Personal Care Products: Are You at Risk for Cancer?

Sara Frost Azzam

Guest Columnist, The Wellesley Townsman

October 27, 2005

(First in a two-part series on the cosmetics industry.)

Many women, including myself, proudly wear our pink ribbons, particularly during the month of October, which is Breast Cancer Awareness month. For many corporations, pink ribbons are a legitimate way to raise money for prevention and a cure. For a few corporations, whose products contribute to the incidence of breast cancer, these ribbons are a terrific marketing gimmick that distracts us from the risk of using their products. This article seeks to help you, as educated consumers, more prudently choose the low-risk products provided for us by responsible, health-conscious manufacturers.

Cosmetics are a good pace to begin. You can buy several different brands of cosmetics that are manufactured by companies that purport to be supporting breast cancer research without your knowing that their product lines contain parabens and phthalates possibly linked to breast cancer. Fortunately, there is a new website called “Skin Deep” which allows consumers to find the products they use and check them for their toxicity levels: http://www.ewg.org/reports/skindeep2/index.php You can use this website to match up the products you use with their toxicity levels to ultimately feel more comfortable about the companies your money supports.

I have already stopped using nail polish, as some of you may recall from a column that I wrote several years ago. However, even as a fairly educated consumer, I was surprised to learn that some of the products I use for face, body, hair, teeth, and eyes are not as benign as I had previously thought. As an individual with a family history of breast cancer, who does due diligence on all products with chemicals, I was shocked. There are no limits imposed by the FDA for chemicals in cosmetics and no regulation of their health effects. In fact, 89% of ingredients used in products we use every day have not been tested for safety.[1] The average person may use at least 10 different personal care products in a day. This number may seem high, but try counting it as you go through your daily routine. Whether you are male or female, there is: shampoo, conditioner, soap, saline solution (if you wear contact lenses), toothpaste, moisturizer, shaving cream, perfume/aftershave, styling product, deodorant, mouthwash. If you are female, add to this list any nail polish and make-up that you use. Then, think about this alarming statistic: up to 70% of what is applied to the skin is believed to be absorbed into the body. [2]

Moreover, I now have a daughter who will soon reach the years where she thinks about her appearance. I am concerned about the products she may choose to use. Although I would like to think that breast cancer will be eradicated in my time, the proverbial “light at the end of the tunnel” (for me) is that it will be eradicated in her lifetime. To this end, I need to educate not only myself, but my daughter as well. Anyone reading this article who is a concerned parent, consumer, or both, there are steps that you can take.

First and foremost, I would urge parents to educate their daughters about their use of nail polish. Several years ago at a science fair in a poorly ventilated gym, I complained to the school principal about an exhibit that some fifth grade girls were showing that was an “automatic nail polish remover.” The gym reeked of acetone and the many ingredients of nail polish. The exhibitors nearby were coughing and complaining of headaches. Although it was a unique (and actually workable!) idea, I feel that those parents and daughters would have chosen something less harmful to themselves and to the environment had they known about the risks involved in using nail polish and nail polish remover. Check out the Skin Deep website to research the types of nail polish that are less harmful to your daughters. Nail polish is one of the most harmful cosmetic products your daughter can use. Be educated and prudent in what you allow her to use. If, as a typical adolescent, she fights you on this, show her the results on the Skin Deep website. Show her the results of the other personal care products she uses as well. Help her to understand the ramifications of her choices.

Remember that cosmetics use is not limited to women. Men use skin care products, shaving cream, shampoos, and facial cleansing products as well. I urge all men to check out the website, do a “search” on the products they use, and be prudent in your purchases, as well as the purchases made by your sons. There is a careful path that men, as well as women, must tread in their use of body and hair products. Just conducting a search on shaving creams was rather alarming. Check out the products you use, and see how they rate.

The government does not mandate safety studies of cosmetics. Only 11 percent of the 10,500 ingredients that the FDA has documented in cosmetics have been assessed for safety by the cosmetic industry’s review panel. This is an alarmingly small number of chemicals that have passed any kind of safety review before consumer use.

Here are some other steps that everyone can take to prevent exposure to potentially toxic chemicals in one’s daily life:

Before purchasing any personal care product, check it out on the Skin Deep website.

Educate yourself by using the “Custom Shopping List” feature of the Skin Deep website to find products that have fewer potential health issues. If the products you use are rated poorly on the website, then use fewer products.

Reduce chemical contact from your daily routine. If you cut down on the number of chemicals contacting your skin every day, you will reduce many potential health risks. This may be a tough step to take, but part of growing old is celebrating our aging. Do we all need to cover our gray? If this is something you feel strongly about, then cut out a chemical somewhere else in your routine. If you like the look of nail polish, maybe you could use it on your toenails, but not on your fingernails, or vice versa.

Give up scented products and choose products that are fragrance free, including the candles and room fresheners you use in your home.

To improve your health and reduce risks, be sparing AND educated in your use of chemicals. As Mom always said: “it is better to be safe than sorry.”


[1] The Environmental Working Group

[2] The Environmental Working Group