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The Possible Price of Beauty

By Dr. Marisa Weiss on August 12th, 2011 Categories: Uncategorized

The chemicals in makeup, lotions, nail polish, shampoos, and other personal care products make many of us feel better, sleeker, and more confident. With a little help from this and that, together with a good hair day (I have strong-willed curly hair), I can get the charge I need to overcome procrastination and rise up to a new challenge.

Studies show that the average woman uses 12 personal care products every day, with a total of 168 unique ingredients. And only some of those ingredients are specified on the label.

I had tons of stuff in my bathroom, under the sink, on the counter, squirreled away in cabinets. Honestly, I’d lost track of my inventory — lots came from hotels, two-fers at the drugstore, on-the-road replacements, sales from here and there. When I find makeup I like, I tend to buy extra and then never use it. Clearly a complete overhaul was needed, but it wasn’t important enough for me to spend time purging old products and selecting better new ones. Didn’t have the time, didn’t want to spend the money, didn’t have the patience.

But since my diagnosis, I know I have to make better and different choices. I’m taking a closer look at anything I put on or in my body. Research strongly suggests that at certain exposure levels, some of the chemicals in cosmetics and personal care products may promote the development of cancer in people. Because there are so many different chemical combinations in personal care products, it’s just about impossible to show a clear-cut cause and effect for any single chemical on its own.

We do know that many of the chemicals in personal care products are considered hormone disruptors. Hormone disruptors can affect how estrogen and other hormones act in the body, by blocking or mimicking them, which throws off the body’s hormonal balance. And if estrogen gets more power than it’s supposed to, it may trigger the development and growth of hormone-receptor-positive breast cancer. Many women — and for sure, me included — need to limit our exposure to any extra hormones, especially estrogen.

Certain groups of personal care-product chemicals are being studied for possible links to breast cancer:

Parabens: The most common parabens are methylparaben, propylparaben, ethylparaben, and butylparaben. Parabens are commonly used as preservatives in makeup, moisturizers, shampoos and other hair care products, and shaving creams and gels. Most major brands of deodorants and antiperspirants don’t contain parabens. There is significant concern about the safety of parabens because they can be absorbed through the skin and act like a weak estrogen in the body. Plus, parabens have been found throughout the body since they are used so widely. Using a lot of products that contain parabens for a long time could possibly turn on the growth of hormone-receptor-positive breast cancers.

Phthalates: These chemicals are used to hold color and reduce brittleness in nail polish and hairspray; they’re also used to make many personal care and cleaning product fragrances. Phthalates are hormone disruptors; they don’t act like estrogen, but phthalates can disrupt the balance of other hormones that interact with estrogen, including testosterone.

Hormonal additives: Quite a number of anti-aging products contain estrogen or placental extracts (a hormonal mix).  From anti-wrinkle creams to some specialty hair straighteners, these products should be avoided.

Finding healthier alternatives

Deciphering all the chemical ingredients in personal care products can be impossible — for me too (I’m no chemist, just a doctor). In medical school and in medical practice, we receive nearly no training about the safe use of personal care products. So I rely on the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) Skin Deep website to rate cosmetic products. The EWG gives each product a hazard score based on its ingredients’ links to cancer, allergies, and other issues. When I found out my shampoo had a hazard rating of 10 — the highest! — I switched to another brand that had a 3 hazard rating — much lower.

Another good site is The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics (the EWG is a partner). The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics has developed a voluntary agreement called the Compact for Safe Cosmetics. Companies that sign the compact agree to make all their products free of chemicals suspected of causing cancer and other problems. UPDATE: 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.

For me, I try to use personal care products that are good enough to eat, since what goes on you goes in you. So, for example, for a moisturizer I use organic coconut oil. One of my friends who is a breast cancer survivor swears by olive oil. Check out the above resources and your local organic store for more ideas and options.

It can take some trial and error to replace favorite products with newer, healthier formulations. What are some of the best “green” cosmetics and personal care products you’ve found?

Dr. Marisa Weiss

Marisa Weiss, M.D. is the founder, president and guiding force behind Breastcancer.org, the world's most trafficked online resource for medically reviewed breast health and breast cancer information, reaching over 8 million visitors per year. A breast cancer oncologist with over twenty years of active practice in the Philadelphia region, Dr. Weiss is regarded as a visionary advocate for her innovative and steadfast approach to informing, empowering, and treating patients with breast cancer.

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