$850 of Pink: How safe are Breast Cancer “Awareness” Beauty Products?
Breast Cancer Awareness Month brings thousands of pink ribbon beauty products on the market. But how many contain cancer-causing ingredients?
Last October, during Breast Cancer Awareness Month, I bought every pink ribbon product I could find. $850 of products revealed a story behind the ribbons.
A slew of breast cancer awareness (BCA) products flood beauty store shelves each October. Pink ribbons cover store windows, and products ranging from lip gloss to perfume names like “survivor” and “purposely pink” suggest that these products are helping to win the war on breast cancer. Women want to support breast cancer research, screening, and awareness programs, and buying beauty products with pink ribbons seems like a fun way to support a good cause.
But what isn’t clear to most supporters is the quantity of of criticism the beauty industry receives for hormone-disrupting, cancer-causing, and otherwise undesirable ingredients in beauty products. Even ingredients like lead are found in lipstick. Could BCA products also contain these ingredients?
Before we get to what I found out, you might want to read the disclaimers for this blog post, at the bottom of this page, to “disclaimers” in bold. If you’d like to read the article first, read on.
What if those most at risk for breast cancer are buying pink ribbon products to help prevent breast cancer, but those products contain carcinogens or hormone-disrupting chemicals?
There are over 1,400 chemicals in American beauty products that are banned in the EU because of their health risks. What if those most at risk for breast cancer are buying pink ribbon products to help prevent breast cancer, but those products contain carcinogens or hormone-disrupting chemicals?
As I mention in my disclaimers section, I’m not a scientist or a doctor. I’m someone curious about cosmetics safety. So, I did something odd: I went out and bought as many pink ribbon products as I could get my hands on. I did the shopping over one week in October, 2013. $850ish dollars later, I had been overwhelmed by the pink ribbon displays at Ulta Beauty stores, shocked by the number of sold-out pink ribbon products (I couldn’t buy some because they were already sold out), and intrigued that retailers like Sephora had more non-cosmetic pink ribbon products (like hair ties and cosmetic cases) than pink-ribbon themed cosmetics.
I was surprised to find a few products that didn’t seem to have any donation information on the product, while displaying a pink ribbon. One product’s tag declared that “our hearts go out to breast cancer survivors” (a product I won’t name because I don’t have a photo of that tag). Bare Minerals is currently selling a set with a pink ribbon on the front that does not mention any donation to BCA charities. Other products, like TIGI’s repackaged beauty products featuring a pink hair tie, made their donations clear: they donated $50,000 to the National Breast Cancer Foundation in 2013. No sale of TIGI’s pink-themed products was tied to the to the total donation—so buying this product didn’t increase their total gift. Across the 48 products I purchased, I noticed a range charities donated to, and a range of donation formats. Donations ranged from flat donations (like TIGI’s), to $5 per product donation (like Philosophy’s 2014 shower gel and face cream).
They donated to what??
Sexy Hair had multiple pink-ribbon themed products, and I learned that the company donated tens of thousands of dollars through walkathons and hair cut events to the “Look Good, Feel Better” program. Many beauty companies participate in this program, including Clarisonic and EcoTools. The program markets itself to those with cancer as providing, “beauty techniques, support, courage and community that will help you, or someone you love, face the challenge of a lifetime.” It also provides free makeup kits to those with cancer.
Look Good, Feel Better is a program (and registered trademark) of the of the Personal Care Products Council. From their website: “Based in Washington, D.C., the Personal Care Products Council is the leading national trade association representing the global cosmetic and personal care products industry. Founded in 1894, the Council represents more than 600 member companies who manufacture, distribute, and supply the vast majority of finished personal care products marketed in the U.S.”
Which led me to wonder, “wait, are all of these donations to Look Good, Feel Better going to an online cosmetics and “beauty” guide produced by the same industry that has received so much criticism about their products?” —Their website doesn’t seem to mention product safety or limiting exposure to cancer-causing ingredients. Their website sponsor is Procter & Gamble, who Campaign for Safe Cosmetics is calling on to remove carcinogens—including a pink ribbon product with formaldehyde— from their cosmetic products.
From Look Good, Feel Better’s website:
“’We are very proud of how the program has grown over the past decade,’ says Kavanaugh today. It is our goal to expand the program so that every person with cancer can benefit from it.
Since its inception, Look Good Feel Better has served 800,000 women, and the cosmetic industry has donated more than $113 million in product and financial support. The program has become the second most requested program offered by the American Cancer Society. With the implementation of the Spanish-language program, Luzca Bien…Sientase Mejor, and Look Good Feel Better for Teens, the program now serves women in the Hispanic community and teens with cancer.”
I couldn’t find information on Look Good, Feel Better’s website about cosmetic safety for breast cancer patients or survivors, just a bunch of beauty “how to” guides. So, I contacted Look Good, Feel Good’s hotline to see if they had lists of products or ingredients which were safer for cancer patients to use. They referred me to their FAQ which reads:
Given that those promoting cosmetics to those with cancer doesn’t seem to be discussing safer products, I hope my product research is useful.
How Did Pink Ribbon Products Score?
While I can’t speak for the overall safety of the beauty products I purchased and researched, I can show you the scores and results of my (informal, non-scientific) research. In October, 2013, I purchased 39 beauty products (some were in sets, I broke out the individual products) and a few “pink ribbon themed” non-beauty products. I also looked at several pink ribbon promoted products that Ulta Beauty introduced for 2014 (Ulta seems to cary the largest number of pink ribbon products of retailers in my area). In total, I researched 48 products purchased (or listed at) from five stores: Nordstrom’s, Nordstrom’s Rack, Macy’s, Sephora, and Ulta Beauty. I used Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database for safety scores on the products (see link for how Skin Deep’s scores work). The scores are based on the scientific research on cosmetic ingredient hazards.
