Easy, Breezy, Beautiful Carcinogens

Unsafe beauty product companies and their campaigns for the 'cure'.... Let's wade through the pink kitsch to understand the real issues!

Running shoes, blenders, organic apple sauce, candy bars, iPods, crocs, and even Ethernet cables are just some of the thousands of pink products available for purchase in the “fight” against breast cancer. Every year, the coming of October is recognized by the dawning of an overwhelming variety of pink kitsch.  Leading beauty care companies Revlon, Estée Lauder, Mary Kay, and Avon are no strangers to breast cancer cause marketing. All four of these frequently purchased cosmetic brands market products containing synthetic chemicals that are known human carcinogens. Yet they still shamelessly promote themselves by boasting avid campaigns for breast cancer awareness.

As a response to the growing number of hidden carcinogenic ingredients found in our everyday products, the Environmental Working Group created a cosmetic safety database called Skin Deep in 2004. It lists the ingredients for more than 42,000 commonly used products.  The database ranks each product with a hazard score from one to ten. Two of the major recurring ingredients are Parabens and Phthalates, which have been linked to cancer development.  Though neither has been proven to be directly responsible for breast cancer, studies show that they may in fact contribute to the rise in reported cases.  Parabens work as preservatives in order to increase the shelf-life of cosmetics, while Phthalates are plasticizers used to add texture and lustre. Both have been “identified as estrogenic and disruptive of normal hormone function.”  Causal explanations for breast cancer are still unclear, but approximately 75% of cases have been classified as estrogen-receptor-positive.  This type of hormone dependent cancer is very aggressive because it stimulates the growth of the tumour by activating hormone receptors in the cancer cells.  Using products containing chemicals that mimic estrogen’s role, increases a woman’s risk of getting breast cancer.
In a vain attempt to defend their actions, cosmetic companies claim that, if any, there are only small concentrations of Parabens, Phthalates and other unsafe chemicals in their products. They state that such small percentages pose no serious health risks to women. However, studies show that the risk does not come from short-term exposure, but rather long-term low-dose exposure. 

According to the Skin Deep cosmetic database, over 1,000 Revlon, Estée Lauder, Mary Kay and Avon products have been ranked between seven and ten, placing them at what they call a ‘high hazard’ level. These numbers however, have not stopped all four companies from unabashedly boasting large campaigns for breast cancer awareness.

Beginning in 1993, and with nearly 40,000 participants annually, the Revlon Run/Walk claims “to raise awareness and critical funds for women’s cancer research, treatment, counselling and outreach programs.”  As a token of appreciation, participants of the Run/Walk receive gift bags containing several Revlon products—the very products that may be contributing to the spike in breast cancer incidences. The Estée Lauder Breast Cancer Awareness Campaign claims that it is consistently working towards the prevention and cure of breast cancer. Likewise, the Mary Kay Ash Charitable Foundation states that their “mission is to eliminate cancer.”  Furthermore, Avon, calling themselves “the company for women,”  annually hosts the Avon Walk for Breast Cancer. All four companies sell products that may very well be contributing to the disease, yet support costly campaigns for breast cancer research, allowing them to maintain an enhanced image for themselves.

An excellent alternative to these campaigns is to take the money that you would like to see donated for a cure and put it right into the hands of the breast cancer action groups focused on making primary prevention the number one goal in breast cancer research. Primary prevention is concerned with not only creating awareness, but also eliminating the substances that lead to the development of the disease. However, a very small percentage of the money donated to cancer research (~5%), actually goes into primary prevention of breast cancer. Madeline Bird - a former associate  with the McGill Centre for Research and Teaching on Women and the not-for-profit organization Breast Cancer Action Montreal (BCAM) - said that breast cancer rates are \rising  “since the 1940s, from about one in 20 to now, one in nine women in Canada.” It is clear that changes in the way research organizations approach breast cancer are long overdue. Bird emphasized that it is important to find the “causes of breast cancer in our environment and [eradicate] those carcinogens that enter our bodies every day.”



Environmental Working Group. “Skin Deep: Cosmetic Safety Database.” 2 Nov. 2009 http://www.cosmeticsdatabase.com

 Think Before You Pink. 2 Nov. 2009 http://www.thinkbeforeyoupink.org

  “Cosmetic Chemicals Found in Breast Tumours.” New Scientist. 12 Jan. 2004. 2 Nov. 2009 http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn4555-cosmetic-chemicals-found-in-b...

Breastcancer.org. “What Role Do Hormones Play in Breast Cancer Treatment.” 2 Nov.2009 www.breastcancer.org/treatment/hormonal/what_is_it/hormone_role.jsp

 Breast Cancer Action Montreal. “The Beast of Beauty: Toxic Ingredients in Cosmetics.” Nov. 2009 http://www.bcam.qc.ca/heap/heappdfenglish/Beauty_products_f5.pdf

Revlon. “Revlon Run/Walk 2009.” 2 Nov. 2009 http://www.revlonrunwalk.com

Mary Kay. “Mary Kay Ash Charitable Foundation.” 2 Nov. 2009.

Avon Company. “Avon Breast Cancer Crusade.” 2 Nov. 2009

Kedrowski, Karen M and Marilyn Stone Sarow. Cancer Activism: Gender, Media, and Public Policy. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2007.

Bird, Madeleine. Personal Interview. 1 Dec. 2007.

Canadian Cancer Society. “Cancer statistics.” 2 Nov. 2009.

Bird, Madeleine. “Profits in Pink: Breast Cancer Cause Marketing in Canada.” 2004. Nov. 2009 <http://www.bcam.qc.ca/news/13-2/pink.pdf>