Cosmetics and Cancer: The Beauty and The Killer

by Tayo Fasuan

The fact that cosmetics are directly related to cancer is almost an already over-flogged issue. Someone must have heard about that at least once before now, so it is not almost a new topic of discussion. But are people listening or taking to those obvious warnings? No. The cosmetics industry keep booming year in, year out, churning out thousands of new products everyday; and people are buying.

So, in this piece, let us take a new approach in understanding more about these beauty products and their cancer-causing ability. Any material – liquid, gaseous or solid – capable of causing cancer is called a carcinogen or a carcinogenic substance. Mostly, they are chemical in nature, and you would be surprised how many of these materials we interacted with everyday in unbelievable ways.

Carcinogens have been found in preserved foods, especially canned ones; they are present in smoke and exhausts from machines; even over-exposure to sunlight could be carcinogenic. But, these are not the areas we want to touch in this write-up, because we might not be able to stop or avoid all those substances mentioned above. But, cosmetics are self-applied and the harm, self-afflicted; hence we can control its consequence on our health.

Before we go on, it should be noted that it is not cosmetics which actually cause cancer, but some or all of the cosmetics constituents. Hence, not all cosmetics might be able to cause cancer. Relieved? Better. So, it’s been found out that make-ups, shampoo, hair colouring products, baby powder (Yes, baby powder!), shaving cream, lotions, perfumes, mouthwash and even toothpaste are just a few of the products that might contain cancer-causing ingredients. Apart from these, some can cause infertility, birth defects and other serious health problems.

So what do we do to safeguard ourselves? Most of these products don’t even have labels where the compositions would be written. A friend of mine in school once bought this so-called ‘lip-gloss’ and she used it up within a week. When I asked her how and why, she said she couldn’t resist licking her lips every time she applied it because it was kind of sweet. She claimed she checked the label, but nothing was written on it; so she assumed it would be a sugary product. Nice way of killing oneself, isn’t it?


However, the best way is to know those constituents capable of causing cancer and avoid using any product containing them. Here is a list of the cosmetic ingredients to avoid; if you see any of it on any product’s label when you go shopping, don’t buy! If there are no labels, do not even consider them! Please, mind the chemical names; they are important.

  1. Fragrances: A fragrance can have up to 600 different ingredients which are not required to be listed on the label. It is wise to avoid them because they often have harmful ingredients and there’s no way of knowing if they do.
  2. Talc: Talc usually contains carcinogenic contaminants. Products containing talc, including baby powder and all those talcum or ‘dusting’ powder, should never be used on babies and children. Frequent genital dusting with talc, routinely practiced by some premenopausal women, increases risks of ovarian cancer.
  3. Preservatives: Okay, it gets tricky here. Many preservatives on foods, drinks or beauty products contain or release formaldehyde which is a carcinogen, neurotoxin, irritant and sensitizer. These include DMDM hydantoin, Imidazolidinyl urea, Diazolidinyl urea, quaternium 15, sodium hydroxymethylglycinate and bronopol (2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1, 3-diol). Others include the parabens, methylchloroisothiazolinone and methylisothiazolinone. Please, avoid products with these preservatives!
  4. Diethanolamine (DEA) and triethanolamine (TEA): These two ingredients are found in many cosmetic and personal care products, including most of the ‘eye-shadows’, ‘lip-gloss’, ‘mascara’ nail polish and ‘lip-stick. Avoid all products containing them because DEA and TEA can react with nitrites on the skin to form nitrosamines which cause cancer. Funny thing is that nitrites can be present as a contaminant and not listed on the label.
  5. Propylene glycol and sodium lauryl sulphate: These are common ingredients in shampoos and they’re both toxic. Propylene glycol is a skin irritant which causes kidney and liver damage. Sodium laurel sulphate causes genetic damage.
  6. Polysorbate 60 or 80, polyoxyethylene, polyethylene, polyethylene glycol, PEG, anything ending in “-eth,” such as sodium laureth sulfate. These ingredients may be contaminated with cancer-causing 1, 4-dioxane, which is easily absorbed through the skin.
  7. Black and dark brown permanent hair dyes and gels: These contain “coal tar” dye ingredients recognized as carcinogens. Regular use of these dyes and gels poses major risks of relatively rare cancers – non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Hodgkin’s disease, and multiple myeloma.
  8. Lanolin: Widely used on babies’ skin and nipples of nursing mothers, but it is commonly contaminated with DDT and other carcinogenic pesticides.

The list could go on and on, but I suggest we should try and find out more about them. Don’t be deceived by most of the advertorial words like “naturally nature,” “smooth and gentle on your skin” and “hypoallergenic to your system.” We should learn to read and interpret the ingredient label on cosmetics, toiletries and personal care products as this is the only way to protect ourselves from these cancerous agents.

Cosmetics industry is one of the most unregulated industries in the world, and manufacturers/importers of these products have found ways to take advantage of our gullibility and trust in packaged and imported products. Afterall, this is Nigeria, where anything goes and comes.

Avoiding products with the above constituents would make you and your family feel healthier and energetic. There would be less allergic reactions, and your risk for cancer would definitely be decreased. Don’t ignore these warnings as breast and skin cancer are on the rise in both men and women around the world. Yes, men.

Finally, don’t be scared. As said earlier, not all cosmetics really cause cancer. Just remember to always read the labels and avoid those without labels. Also remember: health is wealth; what makes you beautiful can also kill you; not all that shines (or smells or looks good) is gold (or good); and heaven help those who help themselves. Cheers!