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Exposure to Common Chemical During Pregnancy May Reduce Protection Against Breast Cancer

Propylparaben is a common chemical found in food, drugs, and cosmetics, and it may reduce a woman’s protection against breast cancer during pregnancy.

Riley Kleemeier

Research conducted by the University of Massachusetts Amherst suggests that the common chemical propylparaben is an “endocrine-disrupting chemical” that can interfere with hormones. The senior author of the study, environmental health scientist Laura Vandenberg, said that endocrine disruptors can affect organs like the mammary gland, which produces milk. 

The research was deemed “particularly newsworthy” by the Endocrine Society, and was presented at the group’s annual meeting, ENDO 2021.

A meeting of the Endocrine Society
The Endocrine Society is a global group. They are key players in accelerating scientific breakthroughs and advancing awareness that will lead to better health and wellbeing. Image courtesy of endocrine.org.

The Endocrine Society has 18,000 members and is devoted to furthering hormone research. They also aim to increase “understanding of the critical role hormones play in health.”

What is propylparaben?

Propylparaben is commonly used in cosmetics and other products. It prevents microbial contamination, thus expanding the shelf-life of a product. Microbial contamination occurs when there is exposure to bacteria and mold. In most products, propylparaben is used at low levels. The food, cosmetic, and pharmaceutical industries have been using propylparaben as an antimicrobial preservative for more than 50 years. 

Propylparaben is present in many common skincare products. It is used as a preservative to prevent microbial contamination. 

If skincare and cosmetic products did not contain propylparaben, they might only last for 2-4 weeks before becoming “rancid.”

Propylparaben also occurs naturally in some things, like barley, flaxseed, and grapes. 

Milk production during pregnancy

During pregnancy, a woman’s body produces hormones that both allow for production of milk, but are also partially responsible for reducing the risk of breast cancer in younger prospective mothers. Women who are pregnant at the age of 20 or younger have one-half the risk of developing breast cancer. 

The two hormones that affect breastfeeding are prolactin and oxytocin. Prolactin stimulates the growth of mammary tissue, preparing for milk production. During pregnancy, the levels of prolactin in the blood increase.

Oxytocin is key in making the milk flow through and fill the ducts in preparation for breastfeeding. Many mothers who are able to breastfeed choose to do so because of the important nutrients that breast milk contains for nursing infants. 

Mammary glands are exposed to higher levels of hormones, especially in the later stages of pregnancy. These elevated hormones, such as estradiol and progesterone, may create protection against breast cancer. 

Specifics of the study

Researchers performed testing on mice, finding that even exposure levels of propylparaben that were previously deemed safe disrupted the mammary glands. 

While the study did not specifically evaluate the risk of breast cancer, the changes in mammary tissue have implications in mitigating cancer risk in women. 

The researchers exposed the mice to propylparaben during the “vulnerable period of pregnancy and breastfeeding” to determine whether there were any adverse effects on the mammary gland. 

Five weeks after the female mice were exposed to the doses of propylparaben, scientists examined their mammary glands. According to their findings, the mice exposed to propylparaben had changes that were not “typical of pregnancy” in their mammary glands, compared to mice that had not received the propylparaben. 

Although this study did not specifically study breast cancer risk, the exposed mice had increased rates of cell proliferation, which can be a possible risk factor for breast cancer. Future studies could potentially elaborate on these risks.

Some more potential risk factors that were prevalent in the exposed mice were “less-dense epithelial structures, fewer immune cell types, and thinner periductal collagen.” Periductal collagen is the connective tissue of the mammary gland. All of these findings indicate changes that are not usually prevalent in pregnancy. 

Importance of these findings

Joshua Mogus, a Ph.D. student who co-authored the study, said that it is important to report these findings and continue to study whether pregnant women are actually more susceptible to breast cancer when exposed to propylparaben. Because propylparaben is present in many personal care products and food, it could be important for pregnant women to be aware of these risks. 

Mogus indicated that the effects of propylparaben “may be consistent with a loss of the protective effects that are typically associated with pregnancy.” 

Pregnant mothers want a safe and healthy pregnancy to protect both themselves and their baby. The research presented may indicate that pregnant or breastfeeding women should avoid propylparaben as much as possible. 

It could be important for pregnant or breastfeeding women to avoid this chemical as much as possible, though Mogus acknowledged that this could be difficult because it is so widely used. He encouraged public health agencies to “address endocrine-disrupting chemicals as a matter of policy.”  


Overall, this study has prevalence for pregnant women, or those who plan to become pregnant. Typically during pregnancy, hormones are released that protect against breast cancer, but these hormones may be disrupted by propylparaben. 

There is still more research to be done on this subject, but the study has promising results that may open the door for more research and studies to be done. 


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