Janet Kelly, natural skincare passionista & contributing editor

October is here, and for some, that means falling leaves, pumpkin spice lattes, football, and pink ribbons -- pink ribbons everywhere. Our awareness of breast cancer has come a long way since a pharmaceutical company started Breast Cancer Awareness Month back in 1985, but the fact remains that despite the billions of dollars that have been spent on the cause, we’re apparently no closer to the cure than we were before. It’s as if we’re more aware of “breast cancer awareness” than the disease itself.

Most of the research for “the cure” still focuses on the same treatments that are not curing cancer; i.e., chemo, drugs, and radiation. The fact remains that the number of deaths per year from breast cancer has remained around 40,000 for the past two decades, and according to breastcancer.org, one in eight women will develop invasive breast cancer in her lifetime. Awareness doesn’t seem to be changing the numbers.

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Some of the money raised goes into promoting mammograms in an effort to find cancer early enough before it has spread. Unfortunately, 90-96% of women who now have metastatic breast cancer were indeed diagnosed at an early stage, so that doesn’t seem to be working either (as important as mammograms are). I can’t help but wonder where we’d be today if all the money that has gone into awareness and marketing went into figuring out what causes breast cancer in the first place and how we can prevent it.

The cure is in the cause. The cause will give you the cure.

- Charlotte Gerson, Founder of the Gerson Institute

Today, in 2015, there are still more questions than answers regarding breast cancer. We’re told about risk factors like late menopause, having children late in life, and family history of cancer, yet 70% of those with breast cancer have none of these known “risk factors.” I’m part of the 30%. I had never smoked, wasn’t overweight, exercised regularly, and had been eating mainly organic foods for years. I never missed a yearly mammogram; in fact, I had an all-clear mammogram two weeks prior to feeling a lump in my breast. This lump which was missed in my mammogram turned out to be a 2.5 cm triple negative (meaning very aggressive) cancerous tumor. Twelve years later, I remain passionate about finding the cause and cure.

As an esthetician, I study the skin, so that is my focus here. Many of you know that the skin is our largest and most permeable organ. Just about anything we put on our skin will end up in our bloodstream and be distributed throughout our bodies. Because we lack the necessary enzymes to break down many of these chemicals, they tend to accumulate over time, such as with lead in hair dyes and mercury in skin whiteners. Girls often start using cosmetics at a very young age which increases their lifetime exposure. Many chemicals are considered safe in low doses by themselves. The concern is the damage they can cause when used over time and synergistically with each other. There’s no research or data on this.

Considering that women are exposed to 168 unique chemicals in cosmetics and skincare products every day, and men are exposed to 85, I think that more awareness regarding ingredient safety is called for. While discussing this with my former oncologist years ago, he said what I’ve heard many people say: “Do you really think that products with carcinogenic ingredients would be allowed on the market?!”

I know that the European Union (EU) wouldn’t allow them. To date, the EU has banned nearly 1,400 chemicals in cosmetics; our Food and Drug Administration has banned only 11. You can imagine how bad those 11 are, yet they were in your hair and skin care products as recently as in the1970s. It makes me wonder what people will be saying in 2055 about the ingredients that are “acceptable” today. For example, here are seven common skin-care ingredients that are used in the U.S. but banned in other nations:

1. Formaldehyde: This chemical is used as a preservative and also includes a group of substances known as “formaldehyde donors,” which effectively release formaldehyde into a product. One of the most controversial of these donors is quaternium-15, which until recently was found in baby shampoos. The American Academy of Dermatology warns that formaldehyde can cause severe allergic reactions. Canada has banned it in personal care products.

2. Benzidine: This chemical can be found in many hair dyes. Although it can no longer be produced in the US, it can be imported. It is a known carcinogen.

3. Petroleum: It is often found in mascaras sold in the United States. Petroleum distillates are used as emollients and are also found in eye shadow, lotions, creams, hairspray, and foundation makeup. Petroleum has been linked to cancer and has been banned in the European Union.

4. Hydroquinone: This is used to lighten hyperpigmentation (dark spots on the skin generally caused by sun damage). It has also been linked to lung irritation and tumors in mice. Canada and some Asian and African countries have banned the use of hydroquinone in skin products.

5. BHA: Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) is used as a preservative in moisturizers, shaving creams, fragrances, and makeup, particularly lipsticks. It is linked to endocrine disruption and cancer, according to the International Agency for Research on Cancer. The EU prohibits its use in fragrances, and California requires a warning label on all products that contain BHA. On top of the human danger, it adversely affects the environment because it accumulates in water and kills wildlife.

6. Parabens: These chemicals are used as preservatives in a variety of cosmetics. They are suspected endocrine disruptors and may interfere with male reproductive function. They’re commonly used in deodorants and antiperspirants and have also been linked to breast cancer. The EU banned parabens in 2012.

7. Lead: Although lead is never listed in lipsticks as an ingredient, it can be found in many of them. Lead is a neurotoxin and can be dangerous even at small doses, but the FDA doesn’t consider the lead levels in lipsticks to be a safety concern since it’s ingested in very small quantities.

According to the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, more than one in five personal care products contain chemicals linked to cancer. Eighty percent contain ingredients with hazardous impurities, and 56 percent contain “penetration enhancers” that help deliver ingredients deeper into the skin. Eighty-nine percent of the ingredients used in personal care products have not been evaluated for safety by the FDA or any other publicly accountable institution.

