October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, dedicated to finding a cure for this leading cause of death in U.S. women ages 34 to 44. The rate of incidence among women has risen from 1 in 22 in the 1940s to 1 in 7 in 2004, and breast cancer is also on the rise in men. This is a month in which we can all become more aware of the many ways to reduce the risk of breast cancer, including an understanding of possible carcinogenic chemicals in the products we use on our bodies. And a new study about adolescent exposures to some of these substances underscores that it’s never too soon or too early to start thinking about prevention. Choosing greener, cleaner beauty products is one easy way to reduce iffy exposures.
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has tested 7,500 beauty products and found that 80 percent of them contained 146 chemicals linked to cancer. In this country, "12.2 million adults -- One of every 13 women and one of every 23 men -- are exposed to ingredients that are known or probable human carcinogens every day through their use of personal care products," EWG says. This is why watchdog organizations such as Breast Cancer Action (BCA) and the Breast Cancer Fund protest our government's lack of oversight over the $50 billion dollar cosmetic industry, allowing that "...a cosmetic manufacturer may use almost any raw material as a cosmetic ingredient and market the product without an approval from FDA" (FDA 1995). Happily, consumers have healthier alternatives than to trust in this sorry state of affairs.
What you can do
1) Read ingredients lists. Check the label of the product for key ingredients that have been strongly linked with breast cancer. A few of the top offenders include parabens, a preservative found in human breast tumors; "fragrance," which is shorthand for synthetics fragrances containing phthlates, a plasticizing material used in polyvinyl chloride PVC which has been strongly linked to endocrine system disruption by the Center for Disease Control; and ethoxylated chemicals, linked to 1,4-Dioxane, a foaming agent that the state of California announced is linked to cancer back in 1988. And the list goes on. To see more of the most hazardous commonplace chemicals found in products, take along this Dirty Dozen shoppers' card.
2) Check up on the products in your cosmetics kit. To vet your favorite potions, go to the Skin Deep database, which has over 25,000 products tested and exposed for toxicity levels. Can't find your product there? Post a comment saying so and we'll research it for you.
4) Take action. Sign the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics pledge urging major beauty companies like Estee Lauder, to stand behind their own Pink Ribbon Campaign and align their PR message with actually safer actual products. Use your dollars to support companies that are making equally effective cosmetics, but without jeopardizing our health. Great online organic beauty retailers include Future Natural, Nimli, or even Target's special Eco Beauty Section.
Story by Margaret Teich. This article originally appeared in Plenty in October 2008. The story was added to MNN.com.