parabens: the truth is out there (2)

The main actual research re. parabens: as misread, misrepresented, & generally abused by way too many consumer “protection” and “information” organizations: should know better, should do better, irresponsible, and of course stupid. Originally posted on MUA’s Green Board on 20 April 2010:

a full-ish answer re. the parabens issue


McGrath, Kris (2003 Dec). “An earlier age of breast cancer diagnosis related to more frequent use of antiperspirants/deodorants and underarm shaving”. European Journal of Cancer Prevention 12 (6): 479–85. doi:10.1097/00008469-200312000-00006. 14639125.

Darbre PD, Aljarrah A, Miller WR, Coldham NG, Sauer MJ, Pope GS (2004 Jan-Feb). “Concentrations of parabens in human breast tumours”. Journal of Applied Toxicology 24 (1): 5–13. doi:10.1002/jat.958. 14745841.

Harvey PW, Everett DJ (2004). “Significance of the detection of esters of p-hydroxybenzoic acid (parabens) in human breast tumours”. Journal of Applied Toxicology 24 (1): 1–4. doi:10.1002/jat.957. 14745840.

Vince G (12 January 2004). “Cosmetic chemicals found in breast tumours”. New Scientist.

Harvey PW, Darbre P (2004). “Endocrine disruptors and human health: Could estrogenic chemicals in body care cosmetics adversely affect breast cancer incidence in women? A review of evidence and call for further research”. Journal of Applied Toxicology 24 (3): 167–76. doi:10.1002/jat.978. 15211609.

Lagorio, Christine (Dec. 5, 2005). “The Cancer-Antiperspirant “Myth”: Could Shaving And Antiperspirant Be Related To Breast Cancer?”. CBS News. Retrieved 2 Jan 2009.

Golden R, Gandy J, Vollmer G (2005). “A review of the endocrine activity of parabens and implications for potential risks to human health”. Critical Reviews in Toxicology 35 (5): 435–58. doi:10.1080/10408440490920104. 16097138.

Namer M, Luporsi E, Gligorov J, Lokiec F, Spielmann M (2008 Sep). “[The use of deodorants/antiperspirants does not constitute a risk factor for breast cancer”] (in French with English abstract). Bulletin du Cancer 95 (9): 871–80. doi:10.1684/bdc.2008.0679 (inactive 2010-04-16). 18829420.


Experiments: UK (2004), led by Philippa Darbre: tissue samples from 20 breast-cancer cases analysed, parabens found in 18 of them. See Darbre, Harvey et al above.
US (2004), led by Kris McGrath (Northwestern).
Those first studies suggested a link–given the kind of estrogen breakdown and location of the tumours–with underarm deodorant use. A “better safe than sorry” approach was indicated, until further studies produced more definitive results one way or the other.

A (2005) meta-data analysis (review of all the experimental data and associated publication) concluded insufficient evidence + implausibility of causation + dietary sources of parabens shouldn’t be ruled out. The American Cancer Society also concluded insufficient evidence but need for further studies.

A second (2008) meta-data analysis, reviewing all pertinent publications, concluded no scientific evidence to support the hypothesis that parabens cause breast cancer. This study looked also at issues of scientific methodology, including proper hypothesis-formation. It deemed no further research *of this sort* was needed or would be useful, as further similar experiments would not produce evidence of causation. (Full article in French, am happy to translate if useful).


So: more experiments needed, but of a different sort, that would actually prove a direct, active causal relation.

Major issues with the original data:
(1) sample size: 20
(2) other things found too
(3) no causal relation proven between the presence of parabens and the cancer: NB very important difference between COINCIDENCE, CORRELATION, and CAUSE. This is a very important point (crucial to the 2008 meta-data analysis, and pre-101 level logic).
(4) even if parabens were more than coincidentally connected to the cancer, the following were not proven:
(a) solitary independent cause, acting alone, not in concert with other factors;
(b) source of the parabens: local topical application (moisturisers, deodorant)? other topical application elsewhere (skincare all over, cosmetics)? ingested i.e. food source?

On the other hand:

Avoiding parabens in deodorant or not, that is the question: presumed innocent until proven guilty, or presumed guilty until proven innocent? Following proper scientific methodology, remember that very little can be proven whereas it is easier to disprove. See also the very notion of “hypothesis”: it’s not a thesis, a grand statement, it’s a hypo-one: it comes before such things, always looking tentatively forwards, hypothetically …

I for one am using paraben-loaded stuff with joyous abandon (cos I fear skin infections, have had them before, and know their risks are statistically much higher anyway). EXCEPT for deodorant. Using my not-yet-petented “deodowich” of zinc oxide cream (currently A-Derma Dermalibour), a potassium alum-based deodorant (Lafe’s Spray, but any crystal rock/mineral one will do, look for potassium alum in the ing. list), and dusting-powder on top (Burt’s Bees Baby Bee Dusting powder: contains useful cornstarch, bicarbonate of soda, and clay, all good for stemming the stench…)

gratuitous chocolate

IV. POSTSCRIPT (from subsequent discussion, which I’ll spare you)

NB: the issues of 1. no causal link proven +2. topical/ingested source + 3. as ever with issues of toxicity, probability COMBINED WITH dosage.

Also, in 2008 there were 59 (properly peer-reviewed) journal articles on the topic. More now in 2010.
It’s simply not reasonable/rational to pick and choose this way, take one article and reject all the others–at all–especially given that one article is from the very start of the debate. That’s not how reasoning or scientific methodology work!
But hey, it’s a free country/free-ish planet, buy and use whatever you want.


Thinking of playing safe? Suggest learning a bit more about how human skin works.Barrier function on adults is very different from that (a.k.a. none to little, as the thing grows) in infants under 2-3. Yes, sure, if I had a small child I’d avoid parabens: and about a billion other things: in those first 2-3 years of life, while the skin barrier is forming. Mine would be child with skin only touched by (softened filtered etc.) water, plain oils like sunflower or sweet almond or sesame, and organic unbleached undied hand-spun hand-woven cotton, silk, etc. (probably also made from recycled fibres, to be more environmentally-sound).

But I’m an adult, with a fully functioning skin barrier. Even if it’s thin, it’s still there and a different beast from the infantile fledgling sort.

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