Paraben esters: review of recent studies of endocrine toxicity, absorption, esterase and human exposure, and discussion of potential human health risks.

Darbre PD1Harvey PW.

J Appl Toxicol. 2008 Jul;28(5):561-78. doi: 10.1002/jat.1358.



This toxicology update reviews research over the past four years since publication in 2004 of the first measurement of intact esters of p-hydroxybenzoic acid (parabens) in human breast cancer tissues, and the suggestion that their presence in the human body might originate from topical application of bodycare cosmetics. The presence of intact paraben esters in human body tissues has now been confirmed by independent measurements in human urine, and the ability of parabens to penetrate human skin intact without breakdown by esterases and to be absorbed systemically has been demonstrated through studies not only in vitro but also in vivo using healthy human subjects. Using a wide variety of assay systems in vitro and in vivo, the oestrogen agonist properties of parabens together with their common metabolite (p-hydroxybenzoic acid) have been extensively documented, and, in addition, the parabens have now also been shown to possess androgen antagonist activity, to act as inhibitors of sulfotransferase enzymes and to possess genotoxic activity. With the continued use of parabens in the majority of bodycare cosmetics, there is a need to carry out detailed evaluation of the potential for parabens, together with other oestrogenic and genotoxic co-formulants of bodycare cosmetics, to increase female breast cancer incidence, to interfere with male reproductive functions and to


influence development of malignant melanoma which has also recently been shown to be influenced by oestrogenic stimulation.


Significance of the detection of esters of p-hydroxybenzoic acid (parabens) in human breast tumours.

Harvey PWEverett DJ.

J Appl Toxicol. 2004 Jan-Feb;24(1):1-4.



This issue of Journal of Applied Toxicology publishes the paper Concentrations of Parabens in Human Breast Tumours by Darbre et al. (2004), which reports that esters of p-hydroxybenzoic acid (parabens) can be detected in samples of tissue from human breast tumours. Breast tumour samples were supplied from 20 patients, in collaboration with the Edinburgh Breast Unit Research Group, and analysed by high-pressure liquid chromatography and tandem mass spectrometry. The parabens are used as antimicrobial preservatives in underarm deodorants and antiperspirants and in a wide range of other consumer products. The parabens also have inherent oestrogenic and other hormone related activity (increased progesterone receptor gene expression). As oestrogen is a major aetiological factor in the growth and development of the majority of human breast cancers, it has been previously suggested by Darbre that parabens and other chemicals in underarm cosmetics may contribute to the rising incidence of breast cancer. The significance of the finding of parabens in tumour samples is discussed here in terms of 1). Darbre et al's study design, 2). what can be inferred from this type of data (and what can not, such as the cause of these tumours), 3). the toxicology of these compounds and 4). the limitations of the existing toxicology database and the need to consider data that is appropriate to human exposures.


Concentrations of parabens in human breast tumours.

Darbre PD1Aljarrah AMiller WRColdham NGSauer MJPope GS.

J Appl Toxicol. 2004 Jan-Feb;24(1):5-13.


Parabens are used as preservatives in many thousands of cosmetic, food and pharmaceutical products to which thehuman population is exposed. Although recent reports of the oestrogenic properties of parabens have challenged current concepts of their toxicity in these consumer products, the question remains as to whether any of the parabens can accumulate intact in the body from the long-term, low-dose levels to which humans are exposed. Initial studies reported here show that parabens can be extracted from human breast tissue and detected by thin-layer chromatography. More detailed studies enabled identification and measurement of mean concentrations of individual parabens in samples of 20 human breast tumours by high-pressure liquid chromatography followed by tandem mass spectrometry. The mean concentration of parabens in these 20 human breast tumours was found to be 20.6 +/- 4.2 ng x g(-1) tissue. Comparison of individual parabens showed that methylparaben was present at the highest level (with a mean value of 12.8 +/- 2.2 ng x g(-1) tissue) and represents 62% of the total paraben recovered in the extractions. These studies demonstrate that parabens can be found intact in the human breast and this should open the way technically for more detailed information to be obtained on body burdens of parabens and in particular whether body burdens are different in cancer from those in normal tissues.


