On the First Day of…

Breast Cancer Awareness Month… My True Love Gave To Me…Some Lotions That Were Paraben Free.

Parabens are chemicals that are added to cosmetic products to act as preservatives. If you check the ingredients of many commonly used cosmetics, moisturizers, sun screens, baby lotions, hair care products, hair dyes, and shaving creams you’ll often find parabens: ethylparaben, methylparaben, propylparaben, isopropylparaben, butylparaben, isobutylparaben, or benzylparaben. They are everywhere, and often often you’ll find more than one type of paraben in a single product.

With the exception of some color additives in hair dyes, the FDA does not regulate any of the ingredients used in cosmetic products, including parabens. Instead, the law requires manufacturers to list the ingredients so that consumers will know what they are. Ah yes, isobutylparaben. I remember it from my chemistry class. Sometimes it goes by the name of Benzoic acid, 4-hydroxy-, 2-methylpropyl ester. It has a molecular weight of 194.23, and a molecular structure of 11 carbons, 14 hydrogens, and 3 oxygens. I think there may be a benzene ring. Actually, I remember very little from my chemistry class (no offense to my teacher), and even if I did somehow recall the molecular structure of this particular chemical I would have no idea what it was doing in my shampoo let alone my body. Isn’t it someone else’s job to keep track of such things? I’m just trying to wash my hair.

If the FDA doesn’t regulate cosmetics ingredients, how do consumers know that things like isobutylparabens are safe? With the support of the FDA and the Consumer Federation of America, there is an industry-sponsored organization called the Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) that reviews cosmetic ingredient safety. The CIR was established in 1976 by the industry’s trade association [then the Cosmetic, Toiletry, and Fragrance Association (CTFA), and now called the Personal Care Products Council (PCPC)]. The CIR reports that parabens are safe in low concentrations (i.e., up to 0.4% if used alone, or up to 0.8% in a paraben mixture). What a relief! I can wash wash my hair with reckless abandon. Or, can I?

Research outside of the personal care industry has found parabens and other chemicals that are commonly found in personal care products to be less than safe, and sometimes downright harmful. Parabens can be absorbed through the skin, blood, and digestive system. (Yes, sometimes they’re used in foods too!) Given that parabens are used in at least 85 percent of cosmetics, there are clearly high rates of exposure. A 2006 study in Environmental Health Perspectives found concentrations of five parabens in all of the urine samples collected from 100 adult anonymous volunteers between 2003 and 2005 who had no known occupational exposure. Okay, there are parabens in our products, our foods, and our urine. But to what effect?

In 1998, researchers first found that parabens mimic estrogen and potentially disrupt the body’s endocrine (hormone-regulating) system. When the hormone balance is disrupted, the body may over-respond by producing more cells, respond at inappropriate times, block the effects of a particular hormone, or cause the overproduction or underproduction of specific hormones, such as the adrenals, thyroid, or estrogen. Estrogen dominant systems have an increased risk of developing breast cancer. According to the Breast Cancer Fund, the State of the Evidence show that parabens are linked to breast cancer. Similarly, a study published in 2004 in the Journal of Applied Toxicology found high concentrations of parabens in the biopsies of breast tumors.

Although the estrogenic effects of parabens led the CIR to re-evaluate their safety, it concluded that the concentrations  in personal care products are so low that it would be “implausible” for parabens to increase the risk associated with exposure. Yet, the CIR’s own recommendations maintain that safe exposure to a single paraben should be limited to a concentration of 0.4 and 0.8 for a combination of parabens. How many personal care products do you use every day? On average, individuals use at least 10, and they use them multiple times per day! What’s more, since the FDA does not regulate personal care products they may contain a variety of other questionable substances in addition to parabens. The cumulative exposure to these chemicals may be more than a human body can take.

