10 Things About... Cosmetic Chemicals Linked to Breast Cancer

Written by Sharima Rasanayagam, Ph.D.

Chemicals linked to breast cancer have no place in anyone’s beauty routine, yet they are found on store shelves across the United States. Due to an outdated and weak law governing cosmetics, carcinogens have not yet been banned, or even restricted, for use in cosmetics in the United States.

1. Phthalates. Banned from cosmetics in the European Union, phthalates are widely used in color cosmetics, fragranced lotions, body washes, and other products sold in the United States. Pronounced THAL-ates, these chemicals are linked to endocrine disruption, developmental and reproductive toxicity, and cancer. Avoid this chemical by reading labels on nail products, choosing options that do not contain dibutyl phthalate (DBP), and avoiding fragrances altogether.

12. 1,4-dioxane. 1,4-dioxane, a carcinogen linked to organ toxicity, may be found in 22 percent of cosmetic products, but cannot be found on ingredient labels. This ingredient is not labeled because it is a contaminant created when common ingredients react when mixed together. Read labels and avoid products that contain sodium laureth sulfate, polyethylene glycol (PEG) compounds, and chemicals that include the clauses xynol, ceteareth, and oleth.

3. Triclosan. Triclosan is a commonly-used antimicrobial agent that accumulates in the body and has been linked to hormone disruption and the emergence of bacteria resistant to antibiotics and antibacterial products. To avoid triclosan, read the labels and stick with plain soap and water – the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) found no evidence that antibacterial washes containing triclosan are any more effective at protecting against bacteria.

4. Parabens. Parabens are used to prevent the growth of yeasts, molds, and bacteria in cosmetics products. They appear in some deodorants and antiperspirants, in addition to personal care products that contain significant amounts of water such as shampoos, conditioners, lotions, facial and shower cleansers, and scrubs. These estrogen mimickers are found in nearly all urine samples from United States adults of a variety of ethnic, socioeconomic, and geographic backgrounds. Look for products labeled “paraben-free” and read the ingredient lists on labels.

55. 1,3-butadiene. Both the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the National Toxicology Program consider 1,3-butadiene to be a human carcinogen. An air pollutant, 1,3-butadiene causes mammary and ovary tumors in female mice and rats. 1,3-butadiene can be a contaminant in products that rely on isobutane as a 

propellant, such as shaving gel, hair mousse, hairspray, and deodorant.

6. Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons. Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are a group of chemicals that occur naturally in coal, crude oil, and gasoline. One of the more common polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons is naphthalene. Some cosmetics and shampoos are made with coal tar and therefore, may contain polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. Multiple studies have linked breast cancer incidence with  polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons exposure. Studies show that exposure to these chemicals at critical periods of breast cancer development can influence later cancer risk.  Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons are also a potential contaminant of petrolatum. Avoid exposure to this ingredient by skipping products with coal tar, petrolatum, and other fossil fuel-derived ingredients.

77. 401-P-O-LAW Placental Extract. Hormones and chemicals linked to breast cancer are often included in hair care products that are specific to women of color, such as hair relaxers and hair dyes. These products might contribute to an increased incidence of breast cancer.  Placental extract is derived from human or animal placentas and used in hair conditioners, shampoos, and other grooming aids, particularly those marketed to women of color. The National Toxicology Program has identified progesterone, the major hormonal contaminant in placental extracts, as a reasonably-anticipated carcinogen.

8. Polyacrylamide. Polyacrylamide is used as a stabilizer and binder in lotions and other products. Although it is not a concern in itself, it is made up of repeating molecules of acrylamide, a strongly suspected carcinogen that has been linked to mammary tumors. While the European Union sets limits for the amount of acrylamide allowed in products, it is not currently regulated in the United States. Found in facial moisturizers, anti-aging products, color cosmetics, lotions, and more, polyacrylamide can be avoided by steering clear of products labeled with polyacrylamide, acrylamide, polyacrylate, polyquaternium, or acrylate.

9. Polyfluorotetraethylene. Perfluorooctanoic acid, the chemical that makes Teflon® and other fluorinated compounds, has been associated with delayed menstruation and breast development and cancer. Found in foundation, pressed powder, loose powder, bronzer, blush, eye shadow, mascara, shaving gel, lip balm, and anti-aging lotion,  polyfluorotetraethylene can be avoided by skipping products with polyperfluoromethylisopropyl ether, polytetrafluoroethylene, DEA-C8-18 perfluoroalkylethyl phosphate, or Teflon on the label.

10. Hormone-disrupting ultraviolet filters. No one should have to choose between skin cancer and breast cancer. Research shows that many sunscreens contain chemicals that are estrogenic, disrupt the endocrine system, and can play a significant role in breast cancer development. For example, octyl-methoxycinnamate, which is estrogenic and has thyroid hormone-disrupting effects, is found in over 800 sunscreens. Homosalate, a hormone-disrupting UVB blocker, is an ingredient in over 400 sunscreens. For safe protection, avoid sunscreens that contain oxybenzone, octinoxate, homosalate, 3-(4-methylbenzylidene)-camphor, and octyl-dimethyl-PABA.

No client wants to learn that their trusted, personal care products are made with hazardous chemicals. Thankfully, safer alternatives are available and there are steps that can be taken to reduce toxic exposures in the spa and in client homes. Keeping an eye out for these chemicals can ensure that no professional or client is subjected to harmful ingredients.


Sharima-Rasanayagam-2015As the director of science, Sharima Rasanayagam works to ensure that the Breast Cancer Fund continues to be a national leader in science-based, environmental health advocacy. She oversees the organization’s science-related activities, including monitoring and interpreting emerging scientific research, and develops and manages science-related program and policy initiatives. She also serves on the advisory committee of the California Breast Cancer Research Program, the largest state-funded breast cancer research effort. Rasanayagam holds a Ph.D. in microbiology from the University of Kent at Canterbury, U.K.

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