The alkyl esters of p-hydroxybenzoic acid (parabens), which are used as preservatives in consumer products, possess oestrogenic activity and have been measured in human breast tissue. This has raised concerns for a potential involvement in the development of human breast cancer. In this paper, we have investigated the extent to which proliferation of MCF-7 human breast cancer cells can be increased by exposure to the five parabens either alone or in combination at concentrations as recently measured in 160 human breast tissue samples. Determination of no-observed-effect concentrations (NOEC), lowest-observed-effect concentrations (LOEC), EC50 and EC100 values for stimulation of proliferation of MCF-7 cells by five parabens revealed that 43/160 (27%) of the human breast tissue samples contained at least one paraben at a concentration ≥ LOEC and 64/160 (40%) > NOEC. Proliferation of MCF-7 cells could be increased by combining all five parabens at concentrations down to the 50th percentile (median) values measured in the tissues. For the 22 tissue samples taken at the site of ER + PR + primary cancers, 12 contained a sufficient concentration of one or more paraben to stimulate proliferation of MCF-7 cells. This demonstrates that parabens, either alone or in combination, are present in human breast tissue at concentrations sufficient to stimulate the proliferation of MCF-7 cells in vitro, and that functional consequences of the presence of paraben in human breast tissue should be assessed on the basis of all five parabens and not single parabens individually. Copyright © 2013 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.