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Insights/Opinion

Stop Giving Cancer Patients Toxic Cosmetics to 'Look Good, Feel Better'

It's outrageous that the products that each of us use every day as part of our hygiene, self-care and beauty regimens are full of harmful chemicals, linked to a range of health problems including breast cancer. You would hope that when the country's largest cancer charity gives products to cancer patients as part of a psychosocial support program, it would uphold the highest safety standards.

Unfortunately, that's not the case. At least that's not the way the Look Good, Feel Better program works.


Look Good, Feel Better is a nationwide program for cancer patients administered by the American Cancer Society. The free workshops offer tips for cancer patients who are looking for advice on how to handle some of the physical changes that come with treatment. In addition to these tips, the program provides free cosmetic kits, donated by corporations that are members of the largest national trade group for the cosmetics industry, the Personal Care Products Council.

It's time the American Cancer Society and Personal Care Products Council stand together to protect cancer patients and prevent cancer in the first place. They need to ban companies from participating in the Look Good, Feel Better program if the chemicals used in their products are linked to increased breast cancer risk or interfere with breast cancer treatments.
Photo credit: Shutterstock

Both the American Cancer Society and the Personal Care Products Council claim to care about women living with breast cancer, but when our members in active treatment for cancer sent us their kits to evaluate, we found out that the program is giving toxic products to women in cancer treatment.

Numerous products in the Look Good, Feel Better kits contain chemicals that are linked to increasing cancer risk and may even interfere with cancer treatment:

  • Parabens: Parabens are chemicals often used as preservatives in personal care products and can be absorbed through the skin. These chemicals may increase breast cancer risk by mimicking the hormone estrogen. Because breast cancer is a hormone-driven disease, common treatments target our hormones—and hormone disruptors like parabens may also interfere with the effectiveness of breast cancer treatment in addition to increasing our risk of disease. Scientists have found that breast cells that have been exposed to methylparaben in the lab are less responsive to the common breast cancer hormone therapy, Tamoxifen.
  • Formaldehyde releasers: Formaldehyde releasers are also used to preserve personal care products and can be absorbed through the skin. In order to prevent microbial growth, these chemicals slowly and continuously release small amounts of formaldehyde, a known human carcinogen.
  • Fragrance: “Fragrance" is a term used by companies to hide ingredients under the assertion that they are “trade secrets." The International Fragrance Association, an industry trade group, published a “transparency list" of more than 3,000 chemicals commonly used in fragrance. From this list, we know that “fragrance" conceals hormone disruptors and carcinogens. Fragrance also conceals sensitizers, allergenic fragrance ingredients that can, trigger asthma, sneezing, headaches and contact dermatitis. This is particularly concerning for women in cancer treatment.
  • Polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE): Commonly known by the trade name Teflon, this chemical is used in cosmetics for smoother application of the product and to fill in fine lines and wrinkles on skin. PTFE can be contaminated with the possible carcinogen and hormone disruptor perfluorooctonoic acid (PFOA), which is linked to altering mammary gland development.

That's just a sample of the chemicals of concern we uncovered. Because not all Look Good, Feel Better kits are the same, there's no telling what's in the kits given to cancer patients.

The chemicals in these products are a serious concern for the program's volunteer cosmetologists, who donate their time to run the workshops, as well as for cancer patients. A recent report found that the breast cancer risk for cosmetologists is five times higher than the general population. Volunteers wanting to help women in cancer treatment should not have to put their own health at risk to do so.

The health risks of these cosmetics and personal care products extend to the general public as well. Anyone can purchase these products at local stores. Toxic cosmetics end up on store shelves and in make-up bags because regulation of cosmetic products is a sham. The personal care products industry is one of the least regulated industries in the U.S. Companies are not required to demonstrate a product is safe before it lands on store shelves—or in makeup kits. And the Personal Care Products Council spends millions of dollars lobbying against cosmetic safety regulations to make sure it stays that way.

The cosmetics and personal care industry claim that exposure to chemicals linked to increased cancer risk at low doses is harmless. But a clear and growing body of scientific evidence points to the role of environmental exposures, specifically human carcinogens and endocrine disrupting chemicals—even in low doses—in increasing women's risk of breast cancer. Cosmetics and personal care products are not one-time exposures; many of these products are used daily (or even more often) and multiple chemicals in multiple products add up.

The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics (CSC) and Environmental Working Group (EWG) provide useful resources for anyone interested in researching some of the chemicals to avoid. But the truth is that too little is known about the safety of many commonly-used chemicals. And there are examples where the replacements for certain chemicals have turned out to as bad or worse than the chemical they were replacing. None of us should feel like we need an advanced degree in science to go shopping. And so-called safer products should not be out of reach of low-income people who may not be able to afford premium prices. We should all be able to trust that the products on our shelves have been safety tested and we are all protected, no matter our educational background or income.

It's time the American Cancer Society and Personal Care Products Council stand together to protect cancer patients and prevent cancer in the first place. They need to ban companies from participating in the Look Good, Feel Better program if the chemicals used in their products are linked to increased breast cancer risk or interfere with breast cancer treatments.

Now that would really make us feel better.

Take action now to tell these pinkwashers that Poison Isn't Pretty by sending your letter to the Personal Care Products Council and the American Cancer Society to demand that no corporation that uses harmful chemicals in their personal care products is allowed to participate in the Look Good, Feel Better program!

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