The United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ensures the safety of medications before releasing them to the public. However, its a completely different story when it comes to beauty products. In fact, under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FD&C Act), the ingredients in cosmetics (other than color additives) do not need approval from the FDA before they go to market. This means that many cosmetics contain skin irritants, and even harmful ingredients. These ingredients—found in deodorants, makeup, moisturizers, shaving products, lipsticks, shampoos, scrubs and other beauty products—generally don't have an immediate effect on the user. However, for those with sensitive skin or compromised immune systems, such as people undergoing chemo treatments, these cosmetics cause irritation, discomfort, and sometimes even worse. Certainly, there are several beauty products to avoid during chemo.
Beauty Products to Avoid During Chemo #1: Parabens
You've probably heard the word "paraben" and seen products touted as "paraben-free" throughout the market. But what exactly are parabens? What's so bad about them?
Parabens are chemicals that have been used since the 1950s to prevent the growth of bacteria and act as a preservatives. Some studies show that some parabens mimic the activity of estrogen in the body’s cells. Estrogenic activity plays an important role in estrogen receptor positive (ER+) breast cancer, i.e. the most common type of breast cancer. In one study, researchers grew noncancerous breast cells from high-risk patients in a lab. After exposure to the paraben methylparaben, the cells started behaving like cancer cells. Furthermore, when researchers introduced the cancer treatment drug tamoxifen to the cells, they continued to grow and didn't die. The researchers concluded that methylparaben not only mimics estrogen's ability to drive cancer, but also interferes with the therapeutic effects of tamoxifen.
There are six parabens commonly used in personal care products. If beauty products contain any of these ingredients, avoid using them:
When determining if a product contains parabens, look for is the word "paraben" at the end of the ingredients. Also look for the words "alkyl parahydroxy benzoate." It’s common to find more than one paraben in a product, and parabens are often used in combination with other types of preservatives.
Beauty Products to Avoid During Chemo #2: Added Fragrances
Sweet scented shampoos, soaps, and lotions make you smell good, but their cons far outweigh their benefits. Added fragrances, even "natural" fragrances and essential oils like peppermint and jasmine, are common skin irritants. Fragrances cause allergic reactions and increased skin dryness, among other ill effects. During chemotherapy, the affects of fragrances on the skin are elevated. Furthermore, fragrances often cause nausea and headaches, which are already side effects of chemotherapy.
Additionally, many scented beauty products contain phthalates, a group of chemicals used to soften plastics and vinyl. The phthalate diethylphthalate (DEP) works as a solvent and fixative in fragrances in products such as lotion, soaps, shampoos, and perfumes. While there are no known risks to human health in DEP, phthalates in general are an underlying factor in allergies, asthma, reproductive disease, and breast cancer. It is best to avoid phthalates (and scented cosmetics) altogether when you can.
Beauty Products to Avoid During Chemo #3: Aluminum
The metal aluminum is the active ingredient in many deodorants. It blocks the sweat ducts and works as an antiperspirant. Although it makes you less sweaty, multiple studies link aluminum to the development of breast cancer. Like parabens, some researches assert that aluminum interferes with estrogen levels. While more research needs to be done to determine the exact relationship between aluminum and breast cancer, it is best to use non-metallic deodorants and cosmetics, especially during chemo treatments.
Ultimately, it is better to be safe than sorry. As a general rule of thumb, try to use paraben-free, fragrance-free, and non-metallic cosmetics when you can. Additionally, it is wise to spot test any new cosmetics on your forearm to make sure you are not allergic. Shop our selection of safe, gentle cosmetics here!