Toxic cancer causing (carcinogenic) chemicals in the air we breathe, the food we eat and the personal care toiletries we use on our hair, skin and in our mouths may be contributing to the spiralling rate of cancer and metabolic disease whilst speeding up the aging process.

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"The glossy images we're fed by the media hide a dangerous secret: Most of our toiletries, even the "natural variety", are made from the same harsh chemicals used for industry".

(What Doctors Don't Tell You Vol 10 No7 10/99)

What could be more healthy than a refreshing body wash, a nourishing shampoo, a minty fresh toothpaste and a moisturizing facial cream? Commercials, magazine advertisements and billboards bombard us with the message that soaping and scrubbing, exfoliating and moisturizing are only beneficial to our health.

Yet the glossy images of well scrubbed individuals hide a dangerous secret: 

Too many of the toiletries and cosmetics we use are carcinogenic cocktails of hazardous waste. Most of the chemicals which go into our toiletries are no different from the harsh toxic chemicals used in industry.  Far from enhancing health they pose a daily threat to it.  For example, propylene glycol (PG) is a wetting agent and solvent used in make up, hair care products, deodorants  and after shave.  Its also the main ingredient in antifreeze and brake fluid.  Similarly, polyethylene glycol (PEG), a related agent found in most skin cleansers, is a caustic used to dissolve grease... the same substance you find in oven cleaners.  Isopropyl, an alcohol used in hair rinses, hand lotions and fragrances, is also a solvent found in shellac.

What to watch out for

When selecting kinder cosmetics and toiletries, choose products which do not have any of the following ingredients.
  • DEA, MEA, TEA, Cause allergic reactions, irritate the eyes and dry the hair and skin. Can be carcinogenic, especially to the kidneys and liver.
  • Petrolatum, also known as mineral oil jelly, liquid vaseline, paraffinum, liquidum and baby oil.  Can cause photosensitivity and strips the natural oils from the skin causing chapping and dryness, also premature ageing. Prevents elimination of toxins, can cause acne and other disorders.
  • Imidazolidinyl urea and DMDM hydantoin. These formaldehyde-forming preservatives can cause joint pain, allergies, depression, headaches, chest pain, chronic fatigue, dizziness, insomnia and asthma.  can also weaken the immune system and even cause cancer.  Found in skin body and hair products, antiperspirants and nail polish.
  • Alcohol, or isopropyl.  A poisonous solvent and denaturant (altering the structure of other chemicals). Found in hair colour rinses, body rubs, hand lotions, after shave lotions, fragrances. Can cause nausea, vomiting headaches, flushing, depression.  Also, dries skin and hair, creates cracks and fissures in the skin which encourage bacterial growth.
  • Sodium lauryl sulphate (SLS) Found in shampoos, hair conditioners, toothpaste, body washes.  Strong detergent which can cause eye irritation, permanent damage to the 

eyes, especially in children, skin rashes, hair loss, flaking skin and mouth ulceration. When combined with other ingredients, can form nitrosamines, which are carcinogenic.  Easily penetrates the skin and can lodge itself in the heart, lungs, liver and brain.

  • PVP/VA copolymer, a petroleum based ingredient used in hair sprays.
  • Padimate-O also known as octyl dimethyl, PABA is found mostly in sunscreens. Like DEA, a nitrosamine-forming agent.  There is concern that the energy absorbed by this sunscreen is then turned into free radicals, which may actually increase the risk of skin cancer!
  • Methyl, propyl, butyl and ethyl paraben, used to extend a products shelf life and inhibit microbial growth.  Highly toxic. Can cause rashes and other allergic reactions.
  • Synthetic colours: coal-tar dyes are generally labelled as FD7C or D4C followed by a number. CARCINOGENIC!
  • Talc, found in baby powders, face powders and body powders as well as on some contraceptives such as condoms. A known carcinogen. A major cause of ovarian cancer when used in the genital area.  Can also lodge in the lungs, causing respiratory disorders.
  • Fragrance. Usually petroleum based.  Can cause headaches, dizziness, rashes, respiratory problems vomiting, skin irritation and multiple chemical sensitivity

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Sodium lauryl sulphate (SLS) used in toothpastes, shampoos and just about every personal cleansing solution, is a harsh detergent commonly used as an engine degreaser.  Each of these ingredients readily penetrates the skin with potentially adverse consequences (see previous box)

Some of the most dangerous chemicals we put on our bodies in the name of beauty belong to a family of hormone-disrupting chemicals, which are water soluble ammonia derivatives.  

