Cosmetics, Parabens, and Breast Cancer
Subject: Cosmetics, Parabens, and Breast Cancer (article) Posted 9/6/04 From the Summer 2004 newsletter of the Women's Community Cancer Project
c/o the Women's Center, 46 Pleasant Street, Cambridge, MA 02139 Cosmetics, Parabens, and Breast Cancer
by Rita Arditti
Early this year the media reported that English researchers identified parabens in samples of breast tumors. Parabens (alkyl esters of p-hydroxybenzoic acid) are widely used as antimicrobial preservatives in thousands of cosmetics, personal care products, pharmaceutical products, and food. There are six commonly used forms (Methylparaben, Ethylparaben, p-Propylparaben, Isobutylparaben, n-Butylparaben and Benzylparaben) and it is estimated that they are used in at least 13,200 cosmetics products. According to the lead researcher of the recent study, Philippa Darbre, an oncology expert at the university of Reading, in Edinburgh, the chemical form of the parabens found in 18 of the 20 tumors tested indicated that they originated from something applied to the skin, the most likely candidates being deodorants, antiperspirants, creams, or body sprays.
Breast cancer is the most common cancer among women, accounting for nearly one of every three cancers diagnosed in U.S. women. For 2003, it is estimated that 211,300 new cases of invasive breast cancer were diagnosed in women with an additional 55,700 cases of in situ breast cancer.
For many years there have been rumors that underarm deodorants and antiperspirants used by millions of women, mainly in the West, might increase the risk of breast cancer. But most reearchers thought this idea seemed too far-fetched, the product of paranoid female minds, typically substituting rational scientific thinking with unsophisticated, primitive beliefs. Enter the late nineties. From 1998 on, reports started appearing stating that parabens had estrogenic-like activity in mice, in rats, and in human breast cancer cells in the lab. Since most breast cancers respond to estrogen the link between deodorants and breast cancer did not seem so outlandish anymore. So, currently, questioning the safety of applying hormone-mimicking compounds to an areas so close to the breast appears to have gained some legitimacy. In addition, estrogen/progesterone Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) was found to significantly increase breast cancer risk making the paraben/cancer connection even more plausible.
So what does the new study actually tell us? Up to now it was known that parabens could be absorbed from the gastrointestinal tract or the blood, metabolized, and eventually excreted in the urine. But now the presence of intact parabens in tumor tissue shows that these chemicals can not only be absorbed through the skin but can also persist and accumulate in breast cancer tissue in their original form, without being degraded. (when parabens are eaten they are degraded and lose some of their constituents, making them less estrogen-like). This is new information. We do not yet know how long they can persist and what effects they might have.
Because controls with normal breast tissue were not done, we also don't know if comparable levels of parabens would be found in normal tissue. Plus, the study did not identify the route by which the parabens entered the body. In other words, thought the chemical form of the parabens found suggests that the source was probably underarm cosmetics, though this needs to be confirmed. (This article does not say anything about the use of deodorants/antiperspirants by the women in the study.)
Despite these limitations, this study represents an important first step. Knowing that parabens can be absorbed through the skin and retained in breast tissue is necessary in order to investigate the causes and possible mechanisms of its action. The authors of this study write in their paper: "This adds parabens to the list of environmental estrogenic chemicals that can be found to accumulate in the human breast and already includes polychlorinated byphenyls (PCBs)
and organochlorine pesticides (OCPs)." This also raises the issue of possible interactions between all these chemicals and the influence that might have on their toxicity.
In the last couple of years new and much needed work has been done regarding the accumulation of chemicals in our bodies. The 2003 National Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) presents data from 15 different geographic regions of the U.S. representing different segments of the population including African Americans, Mexican Americans, adolescents, pregnant women, Chiildren, and the elderly and the findings regarding more than 100 toxic chemicals in their blood or urine, reflecting the amount of a chemical in the environment that actually gets in the body. The Report concludes that Americans are exposed to a broad spectrum of hazardous chemicals that contaminate the food we eat, the air we breathe, and the water we drink. These chemicals are now in our tissues/fluids and while we do not know their specific effects it does not seem too far-fetched to think that having compounds like dioxins, persistent OCPs, herbicides, PCBs, PAHs
(polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons), phthalates, etc., in our bodies, is potentially harmful. (For more information on this take a look at a careful analysis of the report done by Physicians for Social Responsibility at www.envirohealthaction.org/bearingtheburden
It was particularly interesting to read in an article in Health Day News, January 12, 2004 issue, that Darbre has been studying breast cancer for over 20 years but in spite of that she could not get funding for this study, " 'I was told I wouldn't find anything' she says. So, she galvanized friends and colleagues in the medical community who helped her gain access to analytic machinery and breast tissue." She analyzed her samples with high pressure liquid chromatography followed by tandem mass spectrometry, standard state of the art analytic techniques. I have often heard the saying that researchers who dare to "think outside the box" have a hard time getting support for their work. this case would certainly confirm that view.
