Katy Skahill’s hair was falling out, her eyelashes had disappeared and her heart sank as she watched her eyebrows begin to fade. The nausea, the fatigue, the drugs and needles were not pretty—and Skahill needed to feel pretty. She needed to feel cared for, tired of her self-esteem crumbling in fear, alienation and sickness.
So she did what thousands of women around the United States had been doing for nearly three decades— join the “Look Good, Feel Better” program advertised in hospitals across the country that provides beauty workshops tailored to cancer patients. After hours of personal care product tutorials and makeup workshops, Skahill, then 56, went home with a goodie bag of cosmetics, courtesy of the American Cancer Society.
But that night, instead of jumpstarting her self-confidence with the new tools, she lay on her bed, sobbing for hours.
After deciding to sift through the brands inside her lavishly stocked gift on SkinDeep, an online database, Skahill discovered the majority of cosmetics she had been given not only contained certain carcinogens, but also chemicals that could thwart the success of Tamoxifen, a common long-term oral drug prescribed to treat her breast cancer. Skahill, now 58 and a retired public accountant living in North Bend, Oregon, was diagnosed with invasive breast cancer in December 2014, and is currently in remission.
The Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit environmental organization specializing in research and advocacy surrounding toxic chemicals and corporate accountability, among other areas, runs the database specifically designed for consumers to search the potential toxicity of their personal care products.
Skahill’s freshly acquired sense of stability and direction turned into an overwhelming sense of betrayal.
The American Cancer Society, the largest and most influential cancer research organization in the United States, had been, since 1987, charitably providing cancer patients with helpful tools and information concerning beauty regimens—while also seemingly risking the lives of the very individuals it purports to protect.
Because the large majority of a breast cancer diagnoses occur in women over 40, many within the scientific and activist communities are finding the controversial evidence regarding the adverse effects of certain chemicals increasingly troublesome, taking into account the youth as being one of the industry’s most aggressive targets.
Records, research and interviews with multiple experts in the field reveal an industry that is largely unregulated and promoted by powerful corporations, as well as the dissemination of products whose safety remains in dispute.
The controversy over the safety of certain chemicals used in cosmetics is hardly new. But recent studies done by several institutions, including Duke University, have given the Personal Care Products Council new reason for alarm.
A study published last October in the Silent Spring Institute, a partnership of scientists and citizens concerned about environmental links to breast cancer reveals that previous conclusions about the safety of low-dose parabens, widely used preservatives found in cosmetic and pharmaceutical products, might not be accurate. These studies argue that the hormones which significantly enhance the chemicals’ effects on the human body were not taken into account.
The Personal Care Products Council responded to these claims in a press release a few days after the study was published, challenging the reliability of the results based on the “in-vitro” environment in which the studies were conducted, as well as the cancerous and thus abnormal cells that were used as their basis.
“Such laboratory studies may have some utility in helping understand potential disease mechanisms, but they cannot be used to assess potential human risks,” said Beth Lange, Chief Scientist at The Personal Care Products Council, in the press release.
Repeated requests to the PCPC for interviews were met with referrals to public press releases, including the one noted above, and the group declined to comment further.
However, the fact remains that the $70 billion cosmetic industry is one of the most unregulated by the Food and Drug Administration. The FDA does not require cosmetic companies to run specific tests to verify the safety of a product or ingredient; nor does it require them to share any information corroborating their safety claims.
Moreover, while the Cosmetic Regulation in the European Union has banned over 1,300 chemicals from being used in personal care products, the FDA has only banned 12 since the last time it was updated—in 1938.
The Look Good, Feel Better program, run by the American Cancer Society, is sponsored by members of the Personal Care Products Council, otherwise known as the companies with the largest market shares in the cosmetic industry – including such popular brands as Bath & Body Works and Crabtree & Evelyn. The Council grants titles to its members to incentivize investment—ranging from “double-diamond” for the highest investors to the less prestigious “bronze.”
Consequently, both of these industry giants have managed to generate negative backlash from their member base, leaving behind a trail of formidable adversaries.
National grassroots education and advocacy organizations, such as Breast Cancer Action and Breast Cancer Fund, have been cautioning against the risks of carcinogen exposure by everyday consumer products for decades.
“Our whole system is rotten in a lot of ways,” said Caitlin Carmody, communications officer at Breast Cancer Action. “To truly cut ties with toxic industries, the American Cancer Society would have to change their funding structure or pressure the corporate sponsors to clean up their act,” she said. “The double-diamond sponsors of the Look Good, Feel Better program can’t be sponsors if no one lets them.”
But the Personal Care Products Council continues to deny any health risks associated with the use of cosmetics currently on the market. This past October, it shot back against Breast Cancer Action’s recent attacks regarding their use of chemicals allegedly detrimental to a cancer patient’s health, alleging they had no scientific basis.
“We are among the safest industries regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration,” the Council said. “It is particularly alarming that Breast Cancer Action would mount a campaign aimed at scaring women who are at the most vulnerable point in their lives with junk science.”
However, the FDA reveals its cosmetic regulation guidelines on its own official website, among which it clearly states, “The FDA’s legal authority over cosmetics is different from our authority over other products we regulate, such as drugs, biologics, and medical devices. Under the law, cosmetic products and ingredients do not need FDA premarket approval.”
The American Cancer Society has responded by defending the Look Good, Feel Good program, standing behind the Council’s statement.
According to the Society, the “majority of ingredients” in the Look Good, Feel Good program have been assessed by the Cosmetic Ingredient Review Expert Panel, which it describes as an “independent, non-governmental panel of scientific and medical experts that is supported by the industry, the US Food & Drug Administration and the Consumer Federation of America.”
It is unclear how independent the Panel is, however.
