Last updated: Nov 26, 2008
makeup-breast-cancer-risk
A new report found teenage girls' bodies contained the same potentially hormone-altering chemicals found in many cosmetics.
(FOTOLIA)
Could that strawberry-pink blush your teenage daughter rubs on her cheeks every morning be increasing her breast cancer risk? What about the sudsy lavender shower soap you both like?


A controversial new report highlights teen girls' extra vulnerability to environmental contaminants during their crucial adolescent years, and revisits an unsettled debate over whether cosmetics are part of the problem.

So-called hormone disrupters are the toxic troublemakers at the center of this discussion.

These chemicals—found not just in cosmetics but also in pesticides, plastics, and drugs—are thought to mimic hormones such as estrogen when theyre absorbed by the human body. And high, sustained levels of estrogen are linked to the development of breast cancer.

The question is: How to navigate the largely self-regulated cosmetics industry as a conscientious shopper? Is there something you should be doing to help protect your daughters and granddaughters from the world around them?

Teenage bodies burdened with chemicals
The debate over the safety of cosmetic ingredients was reignited in September when the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a Washington, D.C.–based nonprofit, published a report on the subject.

EWG found that teenage girls' bodies contained the same potentially hormone-altering chemicals found in many cosmetics and its report references earlier studies that link those chemicals to health risks, including cancer, in lab animals. Of particular concern is a chemical family known as phthalates, used in some nail polishes and fragrances.

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"We're concerned that these hormone-disrupting chemicals could start to play a role in how growth and development plays out in the teen body and therefore how it might be linked to health effects later in life," says Rebecca Sutton, PhD, author of the report and a senior scientist at EWG.

But don't liquidate your cosmetics shelf just yet. The authors of the EWG report, which looked at 20 girls ages 14 to 19, did not show a direct link between the girls' makeup habits and what was found in their bodies. The chemicals could have come from any number of other sources.

"The phthalates in the plastic water bottles these girls drink from, or the microwave containers they eat out of, may be far more likely to get into their system than cosmetic use, and as of now, no one has banned these things," says M. William Audeh, MD, an oncologist who works in cancer risk assessment at the Samuel Oschin Comprehensive Cancer Institute at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.

"I agree that the general environment in which we grow up and live is far too full of unnatural, possibly harmful chemicals," says Dr. Audeh. "But I think that to say that cosmetics are an important source, and then blame diseases on them, is going much too far."


Activists demand cleaner cosmetics
Stacy Malkan, a cofounder of the advocacy group Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and author of Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry, says cosmetics need extra scrutiny because they are often a direct source of exposure to so many different chemicals. Cosmetics are rubbed right into the skin, inhaled (think perfumes and other sprays), or swallowed (as with lipsticks)—and often on a daily basis.

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To some cancer experts, pinpointing the exact source of these chemicals is not as important as the age of the girls exposed—not just to cosmetics and household and industrial products, but also to cigarette smoke, radiation, and even fatty foods.

"What is known is that when developing breast tissue is exposed to toxic chemicals, it has more effect and impact," says Julia A. Smith, MD, PhD, director of the NYU Cancer Institute's breast cancer screening and prevention program and director of the Lynne Cohen breast cancer preventive care program at New York University.

Dr. Smith also finds it disconcerting that younger girls appear to be using more cosmetic and personal care products than adult women. The EWGs teenage survey participants used an average of 17 personal care products every day, containing an estimated 174 different ingredients, compared to the roughly 12 products and 168 different chemicals they previously found that adult women each used daily.

Advocates say the problem is serious, and they suggest playing it safe by avoiding chemical-laden cosmetics—and argue that it isn't difficult to do so. Hair sprays and lip liners arent exactly essential (although many a junior-high student would disagree).

"While we may not be able to control the carcinogens we breathe from the air or drink from the water, we don't need to be putting these chemicals directly on our skin," says Malkan.

Eventually, she says, there should be no cosmetics that contain hormone-disrupters on the market. "Taking these chemicals out of personal care products should be a no-brainer. It's an easy way, relatively speaking, to reduce the toxic load in the world."