DEA (diethanolamine), TEA (Triethanolamine) are almost always in products that foam: bubble bath, body washes, shampoos, soaps and facial cleansers. They are used to thicken, wet, alkalise and clean.  While they are irritating to the skin, eyes and respiratory tract (Rev Environ Contam Toxicol, 1997; 149: 1-86) DEA, MEA and TEA are not considered particularly toxic in themselves.  However once added to the product these chemicals readily react with any nitrites present to form potentially carcinogenic nitrosamines, such as NDEA (N-nitrosodiethanolamine).  Of the three, MEA and DEA pose the greatest risk to human health.  Prolonged exposure to these can alter liver and kidney function (J Am Coll Toxicol, 1983; 2: 183- 235) and even lead to cancer (Rev Environ Contam Toxicol, 1997; 149: 1-86).

Nitrites get into personal care products in several ways. They can be added as anticorrosive agents, they can be released as a result of the degradation of other chemicals, specifically 2-nitro-1,3-propanediol (BNDP), or they can be present as contaminants in raw materials.  Ingredients such as formaldehyde or formaldehyde-forming chemicals, or 2-bromo-2-nitropropane (also known as Bronopol) which can break down into formaldehyde.... can also produce nitrosamines.

The long shelf life of most toiletries also increases the risk of creating a carcinogenic reaction.  Stored for a long time at elevated temperatures, nitrates will continue to form in a product, accelerated by the presence of other chemicals, such as formaldehyde, paraformaldehyde, thiocyanate, nitrophenols and certain metal salts (Science, 1973; 182: 1245-6; J Nat Cancer Inst, 1977; 58:409;Nature, 1977; 266: 657-8; Fd Cosmet Toxicol, 1983; 21: 607-14)

Inadequate and confusing labelling means that consumers may never know which products are most likely to be contaminated. However, in a recent Food and Drug Administration (FDA) report, approximately 42% of all cosmetics were contaminated with NDEA, with shampoos having the highest concentrations (National Toxicology Program, Seventh Annual Report on Carcinogens, Rockville, MD: US Department of Health and Human Services, 1994).

In Europe, where more safeguards are in place regarding nitrosating agents, the picture is somewhat better.  For instance, in Germany, after the Federal Health Office issued a request to eliminate all secondary amines (such as DEA) from cosmetics in 1987 a report confirmed that only 15 per cent of products tested were contaminated with NDEA (Eisenbrand, G, et al in O'neill, IK, et al [Eds}; N-Nitrosoalknolamines in cosmetics, Lyon: IARC, 1991).

Manufactures insist that DEA and its relatives are "safe" in products designed for brief or discontinuous use or those which wash off.  However there is evidence from both human and animal studies that NDEA can be quickly absorbed through the skin (J Nat Cancer Inst, 1981; 66: 125-7; Toxicol Lett, 1979; 4: 217-22). 

This argument also doesn't explain why these chemicals crop up regularly in body lotions and facial moisturisers, which are of course meant to stay on the skin for long periods of time.

As far back as 1978, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) concluded that "Although no epidemiological data were available, nitrosodiethanolamine should be regarded for practical purposes, as if it were carcinogenic to humans" (IRAC, 1978; 17: 77-82).  This position was reaffirmed nearly 10 years later.


If you use permanent or semi-permanent hair colours You are increasing your risk of developing cancer. 

Both animal and human studies show that the body rapidly absorbs chemicals in permanent and semi-permanent dyes through the skin during the more than 30 minutes that dyes remain on the scalp.

In the late 1970s, several studies found links between the use of hair dyes and breast cancers. A 1976 study reported that 87 of 100 breast cancer patients had been long-term dye users (NY State J Med, 1976; 76: 394-6).

