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Breast Cancer and Your Environment: 5 Common Household Chemicals to Avoid

Breast Cancer: Top 5 Common Household Chemicals to Avoid Johnson & Johnson announced earlier this year that they will be removing potentially cancer-causing and other toxic chemicals from their toiletries and cosmetic products by 2015.

It’s a step in the right direction, as many women count the products, which include brands like Aveeno, Neutrogena, Clean & Clear and Lubriderm, as a part of their daily routine. And you certainly shouldn’t have to worry about being exposed to cancer-causing chemicals when you’re washing your face or shampooing your hair, but the truth is there are many common household products that contain potential toxins.

Why Are There Cancer-Causing Chemicals in Your Cosmetics or Household Cleaners?

That’s a very good question. The truth is that many products on the market, even those with name brands you know and trust, use these chemicals because they can. Household goods are very much an unregulated market. According to the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics:1

“The agency charged with oversight of cosmetics, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), has no authority to require pre-market safety assessment as it does with drugs, so cosmetics are among the least-regulated products on the market.

The FDA does not review – nor does it have the authority to regulate – what goes into cosmetics before they are marketed for salon use and consumer use. In fact, 89 percent of all ingredients in cosmetics have not been evaluated for safety by any publicly accountable institution.”

Because of this lack of oversight, even products labeled “natural,” “safe,” or “pure” can contain virtually any ingredient the manufacturer would like. And while there is a Cosmetics Ingredient Review (CIR) panel, which is supposed to assess the safety of cosmetics ingredients, this is an industry-run group that has only reviewed 11 percent of the ingredients on the market – and removed less than a dozen from the market in its history.

The issue is similar for household cleaner manufacturers, which are not even required to list all of their ingredients on product labels, let alone disclose if they are toxic.

Just How Common are These Cancer-Causing Chemicals?

In a report compiled by researchers from the Silent Spring Institute, more than 200 chemicals were identified that could cause breast cancer in animals. Among them, 97 were considered to be chemicals to which people are highly exposed, including industrial solvents, pesticides, dyes, gasoline, diesel exhaust, cosmetics ingredients, hormones, pharmaceuticals, radiation, and a chemical in chlorinated drinking water.2

And the sad fact is, there are probably many more. There are more than 80,000 chemicals registered for use in the United States, but only about 1,000 of them have been tested to see whether they cause cancer or mutate DNA in animals3...

In the list below, we’ve highlighted some of the chemicals to keep an eye out for. If you find out that some of your trusted personal care products contain potentially cancer-causing ingredients – don’t be alarmed … but do use this information to empower yourself to make informed decisions when choosing what items to use in your home.

Top Toxins Linked to Breast Cancer

1. 1,4 dioxane

This is a byproduct of certain manufacturing processes used to make personal care products, including that used to make sodium laureth sulfate, which is common in shampoo, body wash and bubble bath. 1,4 dioxane is a known animal carcinogen and a probable human carcinogen.

Because it is a contaminant, not an ingredient, 1,4 dioxane won’t be listed on product labels. However, you can avoid it by steering clear of petrochemical ingredients that contain the following names: “PEG,” “polyethylene,” “polyethylene glycol,” “polyoxyethylene,” “-eth-” (such as sodium laureth sulfate), “oxynol” "ceteareth" or "oleth."4

2. Parabens

Parabens are chemicals with estrogen-like properties (estrogenic activity in the body is associated with certain forms of breast cancer) that are added to countless cosmetics and personal care products as preservatives and to inhibit bacterial growth. They have been detected in 99 percent of breast cancer tumors tested, with 60 percent of the tumors containing five or more parabens.5 Research has also shown that higher concentrations of parabens appear in the upper quadrants of the breast, close to where antiperspirants are applied.6

Parabens are the most widely used preservatives in cosmetics, and single products typically contain multiple types of parabens, such as methylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben, or benzylparaben.

3. Triclosan

Another antibacterial chemical found in soaps, deodorants, cosmetics, toothpaste, and more, triclosan has been found to cause estrogenic activities in human breast cancer cells, which may stimulate the growth and development of cancer cells.7

4. Formaldehyde

While formaldehyde isn’t typically added to personal care products directly, it often shows up as a byproduct or contaminant that is released from certain preservatives. Formaldehyde was officially listed as a carcinogen by the U.S government last year. While you won’t typically see formaldehyde listed on labels, two common preservatives known to release this toxin (which will be on the label) are quaternium-15 and DMDM hydantoin. Formaldehyde is also sometimes added to nail polish and nail hardeners.

5. Phthalates

These chemicals are often added to moisturizers, nail polish, perfume and other personal care items, as well as plastics you probably use around your home. While most of the research surrounding phthalates has focused on their endocrine-disrupting effects, they also have estrogen-like properties and have been found to increase growth and spread of breast cancer cells as well as induce changes in gene expression in rat mammary glands with in utero or early life exposure.8

Exposure to one type of phthalate, diethyl phthalate, has also been shown to double breast cancer risk.9

Three other chemicals of concern to watch out for include:

  • Tetrachloroethylene (aka perchloroethylene or PERC), a common dry cleaning chemical shown to increase breast cancer risk
  • Alkylphenols, used in many cleaning products and personal care products and shown to alter rat mammary gland development
  • Pesticides, many of which are linked to cancer (dichlorvos, a pesticide ingredient, in particular is linked to mammary tumors in mice)

What are Your Options for Safer Household Goods?

Because there is still so much to be uncovered about the complex role environmental chemicals play in breast cancer development, it’s wise to take a precautionary approach.

Become an avid label reader and at least avoid products that contain the chemicals listed above. Ideally, look for products with simple ingredients that you’re familiar with (no long chemical ingredients that you can’t pronounce) or make some of your own personal care and cleaning products at home (a quick Internet search will give you countless “recipes” for making natural skin care and cleaning products using safe ingredients you probably have on hand right now).

Related Blog Posts:

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Eat These Foods to Reduce Your Breast Cancer Risk

1. The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics: FDA Regulations
2. Los Angeles Times May 14, 2007
3. Los Angeles Times May 14, 2007
4. The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics: 1,4 dioxane FAQs
5. Journal of Applied Toxicology March 2012; 32(3): 219-232
6. Journal of Applied Toxicology February 1, 2012: 32(5); 305-309
7. J Appl Toxicol. 2008 Jan;28(1):78-91.
8. BMC Genomics. 2007; 8: 453.
9. Environ Health Perspect. 2010 Apr;118(4):539-44.