Endocrine disrupters and human health: could oestrogenic chemicals in body care cosmetics adversely affect breast cancer incidence in women?

Harvey PW1Darbre P.

J Appl Toxicol. 2004 May-Jun;24(3):167-76.



In the decade that has elapsed since the suggestion that exposure of the foetal/developing male to environmental oestrogens could be the cause of subsequent reproductive and developmental effects in men, there has been little definitive research to provide conclusions to the hypothesis. Issues of exposure and low potency of environmental oestrogens may have reduced concerns. However, the hypothesis that chemicals applied in body care cosmetics (including moisturizers, creams, sprays or


lotions applied to axilla or chest or breast areas) may be affecting breast cancer incidence in women presents a different case scenario, not least in the consideration of the exposure issues. The specific cosmetic type is not relevant but the chemical ingredients in the formulations and the application to the skin is important. The most common group of body care cosmetic formulation excipients, namely p-hydroxybenzoic acid esters or parabens, have been shown recently to be oestrogenic in vitro and in vivo and now have been detected inhuman breast tumour tissue, indicating absorption (route and causal associations have yet to be confirmed). The hypothesis for a link between oestrogenic ingredients in underarm and body care cosmetics and breast cancer is forwarded and reviewed here in terms of: data on exposure to body care cosmetics and parabens, including dermal absorption; paraben oestrogenicity; the role of oestrogen in breast cancer; detection of parabens in breast tumours; recent epidemiology studies of underarm cosmetics use and breast cancer; the toxicology database; the current regulatory status of parabens and regulatory toxicology data uncertainties. Notwithstanding the major public health issue of the causes of the rising incidence of breast cancer in women, this call for further research may provide the first evidence that environmental factors may be adversely affecting human health by endocrine disruption, becauseexposure to oestrogenic chemicals through application of body care products (unlike diffuse environmental chemical exposures) should be amenable to evaluation, quantification and control. The exposure issues are clear and the exposed population is large, and these factors should provide the necessary impetus to investigate this potential issue of public health.


Parabens, oestrogenicity, underarm cosmetics and breast cancer: a perspective on a hypothesis.

Harvey PW.

J Appl Toxicol. 2003 Sep-Oct;23(5):285-8.



A recent review by Darbre (2003) published in this journal (J. Appi. Toxicol. 23: 89-95) has attracted public and scientific interest that requires perspective, particularly on the use of esters of p-hydroxybenzoic acid (parabens) as preservatives in underarm cosmetics. Although parabens are generally regarded as safe, recent reports suggest


that they are oestrogenic in a variety of in vitro (including MCF7 and ZR-75-1 human breast cancer cell lines) and in vivo tests for oestrogenicity (uterotrophic assays in both rat and mouse). There are also recent reports of adverse reproductive and developmental outcomes in rodent toxicity studies. Of interest is the lack of activity by the oral route but clear activity by the subcutaneous and topical routes, which is of some relevance to the use of underarm cosmetics. There would seem to be a case now to supplement these emerging toxicity data with longer-term regulatory standard tests examining other oestrogenic endpoints and at least to consider these findings in more up-to-date risk assessments specific for cosmetic use. Further, there are few data on the use of underarm cosmetics and the risk of breast cancer, and although one recent retrospective interview-based study found no association there is a need for more thorough investigation taking into account the type of chemicals used. Darbre has forwarded a hypothesis and called for further work to establish whether or not the use of underarm cosmetics (particularly containing oestrogenic formulants) contributes to the rising incidence of breast cancer. It would seem prudent to conduct this work because the current database is sparse and the effects of long-term low-level exposures to weakly oestrogenic chemicals on humanhealth, particularly their application to the underarm and the risks of breast cancer, are unknown. The role of oestrogens in breast cancer, however, is undisputed.




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