Parabens are used as preservatives in many thousands of cosmetic, food and pharmaceutical products to which the human population is exposed. Although recent reports of the oestrogenic properties of parabens have challenged current concepts of their toxicity in these consumer products, the question remains as to whether any of the parabens can accumulate intact in the body from the long-term, low-dose levels to which humans are exposed. Initial studies reported here show that parabens can be extracted from human breast tissue and detected by thin-layer chromatography. More detailed studies enabled identiﬁcation and measurement of mean concentrations of individual parabens in samples of 20 human breast tumours by high-pressure liquid chromatography followed by tandem mass spectrometry. The mean concentration of parabens in these 20 human breast tumours was found to be 20.6 ± 4.2 ng g−1 tissue. Comparison of individual parabens showed that methylparaben was present at the highest level (with a mean value of 12.8 ± 2.2 ng g−1 tissue) and represents 62% of the total paraben recovered in the extractions. These studies demonstrate that parabens can be found intact in the human breast and this should open the way technically for more detailed information to be obtained on body burdens of parabens and in particular whether body burdens are different in cancer from those in normal tissues. Copyright © 2004 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.