Toxic Talk and Labels

What are Carcinogens? How Do We Avoid Them?

+ CV Skinlabs Team

Breast cancer cells can be triggered by many different types of carcinogens.

Most of us know that a “carcinogen” is something that can lead to or cause cancer. However, how do we tell when something is really carcinogenic, and how do we stay away from it?

The American Cancer Society (ACS) tells us that cancer is often caused when the cell’s DNA-it’s genetic “blueprint”-is changed, or mutated somehow. Some carcinogens act directly on DNA, causing the change, and some cause cells to divide faster than they normally too, which can increase the risk of faulty DNA changes.

Scientists determine whether or not a substance is a carcinogen by testing it in the lab on cell cultures and on animals. Most studies expose the animals to higher-than-normal doses of the substance, so they can determine if it causes cancer in a small group. Most substances found to cause cancer this way are later found to cause cancer in people. However, carcinogens don’t always cause cancer-some create it only after prolonged periods of exposure, and others only if certain factors are present, like a particular genetic makeup or fragile cellular health.

Many different agencies in the U.S. categorize carcinogens according to their risk to humans. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has 5 classifications, from group 1, which is considered definitely carcinogenic to humans, to group 5, which is considered probably not. The National Toxicology Program (NTP) has a simpler system, classifying carcinogens as either known human carcinogens or reasonably anticipated to be human carcinogens. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has 5 classifications, similar to the IARC, and so on. The ACS website has a current list of known carcinogens here.

Looking at a list such as the ACS provides, you’d think you’d be able to avoid these dangerous substances in your household and personal-care products. However, according to Samuel Epstein, M.D., and author of Toxic Beauty, some carcinogens are what he calls “frank” and listed on the label, but others are “hidden,” and therefore hard to detect. For example, frank carcinogens include ingredients like DEA cocamide condensate, formaldehyde, mineral oils, and bisphenol-A (BPA)-all ingredients you can find on the labels of personal-care products. (If you see these items listed, put the product back!) Hidden carcinogens, however, aren’t listed on the label, but can show up as contaminants on other ingredients, appear as byproducts of manufacturing, or be released when the product breaks down on the skin or in the air. Polyethylene glycol (PEG) and sodium laureth sulfate, for instance, can be contaminated with the dangerous 1,4-dioxane, and DMDM-hydantoin can release formaldehyde.

What can you do to reduce your exposure to carcinogens? First of all, read our “ingredients to avoid” list and stay away from the items you see there. Second, purchase your personal-care products from reputable manufacturers whenever you can-like Burt’s Bees, Jason’s Organics, Avalon Organics, and others that are cutting out toxic ingredients and using more natural alternatives. (See our “products we love” page for more recommendations.) Finally, just do your best to become a more savvy consumer, and be cautious about what you put on your body. Most of us are already walking around with a myriad of chemicals inside us-anything we do to reduce our exposure can only be beneficial to our health.

Have you become more knowledgeable about carcinogens? Please share any tips you may have.

Photo courtesy Annie Cavanagh via