chemicals.
All you need to do is a little homework on your products. First, know what parabens are called, then check labels on your product for any of the terms:
You can also call cosmetics companies to find out if their products contain parabens or check their Web sites to see if product ingredients are listed. Several well-known brands are parabens-free, including Burt's Bees and Tom's of Maine, both of which are sold at many drug and grocery stores as well as online.
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