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Cosmetic Safety On The Line: New Book Links Chemicals To Breast Cancer

Posted Jun 22 2009 12:21am
New book links chemicals in cosmetics to breast cancer
It seems to be a headline that just won't go away: The safety of cosmetics and personal care is challenged time and again.

Such is the case with a brand new book titled No Family History, ( Rowman and Littlefield Publishers) by Sabrina McCormick, PhD, of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, in Pennsylvania.

Indeed, according to McCormick, women are being set up for the health hit of a lifetime – and our weapon of mass destruction includes those cute little pink cosmetic bags which, the author says,are frequently filled to the brim with a toxic brew of chemicals that could be making us sick. The effects, say says are compounded daily by exposure to other environmental chemical assaults, from pesticides to household cleaners.

“In our race for a cure for breast cancer, we have ignored the overwhelming body of evidence that demonstrates a link between products from cosmetics to pesticides and breast cancer,” said McCormick.

To bolster her point of view McCormick points to statistics showing that in 1940, approximately one in 24 women who lived to be 80 were likely to get breast cancer – compared to one in eight, which was the figure in 2006. The rise, she says, shows a direct correlation to the rise of the use of chemicals in personal care and other products.

Moreover, it's a point of view shared by an increasing number of experts, including Stacy Malkin, co founder of the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and author of the book Not Just a Pretty Face ( New Society Publishers).

"Cosmetics and personal care products are potentially major sources of chemical exposure – particularly if you look at the number of items women use and the sheer number of chemicals in them - 20 products, with over 200 chemicals is typical before a woman even walks out the door in the morning," says Malkin.

These chemicals, she says, documented by everyone from the World Health Organization to the Centers for Disease Control, are armed and dangerous, with a slew of health threats that range from cancer to infertility to birth defects and more.

The Beauty Industry Says Safety First

But the beauty industry not only disagrees, they say the alarming accusations are not news – and that these issues have been raised time and time again – with conclusive evidence of harm.

"Many of the issues that are coming up today are, in fact, a recycling of old issues that the FDA considered in their context and decided that no regulatory action was necessary on their part," says John Bailey, executive vice president of science at the Cosmetics Toiletries and Fragrance Association ( CTFA ), the leading beauty industry organization.

Bailey, the former director of the FDA's Office of Cosmetics and Colors, adds that not only are cosmetics and personal care products generally safe, they are, he says, " Safest of all the products consumers will use that are regulated by FDA including foods, drugs, dietary supplements and over the counter drugs and it is well documented in the number of consumer complaints that FDA gets compared to other areas."

And in truth, FDA stats do show that complaints about cosmetics and skin care products are exceedingly small when compared to those registered about over the counter drugs or even prescription medications.

While this may be true, some experts say it's not so much the immediate reactions of these products – the kind the FDA monitors – that gives rise to concerns, but rather the future and cumulative risks to our health that represent the biggest threat.

Younger Women At Greatest Risk

Indeed, studies have shown that some of the chemicals commonly used in cosmetic and skin care products are not only showing up in our blood , but also in our body tissue – in some instances in malignant breast tissue. And while there is still no clear cut link to show that these chemicals caused the malignancy to occur- or spread - some experts believe it's enough of a smoking gun to raise eyebrows – and concern.

"The evidence may not be as definitive as some would like, but there are some strong associations suggesting women routinely exposed to some of these ingredients may increase their risk of developing breast cancer later in life," says Vassar professor Dr. Janet Gray, who, together with experts from the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute compiled a report on what we know thus far about the environmental links to breast cancer.

Moreover, Gray explains that it may be our daughters and grandaugthers that could be at greatest risk since, she says, breast cells that are developing ( which they do until about age 25 ) are far more susceptible to chemical influences that those which are already fully grown.

Cancer prevention expert Julia Smith, MD, agrees.

“What worries those of us involved with cancer prevention is that we don't know the cumulative effects of these chemicals, or the synergistic effects of one chemical with another, or what role the chemicals found in cosmetics will play when viewed in the broader scope of the overall chemical exposure we get from all facets of our life, " says Smith, the director of the Lynne Cohen Breast and Ovarian Cancer Prevention Program at the NYU Cancer Institute, New York City.

What Women Should Do Now

Certainly, it would be terrific if we had definitive answers about the impact of all the chemicals in our make up bag or even in our environment . But the truth is, we don't. In fact, while McCormick points out the rise in breast cancer rates correlates with the rise of chemicals in our daily life, the truth is, it also correlates with lots of other factors as well – including increasing rates of obesity, increased consumption of junk food, more alcohol and prescription drug use (some of which has already been linked to an increased risk of cancer), as well as more stress. And experts say any and all of these factors can have as many links to breast cancer as chemicals.

So what's a woman' to do? Smith seems to have the most common sense approach.

“Will you get cancer from using a lipstick ? Probably not. But you should think about all the products you use , and view them against the background of everything else in your life including your family history, your diet, and your general environment, then figure out which of these products are still essential to your life ,” Smith says.

If it isn't essential, says Smith, just do it without it – and then use the products you think you do need without excess fear or worry.

“ You do what you can, and hope it might make a positive difference in your life" , she says.

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