We’re facing another long month of Breast Cancer Awareness ™, in which companies show their sensitivity to the cause of breast health by peddling pink junk which, in some causes, has ingredients linked to breast cancer, or that haven’t been extensively tested for safety. This year, according to the advocacy group Breast Cancer Action, one of the offenders is none other than the American Cancer Society.
Breast Cancer Action, formed by breast cancer survivors, spends every October illuminating the most egregious examples of corporate pinkwashing, of which there’s never any shortage. This year, they’re calling out the American Cancer Society, which has teamed up with the Personal Care Products Council, a powerful makeup industry trade group, to hand out makeup bags to women with breast cancer. It’s part of a program called Look Good Feel Better, which offers free workshops and makeup tips for women looking to “improve their self-image and appearance” while dealing with cancer.
It’s a worthy cause. Except for the part where some of the products, according to BCA, may contain known carcinogens and chemicals that can interfere with the effectiveness of Tamoxifen, one of the most common breast cancer drugs.
Karuna Jagger is Breast Cancer Action’s executive director. She says they were sent samples of Look Good Feel Better swag bags at the request of BCA members. She notes that each bag is different and contains different cosmetics, and BCA isn’t saying which specific products they think are harmful.
“Bags aren’t standard,” she says. “So for us it’s important not to fixate on individual products in individual bags.” But, she says, a sampling of the products found makeup containing formaldehyde releasers, Teflon, and hormone disrupters, including one of particular concern called methylparaben.
Formaldehyde is classified as a probable human carcinogen. Yet one study found that in the skin care products studied, about 25 percent contained a formaldehyde releaser. Teflon, or polytetrafluoroethylene, isn’t suspected itself of causing cancer, but is linked to other potential health problems, not great for anyone with weakened immunity.
Methylparaben, meanwhile, is a preservative, commonly used in makeup to prevent microbial growth. Although it doesn’t actually evaluate makeup for safety or approve cosmetic ingredients, the Food and Drug Administration says it doesn’t currently believe it or other parabens cause cancer: “FDA believes that at the present time there is no reason for consumers to be concerned about the use of cosmetics containing parabens.”
But one study did find that methylparaben can interfere with the effectiveness of breast cancer drugs. There’s evidence that the chemical finds ways to “bypass” tamoxifen, one of the most common breast cancer drugs.
The BCA has launched a campaign called “Poison Isn’t Pretty,” asking the ACS and Personal Care Products Council to be a little more careful with what they put in their bags.
“The Personal Care Products Council makes $60 or 70 billion in annual revenue in one year,” Jaggar says. “It is completely within their capabilities to run this program without pinkwashing and without giving companies that increase the risk of breast cancer the good PR and the cover.”
Jezebel contacted the American Cancer Society for comment; they responded with the following statement, which says that makeup is just one component of Look Good Feel Better, and that participants in the program “are provided information on the potential risks of cosmetic use.” It reads, in full:
Look Good Feel Better® (LGFB), one program within a broad network of support services offered by the American Cancer Society at no-cost to cancer patients, helps thousands of patients each year cope with the appearance-related side effects of cancer treatment. LGFB, a collaboration between the Society and the Personal Care Products Council Foundation, is led by cosmetology professionals volunteering their time to teach beauty techniques, including guidance on the use of wigs, scarfs and cosmetics to improve patients’ low quality of life during cancer treatment. Participation in Look Good Feel Better is entirely optional, and participants are provided information on the potential risks of cosmetics use.
The majority of ingredients in products found in LGFB kits have undergone an assessment by the Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) Expert Panel, an independent, non-governmental panel of scientific and medical experts that is supported by industry, the US Food & Drug Administration and the Consumer Federation of America. Scientific experts at the Personal Care Products Council review all products in the LGFB kits against additional criteria to minimize the potential for skin irritation. Because they are undergoing treatment, it is important for LGFB participants to discuss possible adverse reactions to these products with their doctor.
The Society believes the benefits of Look Good Feel Better outweigh the minimal risks. However, as the American Cancer Society has done for more than 100 years, we will continue to carefully monitor our programs, including LGFB, and their impact on cancer patients to help us eliminate cancer as a major health problem and alleviate suffering from the disease.
Jaggar says that Breast Cancer Action’s requests are pretty simple. They’re not advocating for an end to the Look Good Feel Better program, which she says can provide a valuable service for people who want it. While some women may resent the intense focus on “looking good” while struggling with a life-threatening illness, she says, others might want help looking more like their pre-illness selves.
“For a lot of women, it’s hard to walk through the world with no eyelashes and no hair,” she says. “And there are women who go to work through treatment, and they want to do that without discussing their health. They want some say in how they represent themselves.”
And if Look Good Feel Better wants to help, she says, the program just has to do one thing: “Make sure that no company that uses chemicals that can increase the risk of breast cancer or interfere with breast cancer treatments donates products to your bags.”
“The ACS has a position of trust in the community,” Jaggar adds. “And they should be taking active steps to protect patients and prevent risk.”
Update, 3:47 p.m.:
The Personal Care Products Council has released a statement calling Breast Cancer Action’s allegations “irresponsible.” It reads, in part:
“Cosmetic and personal care products companies have a longstanding commitment to the safety of their products. Our industry is guided by the core value to do the right thing based on the best available science when addressing product safety. We share a common interest with the millions of families who use our products every day providing them with the safest, most innovative and effective products possible. We are among the safest industries regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and we take false allegations about the safety of our products very seriously.
“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, attacking a program that helps women regain their sense of self when so much is being taken away. Studies have shown that support programs like Look Good Feel Better have a significant impact on a patient’s adherence and outlook to treatment.
“In the late 80’s, one of my predecessors was approached by a physician who had a cancer patient so depressed she wouldn’t leave her hospital room. He arranged to provide cosmetics and a cosmetologist to give this woman a makeover. The change was profound – not just in her physical appearance, but also in her outlook and she laughed for the first time in weeks.
“Our industry could not be more proud to support Look Good Feel Better, which has served more than 1.7 million women worldwide and started with that one patient, 26 years ago. Our commitment to women with cancer doesn’t live just within Look Good Feel Better. Our companies support many programs for cancer patients as well as funding for research. Overall, the cosmetics industry donates approximately $134 million to charitable causes with a substantial contribution to cancer awareness and research.
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