Darbre also pointed out in an interview with the New Scientist (January 12, 2004) that: "One would expect tumors to occur evenly, with 20 percent arising in each of the five areas of the breast. But these results help explain why up to 60 percent of all breast tumors are found in just one-fifth of the breast, the upper-outer quadrant, nearest the underarm." This fact has never been adequately explained. A few years back Darbre presented a hypothesis regarding the possible biological mechanisms by which the chemical present in deodorants/antiperspirants right contribute to breast cancer. Aluminum zirconium salts are almost always present in these products and aluminum is known to bind to DNA and had been linked to the development of granulomas. One simple scenario would be that the aluminum could damage the DNA of breast cells and the parabens could then promote the growth of damaged cells. This could explain the disproportionate number of breast cancer in the upper-outer quadrant of the breast. Furthermore, it is known that the left breast is more prone to the development of breast cancer than the right breast.
Darbre suggests that this could be due to the fact that the majority of population is right-handed which would result in more chemicals applied to the left underarm area. Philip Harvey, an editor of the Journal of Applied Toxicology, in the same issue of the journal where the research appeared, discussed the significance of the 2004 study. He pointed out that there is logic to Darbre's hypothesis and that because of the huge size of the population exposed and because of the direct application of the compounds to the skin, further research regarding the possible harm of parabens is warranted. He also wrote that in 2002 a widely quoted study that examined antiperspirant use and the risk of breast cancer found no association based on retrospective interviews. But the question of specific ingredients and not simply antiperspirants was not investigated and he proposed that research should be designed that is sensitive to "any effects of long-term, low-level exposure to mixtures." Plus, Harvey and Darbre also raise the issue of the effects of estrogen-like compounds on children and those at higher risk of breast cancer.
After reading all these articles, I was glad that I had stopped using deodorants/antiperspirants many years back. So, I naturally started checking my shampoo, bath gel, and the cream that I used for my dry aging skin. They all contained parabens. Of the 6 most common parabens, methylparabens was ubiquitous. My bath gel had it along with three other parabens. Next, I went to my local drugstore armed with pen, paper, and a magnifying glass, to be able to read the ingredients of the cosmetics, which are usually written in microscopic characters. I was surprised to see how many products did not list their ingredients and for those that did how little I knew about them. Shampoos, conditioners, lotions, creams, body sprays, sun blocks, sun tanning lotions, foundations, facial masks, hair-grooming aids, nail creams, baby products, etc., all contained one or more parabens. Check it out and see for yourself how incredibly widespread their use is.
Granted, shampoos and soaps are rinsed off so exposures are probably lower than for lotions, creams, deodorants, etc., that are applied and purposely left on the skin. But since nobody knows the health effects of long-term low-level exposures, as a woman living with metastatic breast cancer for many years I am not taking any chances. My next step was: how do I find products that do not contain parabens?
Luckily, Breast Cancer Action (BCA) from San Francisco (www.bcaction.org
) an organization that is at the forefront of the movement developing critical analysis and recognition of the politics of breast cancer, has done a lot of work on cosmetics and breast cancer. Their project "Think Before You Pink," www.thinkbeforeyoupink.org
, raises excellent questions regarding the cosmetics industry, breast cancer, and their obsession with pink paraphernalia. BCA points out that a huge number of personal care products contain ingredients that may raise the risk of breast cancer but that the companies that produce them, nevertheless present themselves as committed to the eradication of breast cancer. They do so by running "cause-related marketing campaigns," exploited the good will of customers but making pitiful contributions to breast cancer research. (See the NY Times ad "Philanthropy or Hypocrisy," October 24, 2003 on the BCA webpage). Very helpfully, BCA has a section providing a list of companies that do not use parabens in their products (see box on page 9). Information about phthalates in cosmetics, another set of compounds we also need to worry about, is available there too. Phthalates seem to have reproductive effects on males leading to infertility, and high levels of them have been found in women too. Though I will certainly look for products without parabens, my individual solution is not going to make much of a difference to the huge cosmetic industry and the millions of women who buy their products. Like in so many other areas of our lives, the impulse for change will come from organizing and uniting with others to demand an end to practices that put our health at risk. The Precautionary Principle, a public health principle brought o the foreground in the U.S. in a statement drafted by a group of scientists, activists, government officials, and lawyers dedicated to prevent harm to the environment and to our health, states that "When an activity raises the threat of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not established scientifically."