In 1979, a US study found a significant relationship between frequency and duration of hair dye use and breast cancer (J Nat Cancer Inst, 1979; 62: 277-83). Those at greatest risk were 50 to 79 year olds, suggesting that cancer takes years to develop.

Women who started dyeing their hair at age 20 had twice the risk of those who'd started at 40.

Another study found women who dye their hair to change its colour, rather than masking greyness, were at a threefold risk (J Nat Cancer Inst, 1980; 64: 64: 23-8).

More recently, a jointly funded American Cancer Society and FDA study admitted a fourfold increase in relatively uncommon cancers, including non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and multiple myeloma in hair-dye users (J Nat Cancer Inst, 1994; 215-310).

The darker the shades of permanent and semi-permanent dyes, the higher the risks of breast cancer; women who use black, dark brown or red dyes are at the greatest risk!

In America in 1994, the National Toxicology Program similarly concluded in its Seventh Annual Report on Carcinogens that: "There is sufficient evidence for the carcinogenicity of N-nitrodiethanolamine in experimental animals."  The report noted that of more than 44 different species in which NDEA compounds have been tested all have been susceptible (Lijinsky, W, Chemistry and Biology of N-Nitroso Comaounds, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992).  

Humans were unlikely to be the single exception said the paper.

The cosmetics industry's response to the problems of nitrosamine formation has been to put even more chemicals in their products in an attempt to slow or inhibit the formation of NDEA.  These include ascorbic acid, sodium bisulfite, butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA), butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT), sodium ascorbate, ascorbyl palmitate and a-tocopherol.  None has proved adequate to prevent nitrosamine formation (Cosmetics & Toiletries, 1994; 109: 53)

In 1996, the Cosmetics, Toiletries and Fragrance Association (Cosmetic Ingredient Review, Washington DC; 1996 CIR Compendium) stated: "These chemicals [Cocamide DEA, Lauramide DEA, Linoleamide DEA, and Oleamide DEA] should not be used as ingredients in cosmetic products containing nitrosating agents." 

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 Nevertheless DEA, TEA and MRA continue to be widely used in a staggering variety of toiletries and cosmetics.  

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a study

By Patricia Reaney

LONDON, Oct 7 (Reuters) - British scientists have identified chemicals used in toiletries that mimic the effects of oestrogen, the female hormone that has been linked to a drop in sperm count and an increase in breast and testicular cancers.

The compounds have been widely used in cosmetics and toiletries for decades. Professor John Sumpter of Brunel University in London said it is the first time the chemicals have been reported to be oestrogenic, but he did not know if the substances were harmful to humans.

``That's what we need to find out,'' Sumpter told Reuters on Wednesday. ``At the moment we have no evidence that will link those chemicals with any adverse effects in humans but I think we need more research.''

The chemicals, which have been approved for use in preservatives known as parabens in toiletries, are found in thousands of products ranging from sunblocks and cosmetics to baby creams. They prevent the products from spoiling but are also responsible for causing allergic reactions such as skin rashes, swelling and itching.

Sumpter and his colleagues found that when the substances were injected under the skin of animals in laboratory studies they caused adverse reactions. Their research will be published in the next issue of the journal, Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology.

Scientists believe hormone disrupting compounds, also known as gender-bending chemicals or endocrine disruptors, that are used in plastics, pesticides and detergents can disrupt biochemical pathways and natural hormones in the body, causing birth defects and damage to wildlife.

Exposure to the chemicals has also been linked to an increase in certain cancers, a dramatic drop in sperm counts and impaired sexual development. ``It's a hypothesis and no more. It's a powerful hypothesis but at the moment it is not supported by data,'' said Sumpter.  The expert on oestrogen chemicals said scientists did not know which chemicals they should be most concerned about.

``What we're saying is: here is a new group of chemicals that are weak oestrogens. There is (human) exposure to them. It is well documented. We do not know whether that will have any adverse effect but we think it might be wise to have a look.''

The British study coincides with plans announced on Monday by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to identify and characterise man-made chemicals that mimic oestrogen. The EPA said it plans to initially screen 15,000 chemicals in the programme that it hopes to formally propose by the end of the year. Back to Top

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