In the United States, both cosmetics and drugs are regulated by the FDA. For drugs, the FDA requires that new products be shown to be safe and effective before they are allowed to be sold. This is not the case for cosmetics. Although the FDA requires that cosmetics be safe, it does not have the authority to require companies to test their cosmetic products (except some color additives) before they are put on the market. The FDA holds cosmetic firms themselves responsible for confirming the safety of their products and ingredients prior to marketing.

So who does test for unsafe additives in beauty products in the U.S.? The Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR), a self-policing safety panel, is the FDA’s main source of scientific data. According to its Website, the CIR “thoroughly reviews and assesses the safety of ingredients used in cosmetics in an open, unbiased, and expert manner, and publishes the results in the peer-reviewed scientific literature.” It’s interesting to note that the CIR is funded by the Personal Care Products Council (PCPC), an industry group of more than 600 cosmetic companies. In fact, the PCPC reportedly spent over $600,000 on lobbyists in Sacramento to prevent the California Safe Cosmetics Act of 2005 from passing, a law that would have required manufacturers to post any unsafe ingredients on product labels.

Reports from environmental and public-health groups, like the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, have often directly contradicted the “safe” findings of the CIR. In a 2007 study, the Environmental Working Group found that that 1 in 30 products sold in the U.S. fails to meet industry or government safety standards. Nearly 400 products sold in the U.S. contain chemicals banned in Japan, Canada, and the EU.

Most testing of cosmetics (and their ingredients) look for short-term issues such as skin or eye irritation or allergic reactions. Short-term health issues are likely to become apparent once a product reaches the market and is used widely. It is much more difficult, however, to identify long-term toxic or carcinogenic (cancer-causing) effects.

Even labels are misleading because not all ingredients need to be disclosed. Many ingredients are hidden behind the word “fragrance” as well. Because fragrance is considered a trade secret, many manufacturers get around leaving off ingredients that are suspect in this way. They fall under the umbrella of “fragrance.”

To complicate matters even more, the word “fragrance” often means something entirely different when it’s concerning a product made in the EU vs. one made here in the U.S. The Environmental Working Group (EWG), a popular site for researching ingredients and skin care products, defines fragrance as “an undisclosed mixture of various scent chemicals and ingredients used as fragrance dispersants such as diethyl phthalate. Fragrance mixes have been associated with allergies, dermatitis, respiratory distress and potential effects on the reproductive system.” All of this can be true in regards to synthetic fragrance, but when the “fragrance” in question is a carefully researched blend of natural essential oils, this doesn’t apply.

Is your head beginning to spin? Are you wondering who in the world you can trust to lead you to safe skin care products and cosmetics?

Despite its flaws, the EWG and their Skin Deep database are a good resource for those wanting to learn more about skin-related health issues and ingredient concerns. They rank products and ingredients on a 0-10 scale in terms of safety. There are just several things you need to keep in mind when you use their database.

• The information they have is taken from the ingredient labels given to them by the manufacturers. They are not doing any actual investigations themselves. Their rating is dependent upon the accuracy and transparency of any given manufacturer. As a result, their ratings also do not take into account the percentages of composition. This means a product with 0.1% parabens would have the same hazard as one with 10 times more parabens.

• Keep in mind that many chemicals are harmful individually, but together they create a beneficial and safe product. Let’s take lye, for instance. Lye alone is unsafe, but after it reacts with oil and water to create soap, it’s harmless. In this same way, many essential oils have Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) warnings that could be misunderstood and deemed as dangerous when taken out of context. MSDS sheets were designed to inform the end user of how to handle the ingredients properly in their undiluted form; they weren’t meant for us to use in considering the safety of a cosmetic.

• They do not discern between a naturally sourced ingredient or a synthetic variant. For example, when it comes to “fragrance,” both synthetic fragrances (phthalates and all!) and natural essential oils get the same scores of 9. Because of this, a Walgreens sunscreen lotion might be given an overall ranking of 3, while a Dr. Hauschka all-natural sunscreen might get an overall ranking of 7, all because of the “fragrance” from all an all natural essential oil with a ranking of 8. So, you can see that you have to dig a little deeper when it comes to “Skin Deep” ratings.

• In a sense, they are systemically biased against European products. For example, in the EU, all components of an essential oil must be listed, but in the U.S. these components are not listed. Let’s take the essential oil rose, for example. For rose oil, the EU lists it like this:

Rosa Canina Fruit Oil (or as part of Fragrance/Parfum), geraniol**, limenone**, linalool**, eugenol**, citronellol**

In the U.S., it’s listed like this:

Rose Essential Oil (or Fragrance)

Although both oils are exactly the same, the EWG ranks every single component listed in the EU description separately and does not discern between 0.01% or 5% of an ingredient. So, while rose oil itself might get a ranking of 0 in the product from the U.S., it wouldn’t get that kind of ranking if every single component is ranked, and those individual components (taken out of context) might each get a 5+ ranking.

If you’re still reading at this point, that tells me you’re really serious about the types of skincare products you use, and I applaud you for being an advocate for your health. During this month of awareness, my hope is that I’ve brought a little more awareness to the importance of the hair and skincare products you use. The good news is that so many safe, effective, and affordable products are available these days. On the True Natural website, you’ll find products that have been certified by leading organizations in the EU and found to be free from any harmful ingredients. This means that you will not find any products that contain formaldehyde, benzidine, petroleum, hydroquinone, BHA, parabens or lead, to name just a few, helping us all to Think Pink But Go Green!