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Parabens: Do They Cause Cancer and Do They Prevent Chemo From Killing It?

Parabens and their links to breast cancer are in the news again. Widely used as preservatives in many cosmetic and toiletry products like antiperspirants, parabens have been found to have an estrogen-like effect in the body, and estrogen is an established risk factor for breast cancer. Numerous studies have questioned whether parabens can be linked to the development, growth and progression of breast cancer. Most recently, the University of Reading, in England, studied 160 tissue samples from 40 women who underwent mastectomies between 2005 and 2008. This month, the findings were published online in the Journal of Applied Toxicology.

Ninety-nine percent of tissue samples were found to contain at least one paraben and 60 percent of samples were positive for five of the most common parabens (methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben and isobutylparaben). Most importantly, women who said they never used deodorant–most deodorants are known to contain parabens–had measurable parabens in their breast tissue. The implications of this study seem to indicate that parabens are entering the breast from sources other than deodorant.

The study’s chief researcher, Dr. Philippa Darbre, did a similar but smaller study in 2004. The levels of parabens found in her most recent study were four times higher than the 2004 study. “Since 2004, many manufacturers, although not all, have been removing parabens from the underarm deodorant/antiperspirant products and so I was rather surprised when we found higher levels of parabens in these (more recent) breast tissues,” Darbre said. Dr. Michael J. Thum, vice president emeritus of epidemiology and surveillance research for the American Cancer Society was quick to point out that just “because parabens were detected in the majority of the breast tissue samples cannot be taken to imply that they actually caused the breast cancer.”

So, where does this most recent study leave us? Should we avoid products that contain parabens or should we wait until more and larger studies are conducted? Dr. William Goodson, principal researcher at the California Pacific Medical Center says that methylparaben can also interfere with the effectiveness of drugs used to fight breast cancer. Goodman took noncancerous breast cells from high-risk patients, grew them in a laboratory and found that once the cells were exposed to methylparaben, they started behaving like cancer cells. Tamoxifen, a drug designed to prevent or treat cancer, slows down the growth of both healthy and cancerous breast cells and ultimately leads to their death. However, when tamoxifen was introduced in the lab, the cells exposed to methylparaben kept growing and didn’t die. “Methylparaben not only mimics estrogen’s ability to drive cancer, but appears to be even better than the natural hormone in bypassing the ability of drugs to treat it,” Goodson said.

Clearly more paraben/breast cancer studies need to be conducted. The FDA believes that “at the present time there is no reason for consumers to be concerned about the use of cosmetics containing parabens.” If parabens are winding up in breast tissue in ways other than deodorant, and parabens can interfere with chemo’s ability to kill cancer, I’m not waiting for “the ultimate study” to tell me to avoid parabens.

There are lots of great body care and cosmetic products on the market that don’t contain parabens. If you have a Whole Foods in your area, ask the sales clerk to advise you. I’ve bought, and used, almost every deodorant, shampoo, facial cleanser and moisturizer Whole Food’s carries and have found my personal favorites that work best for me.