While the chemicals in cosmetics make us look, feel, and smell better, research strongly suggests that at certain exposure levels, some of these chemicals may contribute to the development of cancer in people. But because personal care products contain a diverse combination of chemicals, it's nearly impossible to show a definite cause and effect for any specific chemical on its own.
Still, many of these chemicals are considered hormone disruptors. Hormone disruptors can affect how estrogen and other hormones act in the body, by blocking them or mimicking them, which throws off the body's hormonal balance. Because estrogen can make hormone-receptor-positive breast cancer develop and grow, many women choose to limit their exposure to these chemicals that can act like estrogen.
Steps you can take
While cosmetics and personal care products are made up of a number of ingredients, there are two groups of chemicals that are being studied for links to breast cancer.
- Parabens (the most common are methylparaben, propylparaben, ethylparaben, and butylparaben) are chemicals commonly used as preservatives in many cosmetic products, including makeup, moisturizers, hair care products, and shaving creams/gels (most major brands of antiperspirants and deodorants don't contain parabens). Parabens can penetrate the skin and act like a very weak estrogen in the body -- potentially turning on the growth of hormone-receptor-positive breast cancers. Parabens have been found in breast tissue and breast cancers, but this really doesn't mean much. Parabens have been found in many other tissues because of their wide use.
- Phthalates are commonly used to hold color and reduce brittleness in nail polish and hair spray. They're also a component of many personal care and cleaning product fragrances. Phthalates are a hormone disruptor. Phthalates don't act exactly like estrogen, but they can disrupt the balance of other hormones that interact with estrogen, including testosterone.
To reduce your exposure to parabens and phthalates in cosmetics:
- Visit the Environmental Working Group's (EWG) Skin Deep website to search for cosmetic products. Products are given a hazard score by EWG based on the ingredients' links to cancer, allergies, and other issues. The EWG is an environmental health advocacy organization based in the United States.
- The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics (the EWG is a partner) created a voluntary agreement called the Compact for Safe Cosmetics. Companies that signed the compact agreed to make all their products "free of chemicals that are known or strongly suspected of causing cancer, mutation, or birth defects." The compact is now closed to new companies, but the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics is developing a new program. Until that program launches, visit the Skin Deep website to see companies and products that are in compliance with the Compact.