On a side note that is not really a side note, the CTFA that created CIR was the same association that started the Look Good, Feel Better Program to assist women with their appearance following chemotherapy treatment, such as dealing with hair loss, dry skin, and brittle nails. In 1989, the program was adopted by the American Cancer Society. The program is held in every state, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico using products donated by Personal Care Products Council member companies. If those companies use products with parabens, we’ve got another egregious case of pinkwashing on our hands.

Some things you can do:

  • Round up your personal care products and read the labels.
  • Go the the Skin Deep Cosmetic Safety Database and do a search on your personal care products. If the product has a high hazard score (7-10), get rid of it.
  • Locate safe products, and buy those.
  • Purchase a safe product for a friend.
  • Check out the companies that signed the Compact for Safe Cosmetics.
  • Read about parabens and cancer in the Breast Cancer Fund’s State of the Evidence. The 2010 edition will be out soon.
  • Contact your local American Cancer Society’s “Look Good, Feel Better” program and request a list of the personal care products they give to cancer patients. Demand that they use only safe products.
  • Donate $5 to the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Cosmetic Safety Database.
  • Lather up with some organic coconut oil. It’s clean, pure, and the best moisturizer you’ll find!


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1 comment to On the First Day of…

  • Zola Dex

    I will look forward to reading your book.
    Here’s my activity for Oct. 1….

    Millions of people around the world are participating in various breast cancer awareness activities in October. Many of these events involve walking, running or biking for “The Cure.” This year, I am participating in a new campaign dedicated exclusively to raising awareness about metastatic breast cancer. It’s called the “The Virtual Rally in Support of Progression-Free Survival.”

    We are asking the 150,000 women living with metastatic breast cancer to write a letter or e-mail to their local news outlets.

    There is no cure for metastatic breast cancer aka advanced breast cancer or Stage IV. We rarely hear about the 150,000 U.S. women dealing with it. In October, it seems the spotlight is almost exclusively on women who “beat” cancer-not the “metser” who is losing her hair for the third time, or the one struggling with chronic constipation or the one who knows she won’t see her daughter graduate from grade school.

    We don’t want your money or your pity and we’re not selling pink t-shirts. We just want you to know that we are here and that for us, treatment never ends. Other women HAD breast cancer. We HAVE it and we always will. We hope someday there WILL be a cure so that our daughters and granddaughters are spared our fate.

    We want people to know that:
    >Metastasis refers to the spread of cancer to different parts of the body, typically the bones, liver and lungs.
    >Treatment is lifelong and focuses on control and quality of life vs. curative intent.
    >About 6% to 10% of women are Stage IV from their initial diagnosis.
    >Early detection is not a cure. Metastatic breast cancer can occur ANY time after a woman’s original diagnosis, EVEN if she was initially Stage I, II or III.
    >Only women with Stage 0 (noninvasive breast cancer) aren’t considered to be at risk for metastatic breast cancer.
    >Between 20% to 30% of women initially diagnosed with regional stage disease WILL develop metastatic breast cancer.
    >Young women DO get metastatic breast cancer. (I am 44. I know many women in their 30s with MBC.)
    > There are many different kinds of metastatic breast cancer.
    >Treatment choices for MBC are guided by hormone (ER/PR) and HER2 receptor status, location and extent of metastasis (visceral vs. nonvisceral), previous treatment and other factors.
    >Any breast lump, thickness or skin abnormality should be checked out. With inflammatory breast cancer, there’s no lump-the breast can be red and/or itchy and the skin may have an orange-peel like appearance.
    >Don’t use the recent mammogram controversy to postpone your first mammogram or delay your regularly scheduled exam, especially if you have a family history.
    >Mammograms can’t detect all cancers. Trust your instinct. If something feels “off” insist on further diagnostic testing.
    >Metastatic breast cancer isn’t an automatic death sentence-although most women will ultimately die of their disease, some can live long and productive lives.
    >There are no hard and fast prognostic statistics for metastatic breast cancer. Every woman’s situation is unique.

    One last thing. Knowing what to say to someone with metastatic breast cancer can be difficult.