How many “pink” products are problematic?
I tracked three score types: the overall safety score (0 to 10, 0 being safest, 10 being the highest hazard), the cancer hazard score (also 0 to 10), and the reproductive toxicity/endocrine-disrupting score (0–10). Here’s what I found:
- 88% of same or similar products by the same brand were found in the Skin Deep database.
- 64% of products scored a 3 or higher on Skin Deep, falling in the moderate hazard range or higher.
- 81% of searchable products contained at least some cancer-hazard ingredient.
- 26% of products contained (and I know this is confusing, bear with me) a low/moderate or higher score for cancer-hazard ingredients.
- 45% of products contained a low/moderate or higher score for reproductive toxicity/endocrine disruption.
- Just 6 products (14%) had no cancer-hazard ingredients.
Here’s Pink Ribbon Themed Products spreadsheet with products and scores:
What I found was shocking, but not surprising if you’ve been following cosmetics safety research and news. What it is, is sad.
In an effort to be transparent about the scores, sources, and products, I’ve listed them all in a Google Doc for anyone to read. If you see an area that might need improvement/clarification, please let me know. You can find me on Twitter.
What I found was shocking, but not surprising if you’ve been following cosmetics safety research and news. What it is, is sad. Sad that those who are trying to support breast cancer survivors and patients are likely buying products that contribute to the chemical load they and those with cancer are exposed to. It’s sad that companies aren’t reformulating at least these products to eliminate cancer-hazard ingredients. And it’s also sad that it takes so much effort, even with the Skin Deep database, to know if the products you’re using have hazardous ingredients.
I called up Campaign for Safe Cosmetics communications officer, Margie Kelly, to ask her what she thought about all of this. (Campaign for Safe Cosmetics is a program of the Breast Cancer Fund.) “When it comes to cosmetics, it’s all about reducing exposure. We’re exposed to 12–15 beauty (and cosmetics, combined) products and over 200 chemicals—just in your daily routine. Exposure is high over time, and it’s a mix of other chemical hazards, like cleaning products or from furniture.” She continued, “Cosmetics are one place they should be completely free of hazards. There’s no reason to use shampoo with formaldehyde in it.” Kelly referenced the advocacy her organization has launched against Procter & Gamble, which sells shampoo with formaldehyde. From Campaign for Safe Cosmetic’s press release:
“The Campaign noted in particular the pink ribbon marketing for breast cancer awareness found on Pantene Beautiful Lengths Finishing Crème – even though the product contains DMDM hydantoin– a chemical that releases cancer-causing formaldehyde to preserve the product.”
What can you do to protect yourself?
- Make use of cosmetics transparency tools, like the Skin Deep app or website, or the Think Dirty app. While these tools aren’t perfect, it’s usually because finding exact ingredient lists for products isn’t always possible, or because products are reformulated and relaunched frequently.
- Shop brands that strive for safety and lower levels of cancer-hazard and reproductive toxicity. For me, that means I’ve researched and found four or five brands that have products within the 0–2 range. Occasionally, I mix in a product that is a 3 to 5, but it is usually a product I use very little of or use infrequently (like a crazy Halloween-themed eyeshadow). I also seek out and patronize nail and hair salons which use safer products.
- Get wise. Leverage the research of organizations like EWG and Campaign for Safe Cosmetics.
- Communicate with brands you think aren’t protecting you. Hundreds of cosmetics companies are on Twitter and Facebook. Send them a comment when you find an high-hazard product at the store or in your makeup bag. Tell them you’re shopping for something safer.
With just 11 ingredients banned from American cosmetics products, and 1,400 banned in the European Union, consumers like you and I have been left with little cosmetics hazard protection. It’s up to us in this month of breast cancer awareness to raise awareness—-even when it’s on products claiming to support the cause.
- I do not work for anyone mentioned in this article, but I did mentor (in a contract through a transparency group, TAI) the team working on EWG’s Skin Deep app (based on their successful online database). EWG is a nonprofit research and information organization focused on environmental issues, including toxicity of products humans use. I used EWG’s Skin Deep database for scientifically-based safety stats referenced in this article. These are their scores, not mine.
- Beauty products get reformulated. Similar or same products by the same company are repackaged. It is really hard to find exactly the same product in EWG’s database (or even on Amazon). However, you can find very similar products by the same brand. For instance, Marc Jacobs puts out a Daisy perfume for Breast Cancer Awareness month, and there is a regular Daisy perfume a consumer would assume is the same, I would use the score from the regular perfume for this article. If a brand has a very similar product, say, “lustrous lipstick in survivor pink” can’t be found in the EWG database, but “lustrous lipstick in pink” (by the same brand) is available, I used that score. All this is to say that it’s very hard to find ingredients, scores, and safety information about these specialty products and I did my best to be representative and fair given the information I could find from a reputable source like EWG. Finally, some products are similar by the same brand and I cite the range those products scores fit in and shared ingredients that are cited by EWG as having a cancer-causing effect.
- This article is NOT medical advice. Consult your doctor if you have concerns about what products to use.
- This article is not exhaustive nor compiled by a scientist/researcher/doctor. It’s just the best information I could find and trends that I noticed in products available during October 2013 and 2014.