This October marks the 28th year of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, a public awareness campaign that has drawn increasing criticism from consumers, breast cancer survivors, and advocacy groups for relying on pink ribbons and awareness instead of discussing the causes and prevention of breast cancer.
First introduced in 1985 to draw greater attention to a disease diagnosed in nearly 300,000 US women a year, Breast Cancer Awareness Month has since taken on a life of its own. NFL games feature pink-clad players and coaches, pink lights illuminate landmark buildings across the world, and cosmetic companies sell pink-branded products, generating feel good PR as well as funneling millions to breast cancer research. But a growing body of evidence has begun to raise the question of whether the companies behind some of these campaigns may, in fact, be contributing to the epidemic.
Take Estée Lauder. Now in its twelfth year, The Estée Lauder Companies' widely knownBreast Cancer Awareness Campaign has raised more than $48 million to help fund breast cancer research and education, with a significant amount of money going to risk assessment, survivor support, and weight loss programs to prevent metastasis. Despite these seemingly positive steps, Estée Lauder is among several beauty brands who use toxic ingredients known to cause cancer or a host of other reproductive, endocrine, and neurological problems — even in their famous Breast Cancer Awareness fundraising products.
The “We're Stronger Together” pamphlets advertising this year's campaign lists 15 beauty brands that “are devoted to defeating breast cancer” through support of education and medical research. But according to the Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep Cosmetics Database, the world's largest database of dangerous cosmetics, 12 of these companies — including Aveda, Bobbi Brown, Bumble and Bumble, Clinique, Coach, Darphin, Estée Lauder, Lab Series Skincare for Men, Lamer, Origins, Prescriptives, and Smashbox — have sold a staggering array of products containing known carcinogens and other toxic chemicals.
Out of this list, Aveda, Bumble and Bumble, and Clinique have been criticized for using the carcinogens formaldehyde — which has been linked to leukemia, lymphoma, and nasopharyngeal cancers — and 1,4-dioxane, which the US National Toxicology Program has linked to cancers of the gallbladder, kidney, lungs, nasal cavity, skin, and breast. In fact, 22 percent of all cosmetic products may contain 1,4-dioxane, including those designed for children.
Products like Bobbi Brown Blush contain titanium dioxide, which has also been linked to cancer. Darphin's gels, balms, and moisturizers have contained chemicals linked to cancer, endocrine disruption, and neurotoxicity. Estée Lauder has also been criticized for continuing to use parabens, preservatives that mimic estrogen in the body. Over time, exposure toparabens — which are commonly included in water-based cosmetic products — can disrupt hormone function, cause developmental and reproductive toxicity, and may lead to a substantially higher risk of breast cancer.
Cosmetics ingredients are often designed to easily penetrate the skin. Products used on lips and hands can be ingested, and sprays and powders are often inhaled. When untested or toxic chemicals are included in these products, women run the risk of seriously impairing their health.
Not only are several of these substances harmful, they're also easy to incorporate. As John Wasik reported in an Investigative Fund article for the Washington Monthly, federal oversight of cosmetic manufacturers is virtually non-existent. The Food and Drug Administration, bizarrely, can't require that companies test their products for safety, nor can the FDA review the majority of products and ingredients before they're on sale. Consequently, toxic carcinogens in cosmetic products may go entirely undetected before and after those products hit the market.
Similarly, the Cosmetic Ingredient Review — which is tasked with studying chemical compounds in cosmetics — gave a statement before the House of Representatives in 2008 claiming it had only found nine ingredients to be unsafe, and that it would take another two and a half centuries to effectively review all the products currently on the market. Even then, its recommendations aren't obligatory.
Breast Cancer Awareness products aren't free of these chemicals either. Susan G. Komen for the Cure's “Promise Me” perfume received criticism from Breast Cancer Action for including chemicals benzyl salicylate, benzophenone-3 (aka oxybenzone, a common ingredient in sunscreens), and coumarin, which were found, respectively, to cause endocrine disruption, to cause cell damage that could lead to cancer, or to be outright carcinogenic.
The Estée Lauder subsidiary Origins has previously pledged to make products without parabens, phthalates, or some other harmful chemicals, but so far, Estée Lauder as a whole has not made the same commitment.
Estée Lauder, Avon, and Revlon are three of the largest companies marketing the pink ribbon in the United States. Scientists still don't know whether their products contain enough carcinogens to actually cause cancer, or whether even low levels of certain toxins accumulate in the body over time, but what's clear is that these companies are doing little to lower the risk for women. In 2005, while using pink ribbon campaigns to gain attention for their brands, Estée Lauder, Avon, and other cosmetic companies even fought California legislation requiring them to notify the state when their products use chemicals linked to cancer or birth defects.
On March 21, 2013, Rep. Jan Schakowsky of Illinois introduced The Safe Cosmetics and Personal Care Products Act before the House of Representatives to increase regulation of contaminants in cosmetics. In July, the bill was referred to the Subcommittee on Workforce Protections. If passed, it could drastically cut down on the toxins in over-the-counter products, especially in concert with an updated Toxic Substances Control Act. Unfortunately, any legislative action will likely be tabled until long after the government shutdown ends.
In the meantime, you can help raise breast cancer awareness by spending $29.95 on Estée Lauder’s limited edition Pink Ribbon lip collection, though judging from their past lip products, it may contain BHT or Tocopheryl Acetate — both of which are linked to cancer.