    It’s fine to say: “I’m so sorry that you have to face this disease. I will be thinking/praying for you. Please let me know if I can help.”
    Try to avoid back-handed compliments such as: “You are so strong, if this had to happen, you were the right person to get it because you are brave and strong,” or “If I had breast cancer, I would be falling apart or scared to death. You seem just fine with it.”

    Those statements are akin to saying “You don’t sweat much for a fat person,” and we hate them.

    There are many excellent online metastatic breast cancer resources. Examples include http://www.breastcancer.org; http://www.mbcnetwork.org; and http://www.metavivor.org.

"women urged to get screened because it might save their lives. But that’s only 1 possible outcome, and it’s the least likely one" @cragcrest cutt.ly/jei8WJr

“Pink Ribbon Blues”

Paperback includes a new Introduction on fundraising controversies and a color insert with images of, and reactions to, the pinking of breast cancer (2012).

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"Seeing clearly through the pink haze" Toronto Sun

*Sad face*: Being happy does not help you live longer" New Scientist

How should we address breast cancer when norms continually change? The Guardian

Your Fun 'No Bra Day' Photos Are Overshadowing Terminal Breast Cancer Patients Broadly

Backlash against “pinkwashing” of breast cancer awareness campaigns BMJ

Breast Cancer to Rise 50 Percent by 2030? Hey, Not So Fast! Health News Review

Breast Cancer: The Flaws in the Cause iafrica.com

How to Make the Biggest Impact With Your Breast Cancer Donations Money

The Very Pink, Very Controversial Business of Breast Cancer Awareness Racked

NFL, Pink Ribbons Not Enough to Win over Women CNN

3 Questions We Need to Answer for Breast Cancer Awareness Month Chronicle of Philanthropy

The problem with National Breast Cancer Awareness Month Women's Health Magazine

Pink Ribbon Envy: Living with an Uncool Cancer The Nib

A Year After Bombings, Some Say 'Boston Strong' Has Gone Overboard NPR, All Things Considered

Canadian Mammogram Study KCRW, NPR Affiliate

Time to Debunk the Mammography Myth CNN

Breast Cancer: Awareness, Activism & Pinkwashing NPR Charlotte

Buying Pink Al Jazeera's The Stream Watch »

The Pink Backlash Orlando Sentinel

Why Jolie's Test Costs So Much CNN

Preventative Mastectomies: Disease and Deception BlogTalkRadio

Angelina Jolie and the 'Breast Cancer Gene' KCRW

Our Feel-Good War on Breast Cancer The New York Times Magazine.

The Story Behind the Pink Ribbon Campaign Sisters Talk Radio

WISH Interview Women's International Summit for Health

Making Cancer About The Patient, Not The Body Part CBS Pittsburgh

Sexy breast cancer campaigns anger many patients USA Today

The perils of pink The Daily

Komen pink campaign creates breast-cancer blues for some Dallas Morning News

A yellow flag for the NFL's pink New York Daily

Gayle Sulik named #7 in SharecareNow’s Top 10 Online Influencers in Breast Cancer

Breast cancer cancer causes so easily derailed Philly Inquirer

Komen Charity Under Microscope for Funding, Science Reuters

The Fight Against Cancer - And Abortion? Salon.com

Susan G. Komen For the Cure defunds Planned Parenthood. In Deep with Angie Coiro

Amid Breast Cancer Month, Is there Pink Fatigue? NPR's All Things Considered

How is Breast Cancer Culture Undermining Women's Health? America’s Radio News Network

Pink Ribbon Culture and Breast Cancer The Kojo Nnamdi Show

The Big Business of Breast Cancer
Marie Claire

Does Breast Cancer Awareness Month Crowd Out Other Diseases? Slate

Pink Inc. Has Many Starting to See Red The Sacramento Bee

Get Your Pink Off Ottawa Citizen

Komen Pink Ribbons Raise Green and Questions USA Today