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Moisturizers: Hope or Harm in a Jar? Part 2

By on January 17th, 2012 Categories: Uncategorized

The products we use can be helpful, harmless, or harmful. In “Hope or Harm in Jar? Part 1,” I wrote about potentially harmful ingredients in many moisturizers. Now I want to talk about how certain ingredients may have some link to cancer risk.

Parabens. Parabens go by many names — methylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben, ethylparaben, isobutylparaben, isopropylparaben — but no matter the type, they’re widely used as preservatives in moisturizers and other personal care products. Parabens can be absorbed through the skin and can act like a very weak estrogen in the body. Extra amounts of substances that look like, act like, or smell like estrogen to an estrogen receptor may turn on extra breast cell growth. This overstimulation could potentially affect the growth of hormone-receptor-positive breast cancers.

Phthalates. Phthalates are common fragrance components of many moisturizers and can work as hormone disruptors. While they don’t seem to act exactly like estrogen, they can disrupt the balance of other hormones that interact with estrogen, including testosterone.

Retinyl palmitate. Moisturizers may also affect the risk of other types of cancers. Made from vitamin A, retinyl palmitate is a common moisturizing ingredient that may increase the risk of skin cancer in sunlight. According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), when retinyl palmitate is exposed to ultraviolet light it produces toxic free radicals that can damage DNA and cause gene mutations, a precursor to cancer. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says that when retinyl palmitate is applied to the skin in the presence of sunlight, it may speed the development of skin tumors and lesions. Despite this data, retinyl palmitate is an ingredient in more than 400 moisturizers.

Petrolatum. Made from petroleum, petrolatum is in more than 300 moisturizers reviewed by the EWG. While petrolatum has been given a low chemical hazard rating, the Breast Cancer Fund’s State of the Evidence report says that petrolatum often contains chemicals that may be linked to a higher risk of breast cancer.

To reduce your exposure to these potentially harmful ingredients:

  • Visit the EWG’s Skin Deep website to search for moisturizers. Products are given a hazard score by EWG based on the ingredients’ links to cancer, allergies, and other issues.
  • Learn more about which chemicals and contaminants to avoid at the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics website. Information is based on science that links specific ingredients to health issues and then lists the products that contain those ingredients.

Keep in mind that occasional use of these products is unlikely to cause any harm. But with regular use of a product that contains even trace amounts of unhealthy chemicals, your exposure may be significant. Low levels of chemicals can still have a biological effect, and a build-up of chemicals over time may negatively affect your breast health. And we can’t wait until a scientific study comes out to prove or disprove this. There are no such studies underway. So, until we have more science to back up our recommendations, we’re going to lean on the Precautionary Principle, which basically means, “it’s better to be safe than sorry.” For all of us, this means trying to make the healthiest choices on a daily basis. That’s the mission of my Think Pink, Live Green column.

Let me know what’s of greatest interest to you and your friends!

Update: On March 15, 2012, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a warning about skin lighteners, anti-aging creams, and other skin creams that may contain extremely high levels of mercury. Products that list “mercurous chloride,” “calomel,” “mercuric,” “mercurio,” or “mercury” as ingredients should be thrown away.

Specific skin cream brand names mentioned in the FDA’s warning include: Diana, Fasco, and Stillman’s. All these products are imported, but the agency emphasized that the warning applies to all skin creams.

Marisa Weiss, M.D. is the founder, president, and chief medical officer of Breastcancer.org, the world's most trafficked online resource for medically reviewed breast health and breast cancer information, reaching over 14 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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