Common preservatives in shampoos, body lotions, sunscreens and cosmetics may be increasing one’s risk for breast cancer – and current safety tests are likely undermining their pernicious effects.

These are the findings of a new study published on Oct. 27 in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives and conducted by researchers of the University of California, Berkeley. The spotlight in estrogen-mimicking chemicals called parabens, which are likely more dangerous at lower levels than previously believed.

Widely used in personal care products to prevent microbial growth, parabens are deemed estrogenic due to their ability to activate the same estrogen receptor as estradiol, a natural hormone. Scientific links have been made between estradiol and related estrogens and an increased breast cancer and reproductive disease risk.

While it is undetermined how much parabens might be contributing to breast cancer risk, lead investigator Dale Leitman, gynecologist and molecular biologist at UC Berkeley, warned that the danger may lie in parabens interacting with other agents – and with greater potency at lower doses.

The research said that current tests, however, study parabens in isolation and fail to consider that the chemicals could combine with other signaling molecule types in cells to increase cancer risk.

“[I]t’s also possible that the potency of other estrogen mimics [other than parabens] have been underestimated by current testing approached,” added co-author Chris Vulpe.

The study also raised concerns on how exposure to parabens and multiple chemicals may be riskier during critical development stages, including puberty and pregnancy.

According to the American Chemical Society, parabens are incorporated in around 85 percent of personal care products, from shampoo to shaving cream.

They have been under scrutiny for decades, with a 2004 study detecting parabens from deodorants in breast tumors and leading experts to question previously established safety tests.

For the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, however, the results were not too substantial to take parabens out of the products.

Being a savvy reader of product labels may be key in avoiding parabens, which are easily identified in ingredient lists as a suffix: methylparaben, propylparaben, and butylparaben, to name a few.

While these offenders are found in many anti-aging creams, moisturizers, perfumed products and certain makeup items, many companies are now actively avoiding them.

Photo: Takashi Ota | Flickr

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