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. Copyright © 2008 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.