Do parabens affect breast cancer cells in women?

Parabens, a common ingredient in food, medicine, and personal care products, may accelerate the growth of breast cancer cells.

A woman using paraben product for her hair likely to develop breast cancer.

What are parabens?

Parabens are chemicals that are commonly used as preservatives in a wide range of consumer-packaged goods. Those products range from beer and grated cheese to makeup and shampoo.


While preservatives are important to keep products fresh and safe, these chemicals have long been linked to increased cancer risk. Now, new evidence shows they can cause and accelerate the growth of breast cancer cells in Black women.



A brief history of parabens?

Parabens are used as preservatives because they’re cheap to produce and pass through the body quickly. Although any chemical has an impact on the body’s function, parabens didn’t seem to cause immediate harm. As a result, they were so widely adopted that nearly every American can expect to have parabens in their system at any given time.


Parabens are especially prevalent in the cosmetics and personal care industries. They’re used in everything from makeup to shampoo.


In recent years, you may have noticed that makeup and skincare products especially have become much more nuanced in their marketing. They have more sophisticated components designed to improve skin aesthetics.


As these products’ formulas have gotten more complex, the need for preservatives has also grown. In many cases, that’s led to higher concentrations of parabens (or other preservatives) in the products.


In 2004, a British study of the growth of breast cancer cells was published by Philippa Darbre. The study found parabens inside 19 out of 20 tissue samples from breast cancer patients.


Although the researchers could not establish a conclusive link between parabens and breast cancer cells at the time, the findings changed conventional wisdom. That’s because scientists had previously believed that parabens would be excreted from the body within 24 to 48 hours. That they would be found inside breast cancer tissue was certainly cause for concern.


Some consumers also experienced other effects of parabens. These include irritation and allergic reactions. The reactions are especially acute when paraben-containing products are applied to broken skin. They’re also worse for consumers who had a pre-existing conditions, like eczema, psoriasis, or contact dermatitis.


In addition to Darbre’s study, scientists had also found that high concentrations of parabens contributed to the growth of breast cancer cells in animals. That means they were known to have dangerous effects.


The cosmetics industry argued that the concentrations used in those studies were extraordinarily high. They contended that the exposure levels consumers would experience from their products would never have the same result. Regardless, concerns persisted, and information suggesting that parabens may pose a health risk continued to mount.


Major cosmetics and personal care brands, like Proctor & Gamble and Johnson & Johnson never publicly acknowledged the link between parabens and the growth of breast cancer cells. However, they did begin to launch “paraben-free” alternative products.


They created a selling point out of not using a chemical in one product that they used in numerous other products. Most paraben-free product lines carried a premium price and were marketed to mainstream America.


The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has never regulated parabens. That means that although they must be identified on product labels, they’re not subject to any monitoring or control. Manufacturers can use all the parabens they want to keep their products safe.


That’s because there has not been scientific research that shows a direct cause-and-effect relationship between parabens and breast cancer cells.



What’s the link between parabens and breast cancer?

When applied to the skin, parabens are quickly absorbed through it and enter the bloodstream. There, parabens mimic the female sex hormone, estrogen. That can cause the body to react in various ways.


A woman’s endocrine system naturally produces estrogen at levels that control all aspects of the reproductive system. When the body “discovers” additional estrogen, it may produce it less naturally, and it may be disrupted in other ways.


Does paraben cause cancer? That has yet to be proven. However, excess estrogen has repeatedly been shown to contribute to the development of breast cancer cells. It also has been shown to impact the reproductive system.



What’s changed?

In June of this year, a new study presented at the annual meeting of the Endocrine Society seemed to show the link the FDA hasn’t yet acknowledged.


The study was conducted by researchers at the Department of Population Sciences at City of Hope in Los Angeles, CA. It showed that parabens accelerate the growth of breast cancer cells from a West African cell line.


Previously, all the research that had been done had used European cell lines, meaning the link between parabens and breast cancer in Black women had never been studied exhaustively.


Remember how the paraben-free products marketed by personal care brands like Johnson & Johnson tend to carry a premium price? Even after those options were introduced, products that were sold in drugstores, bodegas, party stores, and urban grocers mostly contained parabens. In addition, products that were marketed specifically to Black women were also not “paraben-free.”


It shows a cold calculus on the part of product marketers to push products containing a potentially hazardous chemical to women of a certain race. When it turns out that the chemical accelerates the growth of breast cancer cells in those very women, it seems like something worse.


By studying the concentrations of parabens in urine from individuals of various population groups, it’s possible to judge whether the exposure to parabens is higher for one group versus another. When the City of Hope researchers did this, they found parabens in significantly higher concentrations in Black women.


That’s the same population that’s most likely to produce breast cancer cells as a result. Among women under 40, Black women are also more likely to develop breast cancer than any other racial or ethnic group.



What happens now?

The City of Hope research will likely lead to additional research. This will explore the effects of parabens on Black women and other populations of color.


As that body of research expands, the FDA may take steps to regulate parabens. Also, lawsuits will likely be filed to penalize companies for targeting their marketing of a dangerous product to the Black community.


If you think you may have been harmed by parabens and would like to discuss your experience with an experienced personal injury attorney, click here to request a free consultation.