Cancer Alert for Toiletries

Do you ever think about the long term impact your daily use of toiletries and cosmetics may be having on your health? Scientific research has long shown that many ingredients in these products pose serious long-term health risks – and are even found in most well-known ethical brands currently in health food shops. According to Professor Samual Epstein, the evidence is overwhelming, and the negligence of government and industry to inform and protect the public is shocking.

In 1989, a US House subcommittee asked US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to analyse 2,983 chemicals used in personal care products. The results were as follows: 884 of the ingredients were found to be toxic. Of these, 778 can cause acute toxicity; 146 can cause tumours; 218 can cause reproductive complications; 314 can cause biological mutation, and 376 can cause skin and eye irritations.
Utusan Konsumer, Dec 1998

We are losing a winnable war against cancer. Over recent decades, particularly since 1950, the incidence of cancer in the US and Europe and the other major industrialized nations has escalated to epidemic proportions, with lifetime cancer risks reaching one in two for men and one in three for women. In the overall increase of all cancers in the US from 1950 to 1995, lung cancer, which is largely due to smoking, accounted for about a quarter of the increase. Over the same period a wide range of non-smoking cancers have increased. Let me give you some examples.

Prostrate cancer, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and multiple myeloma have increased by about 200%, testicular cancer by about 110%, brain and nervous system cancer in adults by 80%, childhood cancers particularly brain and nervous system cancers up by 40%. So we are talking about a very wide range of non-smoking cancers whose incidence has escalated to epidemic proportions since the 1950s.

The Boston Globe (6.9.97) reported that the US General Accounting Office (a non-partisan agency within the legislative branch of the US government) has identified more than 125 cosmetic ingredients suspected of causing cancer – and others that may cause birth defects.
Utusan Konsumer, Dec 1998


First let me say that you can’t explain away the cancer epidemic on the basis of the fact that people are living longer, because the incidence and mortality rates in our cancer registries are adjusted to reflect the fact that people are getting older. So in this way we exclude longevity as the reason for the increased rates. Neither can you explain away the epidemic as due to faulty personal lifestyle because smoking is clearly the most important single cause of cancer, the incidence of lung cancer in men, but not in women, is declining sharply due to a reduction in smoking. And also the incidence of the non-smoking cancers which I have mentioned before is increasing at proportionally much greater rates.

Also you can’t explain away this massive escalation on the basis of high fat diets, In contrast to heart disease, there is no relation between the role of high fat diet and cancer. However, when you look at animal and dairy fats you find significant relationships due to the fact that animal and dairy fats act as sinks for the accumulation of environmental and industrial carcinogenic chemicals. It is these contaminants in the fat rather than the fat itself which cause cancer.

Finally, increasing cancer rates can’t be explained away on the basis of genetic factors: the genetics of human population can’t possibly have changed at such a rate within the last few decades.

While the incidence rates have been shooting up, our ability to treat and cure most cancers, with the notable exception of some relatively rare forms such as childhood and testicular cancers, has remained largely unchanged in spite of periodic misleading and exaggerated claims to the contrary. There has been a very modest improvement in survival rates for breast cancer, but in spite of the multi-billion dollar expenditures, our survival rates on an overall basis have not significantly improved for about the last five decades.

If lifestyle factors aren’t important causes of the modern cancer epidemic, what are the causes? The answer is based on a very strong body of scientific evidence incriminating a variety of industrial technologies which I call “runaway technologies” because they have basically escaped regulation. As a result our total environment – our air, our water, our workplace and consumer products (food, cosmetics and toiletries and household products) have become contaminated and permeated with a very wide range of industrial carcinogens.

This means that the public at large has been and continues to be unknowingly and involuntarily exposed to avoidable carcinogens from conception to death.


It takes a book to cover all the carcinogenic ingredients in consumer products, so I am just going to focus here on the mainstream cosmetics and toiletries, often referred to as personal care products, and on those carcinogens which are clear cut, whose names are mentioned on the label but mean nothing to consumers because there is no warning that these are carcinogenic.

For example, take talc. Talc is used by some 20 million women in their reproductive years. We have at least three clear cut studies which have been published in the scientific literature that routine application of talc in the genital area is associated with a three-to fourfold increase in the development of ovarian cancer.

A second carcinogen is DEA, diethanolamine, and the related chemical TEA, triethanolamine. DEA and TEA are very common ingredients in mainstream cosmetics and toiletries found, for example, in cocamide DEA or TEA sodium lauryl sulphate or sodium laureth sulphate. In studies by the National Toxicology Program, when applied to the skin of mice, DEA was shown to readily absorb through the skin, to accumulate in the organs and induce cancer of the liver and kidney. After this clear-cut study, you would have expected the mainstream industry to have acted on it and to replace the chemicals. Not on your life! There has been a denial, an attempt to trivialize the risk. I will come back to DEA and TEA later in this article.

A third carcinogen is fluoride. There are several studies incriminating fluoride in bone cancer, but the public have been given no information on this. Fluoride in toothpaste is particularly dangerous because kids swallow a significant amount of the fluoride, especially when toothpaste contains saccharine, as many toothpastes do, a sweetening agent.

