This paper addresses the question of whether p-hydroxybenzoic acid, the common metabolite of parabens, possesses oestrogenic activity in human breast cancer cell lines. The alkyl esters of p-hydroxybenzoic acid (parabens) are used widely as preservatives in consumer products to which the human population is exposed and have been shown previously to possess oestrogenic activity and to be present in human breast tumour tissue, which is an oestrogen-responsive tissue. Recent work has shown p-hydroxybenzoic acid to give an oestrogenic response in the rodent uterotrophic assay. We report here that p-hydroxybenzoic acid possesses oestrogenic activity in a panel of assays in human breast cancer cell lines. p-Hydroxybenzoic acid was able to displace [3H]oestradiol from cytosolic oestrogen receptor of MCF7 human breast cancer cells by 54% at 5 × 106-fold molar excess and by 99% at 107-fold molar excess. It was able to increase the expression of a stably integrated oestrogen responsive reporter gene (ERE-CAT) at a concentration of 5 × 10−4 M in MCF7 cells after 24 h and 7 days, which could be inhibited by the anti-oestrogen ICI 182 780 (Faslodex, fulvestrant). Proliferation of two human breast cancer cell lines (MCF7, ZR-75-1) could be increased by 10−5 M p-hydroxybenzoic acid. Following on from previous studies showing a decrease in oestrogenic activity of parabens with shortening of the linear alkyl chain length, this study has compared the oestrogenic activity of p-hydroxybenzoic acid where the alkyl grouping is no longer present with methylparaben, which has the shortest alkyl group. Intrinsic oestrogenic activity of p-hydroxybenzoic acid was similar to that of methylparaben in terms of relative binding to the oestrogen receptor but its oestrogenic activity on gene expression and cell proliferation was lower than that of methylparaben. It can be concluded that removal of the ester group from parabens does not abrogate its oestrogenic activity and that p-hydroxybenzoic acid can give oestrogenic responses in human breast cancer cells. Copyright © 2005 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.