In 1976, it was created by the Personal Care Products Council to be its sole safety-assessing panel and continues to run on the Council’s funding. Breast Cancer Fund’s Campaign for Safe Cosmetics launched in 2004, is one of the many coalitions in parity with Breast Cancer Action’s Think Before You Pink campaign established in 2002, that urges people to think critically about feel-good marketing involving the pink ribbon strategy and cancer awareness.
The Campaign commissioned the Environmental Working Group to conduct several studies on the chemical composition of popular market brand product. One of these studies dating back as early as 2010 titled “Not So Sexy,” revealed that 11 of 17 designer fragrances, including ones by Giorgio Armani and Chanel, a double-diamond sponsor of the Look Good, Feel Good program, contained chemicals not listed on their label.
In fact, 19 percent of listed chemicals had not been tested for safety. On average, these fragrances contained 14 hidden chemicals, 12 of which were found to potentially disrupt consumers’ estrogen, androgens and thyroid function.
Other market giants such as L’Oréal U.S.A. and Procter & Gamble Co.— double-diamond and diamond sponsors, respectively—have come under heavy scrutiny by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, which has been pushing a petition to recall the companies’ shampoos and anti-aging creams from shelves across the globe since October 2015.
According to the study, the chemicals PFOA and Teflon, which can be found in L’Oréal’s creams, had potential links to endocrine disruption and breast cancer.
Meanwhile, Proctor & Gamble’s “Pantene Lengths Shampoo” releases formaldehyde, a chemical used to preserve the product which was classified in 1987 by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as a possible carcinogen.
(Graphics by Elaine Shen/The News Lab)
Several reputable scientists and independent organizations have supported the accusations from Breast Cancer Action and Breast Cancer Fund.
Leading oncologist and expert in breast cancer research, Dr. William Goodson, listed in the Best Doctors in America since 1991, published a study done at the California Pacific Medical Center in 2011 regarding the interference of BPA and methylparabens, chemicals found in all cosmetics, with breast cancer drugs’ effectiveness.
“Cancer cells should naturally tear apart through a process called apoptosis,” he said. “However, as we exposed these to levels of BPA and methylparabens commonly found in people, apoptosis wasn’t occurring, and does not occur.”
His study has been linked to on Breast Cancer Action’s website, and could thus be considered among those implicitly referenced by the Personal Care Products Council.
“When you come up with conclusions based on thorough research and empirical evidence, that’s not junk. It’s facts,” Goodson said in response to the Council’s statement.
Goodson also carried out numerous studies with Tamoxifen, an oral drug taken by many cancer patients, including Katy Skahill, for years.
“Once malignant cells are exposed to the drug, they should die,” he said, “but once again, in mixtures with BPA and methylparabens, the cells continued to live.”
The possible dangers of Teflon and PFOA was a topic of discussion at the 2015 San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium on December 8.
At the Symposium, Goodson claimed that, according to preliminary data, the current method of testing for carcinogenic potential in individual chemicals fails to take into account the interaction of other chemicals, putting into question the accuracy of dosages considered safe.
“It is particularly alarming that Breast Cancer Action would mount a campaign aimed at scaring women who are at the most vulnerable point in their lives with junk science.”–The Personal Care Products Council
A study published on Environmental Health Perspectives last October by several research experts from University of California, Berkeley and the University of Florida challenged the widely spread notion currently publicized on the FDA’s website stating that low doses of common product ingredient are safe.
The results revealed that cells tested in combination with a common hormone receptor only needed 1 percent of the paraben concentration than the cells tested without it to to stimulate breast cancer cell growth.
An author of the study, Dale Leitman, a gynecologist and molecular biologist at the University of California, urged consumers to heed this new evidence.
“We believe that the testing has not been adequate to prove that parabens are totally safe in humans,” he said. “We feel it is best to minimize your exposure to xenoestrogens [hormones that imitate estrogen] in consumer products, rather than presume they are completely safe from previous studies,” Leitman said.
In response to the increasing evidence linking chemicals in the Look Good, Feel Good beauty products to cancer, the American Cancer Society said, “We believe the benefits outweigh the minimal risks,” a statement that has sparked outrage across activist groups.
“The American Cancer Society doesn’t give a damn about its member base.”–Dr. William Goodson
“I think it’s absolutely unthinkable that the American Cancer Society should make that assessment on my behalf,” said Skahill. “They know that the dose in the product they’re giving out is not all that matters anymore, they know the evidence shows it’s cumulative, and they have a moral imperative to address that.”
Goodson was equally critical of the statement, saying: “The American Cancer Society doesn’t give a damn about its member base. Those who give a damn are the organizations who aren’t getting any money from these corporations.”
While Goodson agreed with the Personal Care Products Council on the difficulty of proving a theory testing only cancerous cells, he claimed that it is virtually impossible to find a human control subject that has not consumed some form of cosmetic with chemicals.
“They are right, but that’s the problem with this whole thing,” he said. “There’s very little research money to prove what we want to prove because nobody’s paying attention to it. But if they keep yelling, they can always obscure it.”
“I think it’s absolutely unthinkable that the American Cancer Society should make that assessment on my behalf.” –Katy Skahill
The Council’s chief scientist insisted on the safety of parabens within cosmetic products in the Oct. 29 press release, additionally raising the point of their natural occurrence in fruits and vegetables to support their risk-free consumption.
Although cancer patients and advocacy groups approve the sentiment behind the Look Good, Feel Good program for the most part, they urge the ACS to invite only safe companies and introduce workshops on how to assess a beauty product’s safety in terms of chemicals.
The industry, as well as the FDA, have yet to budge on the demands for updated safety tests and stricter regulation of cosmetic product approval.
“All I can say is we have the best FDA that we can buy,” Goodson said.