Malkan, who confesses to having been "obsessed with beauty products" in her teenage years, would like to see more research into the effects of cosmetic ingredients on teenagers and children, as well as studies tracking repeated exposures over long periods of time.


Unnecessary panic?
A cosmetics industry representative interviewed for this story pointed out that the EWG report "lacks many of the rigors that you would normally associate with a real scientific report," such as a large study population and control or placebo groups.

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"They're presenting some very alarming assertions that are not supported by the methodology they used," says John Bailey, PhD, chief scientist of the Personal Care Products Council.

As for the EWG–referenced studies suggesting the dangers of cosmetic ingredients, Bailey says, "Many of these studies involve cell cultures where you take cells out of the body and you expose them to very high concentrations of a material." Thats not the same, he says, as looking at "real use and actual exposure [in which] products are applied to the skin at low levels."

Dr. Audeh is also worried about the public reaction to findings such as the EWGs. He says such reports can result in "unnecessary panic aimed at what may be a minor or relatively unimportant source of chemical exposure."

The science is certainly preliminary in this field. Even if cosmetics ingredients do prove harmful in further studies, scientists also have yet to pinpoint the exact mechanism by which hormone-disrupting chemicals may affect breast health.

Is there a direct impact when you paint your nails with polish containing phthalates, for instance? Or do the chemicals amplify preexisting risk factors for breast cancer—such as family history or genetic predisposition?

"Not everyone who's exposed to a given environmental influence reacts the same way," explains Dr. Smith. "But our experience shows us that there's an interaction between the environment and one's underlying biology and genetics. Teasing out the exact effects is going to take time."

Research on men and boys
Much of current research into hormone-disrupting agents focuses on men and boys, and some of it is alarming. A recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine, for instance, suggested that lavender and tea tree oils caused several prepubescent boys to develop breasts.

But experts agree that more research is needed on hormone disrupters picked up from various sources and the risks they may pose to adolescent females.

"Cancer occurs only when a cancer-causing agent has occurred in a very specific window of development," says Irma H. Russo, MD, chief of the molecular endocrinology section of the Breast Cancer Research Laboratory at Fox Chase Cancer Center, in Philadelphia, and a researcher into the impact of hormone disrupters on female development. And that "window of susceptibility," as Dr. Russo calls it, extends from a girl's prepubescent years all the way back to her in utero development.

"If anything, looking at girls between the ages of 14 to 19 may be a little bit late because sometimes the damage occurs much earlier," she says.


How to be an educated consumer
Until research sways (or doesnt sway) more minds and brings stricter control over the sorts of chemicals in question, cosmetics activists such as Malkan urge consumers to press for more regulation of the industry.

Although the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has some authority over beauty products, the cosmetics industry is a largely self-regulating and self-testing one, with a focus on weeding out products that pose immediate and obvious health risks, such as allergic reactions or skin irritation.

Malkan advises women to serve as their own regulators: "The government is not protecting us and the companies are not protecting us, so we have to protect ourselves."

To that end, she offers some tips for sorting through the maze of makeup, lotions, potions, creams, and gels out there.

• Choose products with fewer ingredients and fewer chemicals.

• Before buying, think to yourself, "Do I really need this product?" and consider whether you can cut it from your daily routine.

• For more on cosmetics ingredients, visit the EWG's cosmetics database, Skin Deep. (The Personal Care Products Council also offers a website, Cosmeticsinfo.org, with information about ingredients and regulation.)

Dr. Audeh has his own list of toxic products that teenage girls should avoid to make sure theyre not increasing their breast cancer risk—it includes cigarette smoke, high-fat diets, and diets with lots of red meat—but he doesnt believe soaps and makeup belong at the top of it.

"I am not claiming that exposure to estrogenic chemicals from cosmetics are totally without health risks," says Dr. Audeh. "But it is hard to argue that of all these things, cosmetics are the most important."