The evidence on the carcinogenicity of saccharine is overwhelming, with particularly great risks for children. There is another overt carcinogen, Crystalline silica, present in some personal care products and toiletries. It has been incriminated as a cause of lung cancer in both animal and human studies.

The paraphenylin diamine dyes are extensively used in permanent black and dark brown hair dyes. These have been incriminated in a variety of cancers including multiple myeloma and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma – Jackie Kennedy died of this and she had her hair dyed regularly.

Finally, there are coal tar dyes, particularly Blue 1, Green 3, which are carcinogenic and often contaminated with arsenic and lead – here you have a mixture of carcinogens. These are listed on the label, but as there is no warning that these are carcinogens, it is of no value to the consumer.


Let us move to the hidden carcinogens. Take lanolin: it is sheep’s wool, and you’d think that lanolin was as safe as mother’s milk. In fact most lanolin samples, at least 50 – 60%, are highly contaminated with chlorinated organo pesticides like DDT.

Then there are a whole group of other ingredients such as polythylene glycol, polysorbates, ethoxylated alcohols, which are contaminated with dioxane. This is a highly potent carcinogen which is readily absorbed through the skin. The best way to protect yourself is to recognise the ingredients most likely to be contaminated with dioxiane. These include ingredients with the prefix, word or syllable PEG, Polythylene, Polythylene glycol, Polyoxyethylene, eth (as in sodium laureth sulphate), Oxynol, Polysorbate 60 and Polysorbate 80.

The third carcinogen in this category of contaminants is amorphous silicate. This is “perfectly safe” – but a high percentage of samples are contaminated with crystalline silica which as I mentioned before is a clear carcinogenic ingredient.


The next group are precursors of a very potent class of carcinogens known as nitrosamines. I have already mentioned DEA and TEA. We’ve known since at least 1976 that these will react with nitrites, which are often present as preservatives or as contaminants in personal care products, to produce a carcinogen known as nitrosodyethalonamine. The FDA accepts that the presence of DEA and TEA in cosmetics can pose a significant consumer health threat. In 1979 the FDA warned the cosmetic industry that DEA was dangerous because of this. And what do you think happened in the US?

Nothing at all. The toiletry industry dug in their heels and ignored it.

An FDA report from the late 1980’s noted that some 37% of the products tested contained carcinogenic nitrosamine impurities. It is unfortunate that nitrosamine contamination is so prevalent, because this is a problem that could easily be eliminated. German cosmetics, for example, are unlikely to contain nitrosamines because official recommendations by the German Federal Health Office in 1987 discouraged manufacturers from using DEA and TEA.

What about consumers who are exposed without any guidance whatsoever to nitrosodyethalonamine in virtually any cosmetic that contains DEA or TEA?

There are two other nitrosamine precursors: Bronopol and Padimate O, which act by releasing nitrates which combine with DEA/TEA to form nitrosamines.


The third category of the hidden carcinogens are those which are themselves safe, but which break down in the bottle or tube or on the skin to release formaldehyde, for which the evidence of its carcinogenicity is overwhelming. These include Bronopol, Quaternium 15, Imidazolidinyl urea, and DMDM hydrantoin. In addition to being a carcinogen and neurotoxin, formaldehyde is an irritant and sensitizer, one of the leading causes of contact dermatitis and stinging eyes.

Remember that carcinogens in cosmetics and toiletries are substances to which people are exposed from infancy until death. As the skin is very highly permeable, they are very easily absorbed through the skin, especially as there are detergents present in the cosmetics and toiletries which improve skin absorption. Babies, children and older people are especially at risk.


The main agency concerned in the US is the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). In spite of the fact that there are laws permitting it to act, the FDA is acting as a reckless “runaway” regulatory agency that has abysmally failed the public. We are dealing with almost regulatory anarchy and with a fundamental denial of consumers’ right to know: not only is the public left exposed and unprotected, but also the FDA’s policies are like throwing a gauntlet in the teeth of democracy saying, you, the public, are not entitled to have information which lies buried in government or industry files or in relatively inaccessible scientific publications.


There are very few companies that do provide the public with safe alternatives. These are really taking over from the FDA where the FDA never really started. They are giving the public information which they are entitled to know, but which they are not getting from the government or the cancer establishment or from any other institution.

Samuel S Epstein, MD, D Path, DTM&H, is Professor of Environmental and Occupational Medicine at the School of Public Health, University of Illinois Medical Centre, Chicago, He is an internationally recognised authority on the causes and prevention of cancer, and the toxic and carcinogenic effects of environmental pollutants in air, water, soil and household products. He has published 280 scientific articles and ten books including the prize-winning 1978 The Politics of Cancer and 1998 The Politics of Cancer Revisited. Dr Epstein is also the founder of the Cancer Prevention Coalition, one of whose primary goals is to expose consumer products that contain cancer causing ingredients.

This is an edited transcription of a talk given for Newways International in the US. For further reading, Dr Epstein’s book The Politics of Cancer Revisited (NY: East Ridge Press) is highly recommended.

13.07.2015 |

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