This is the old common sense approach, "better safe than sorry," that many of us follow intuitively. The Precautionary Principle is not pie-in-the-sky, wishful thinking on the part of naive people. It has been widely adopted in Europe and in 2003 the city of San Francisco issued a Precautionary Principle Ordinance designed as "its policy framework to develop laws for a healthier and more just San Francisco". The essential elements of the Precautionary Principle approach to decision-making about introducing new chemicals include: Anticipatory Action
--the duty to take anticipatory action to prevent harm. Right To Know
--the right of the community to have complete and accurate information on health and environmental impacts of products, services, etc. Alternative Assessment
--the obligation to examine a full range of alternatives regarding new chemicals including the alternative to do
nothing. Full Cost Accounting
--the duty to consider all reasonably forseeable costs at all levels of organization. Participatory Decision Making Processes
--decisions applying the principle must be transparent, participatory, and informed by the best available information.
For more on the Precautionary Principle go to the web and google it or look at Rachel's Environment & Health Weekly, #586, at the website www.rachel.org
. For the San Francisco ordinance go to www.ci.sf.ca.us
and write Precautionary Principle in the Search
To implement the Precautionary Principle in the case of parabens we can start by demanding that cosmetics companies eliminate suspected cancer causing substances from their products. After the research discussed in this article came out, the UK's department of Trade and Industry and Britain's Cosmetic Toiletry and Perfumery association decided to re-examine the data on parabens. That is a necessary first step but does not go far enough. Unless and until they are established as safe, parabens should be withdrawn from cosmetics. The burden of proof should be on the companies that use them and not on the bodies of breast cancer victims.
A campaign seeking the removal of toxic chemicals from cosmetics has been recently launched by Women's Voices for the Earth, a women's environmental justice group from Montana (www.womenandenvironment.org
). As a result of their initiative, a coalition of environmental and public health groups has emerged, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics www.safecosmetics.org
), working to pressure the health and beauty industry to phase out the use of chemicals that are known or suspected carcinogens, mutagens, or reproductive toxins. In January 2003 the European Union banned the use of these chemicals. By September 2004, all cosmetics and personal care products sold in the member states of the European Union will have to be free of substances considered CMR I and CMR II (carcinogens, mutagens, or reproductive toxins). Accordingly, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics is asking the U.S. cosmetics companies to sign the "Compact for the Global Production of Safer Health and Beauty Care Products" committing themselves to comply with those principles in the products they sell in the U.S. and other non-European markets.
The slogan of the campaign, "Because We're Worth It!" sends a clear message to those who disregard women's health concerns in the pursuit of profit. * Keep an eye on the campaign, have your organization join it, and monitor the follow up that will ensue.
* Spread the word about cosmetics, parabens, and cancer.
* Go to the webpage of the Environmental Working Group, www.ewg.org
and read their report, Skin Deep, a safety assessment of the ingredients in personal care products.
* Visit the webpage of Breast Cancer Action, www.bca.org, and keep yourself informed of new developments regarding corporate interests and cosmetics.
We are part a national and international movement to clean up the earth and out bodies. Think of the power we could have if millions of women demanded safe products for themselves and their families!
Paraben-free cosmetics from www.thinkbeforeyoupink.org
AnneMarie Borlind Natural Beauty
Aubrey Organics Skin, Body & Hair Care Products
Caribbean Pacifics Suncare Products Dr. Hauschka
Earths Beauty Cosmetics
Kettle Care herbal Body Products
Living Nature Products
Martina Gebhardt Naturkosmetiks
Natural Solutions-Holistic Beauty&Health
Organic Essentials Skincare (and Nutritional Product)
Organic Excellence Hair Care Products
Real Purity Cosmetics
Restored Balance Herbal Products
Web Note: Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps and all Terressentials products, among others, are also paraben-free as well as made from organic ingredients.
The research work on parabens discussed in this article, "Concentrations of Parabens in Human Breast Tumors by P.D. Darbre, A.Alijarrah, W.R. Miller, N.G. Coldham, M.J. Sauer and G.S. Pope appeared in the Journal of Applied Toxicology, 24, 5-13 (2004