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The Truth About Cancer-Causing Cosmetics

While consumers are well past the dangerous complacence of the stereotypical 1950s television owner, we still buy into the deceptive ploys that large companies use today. Contemporary examples of these conniving campaigns include the “not-for-children” merchandising and advertising contracts of big tobacco companies, Bernie Madoff's not-so-funny practical joke on investors, and the widespread use of carcinogenic ingredients by cosmetic companies, as this article will expose. So who exactly are these cosmetic companies, how are they getting away with poisoning their consumers, and what can anyone do about it?

Major cosmetic companies like Bobbi Brown, Estée Lauder, Bumble and Bumble, Sephora, Revlon, and dozens of others have launched breast cancer donation campaigns and fundraisers over the past decade. Conscientious consumers can purchase any manner of items, from Eveyln Lauder lip sets to pink tweezers, to contribute a portion of those sales to breast cancer research initiatives. The irony behind this sudden, almost unanimous change of heart is that all of these companies have been accused by prominent groups like the Organic Consumers Association of manufacturing and distributing cancer-causing ingredients in their products. Funnier still, all of these breast cancer awareness campaigns were launched very soon after the allegations began to surface in the late 90s and early 2000s. The Breast Cancer Research Fund, referenced in the link above, cites the two most dangerous cancer-causing chemicals used by cosmetic companies: parabens and phthalates.


The word “parabens” refers to a class of preservatives that cosmetic companies use in their products. Common permutations of this preservative include butylparaben and methylparaben. As the single most heavily used preservative in the industry, parabens are found in shaving gel, tanning oils, lotions, shampoos, creams, and dozens of other cosmetic products. Their widespread applications are due to their bactericidal properties. By killing fungi, bacteria, and other microorganisms, parabens help to create and uphold the increasingly long shelf life of household products. The FDA refers to a 2004 study that reported the presence of parabens in the breast tumors of several subjects. Increased estrogen levels, a side effect of paraben consumption, catalyze some forms of breast cancer. So why are these cancer-causing preservatives even used when there are safe and natural alternatives like grapefruit seed extract? Unfortunately, parabens are very inexpensive, easy to produce on a large scale, and very good at their job. They also “play well” with other preservatives and surfactants, which means that they can be easily integrated into thousands of different products.


Originally derived from phthalic acid, phthalates are used to “plasticize” substances, or optimize their texture for their intended uses. With phthalates, this process entails increasing or decreasing the opacity, flexibility, strength, and durability of plastic and similar materials. As the most prolific industrial ingredient, phthalates are found in toys, pills, paint, gels, wax, and of course, almost every cosmetic product imaginable. As materials containing phthalates begin to age and deteriorate, the weakly bonded plasticizers are released into the environment. This tendency, along with its correlation to cancer, has merited several attacks from environmental and cancer advocates. The Environmental Working Group and the U.S. Center for Disease Control have reported a number of detrimental effects on humans and the environment as the result of phthalate contamination. The CDC exposed the link between phthalates and liver cancer with a 2005 study. In a separate study conducted by the Environmental Working Group, dibutyl phthalate was detected in 100 percent of test subjects. Unlike the complete failure of paraben protesters, however, the diligent efforts of advocates like the EWG and CDC resulted in the congressional ban of six phthalates in 2008. Much more work remains to be done, of course, until all phthalates are banned.

Lack of Accountability of Cosmetic Companies

It's obvious that parabens and phthalates are carcinogenic. Why, then, has their use not been criminalized? The FDA's defense for not holding cosmetic companies accountable involves the commissioning of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, in which the FDA is not allowed to approve cosmetic ingredients. Whether or not this act was written on the scorecard of a golf game between Revlon's CEO and the top lawmakers of the day, as some advocates suggest, is yet to be revealed. Nonetheless, the only restriction that the act imposes is the banning of “adulterated” products, or those that have been proven harmful. Thus, the failure to regulate phthalates and parabens after this legislation is merely a selective oversight by a government that wants to keep its rich friends.

Avoiding Cancer-Causing Chemicals

Until increased advocacy, lobbying, and other forms of pressure prevail, the best way to boycott phthalates and parabens is to avoid them. Considering their ubiquity, the best way to do this is to purchase explicitly paraben-free cosmetic products. Several retailers offering paraben-free products, such as, have emerged to spearhead the resistance against these carcinogens. These retailers have vast inventories of paraben-free shampoo, lotion, soap, and virtually every other cosmetic and hygienic staple. Any products that can't be replaced by paraben-free alternatives should be used sparingly or not at all. When buying toys or evaluating a daycare, make sure that all toys are phthalate-free. For more politically minded opponents to cancer-causing cosmetics, the aforementioned advocacy groups gladly accept new members, contributions, and information. Hopefully, with consistent pressure and increasingly health-conscious government initiatives, parabens and phthalates will plague no more people with their cancer-causing properties or pronunciations.