Gillian Deacon was deep into researching her new book on the chemicals in body care products and their links to various forms of cancer when she had to confront her own dizzying health scare.   

It was 2009 when the mother of three young boys discovered a lump in her breast and began a diagnostic journey that started with a mammogram, ultrasound and biopsy, and ended with news that she had an aggressive form of cancer.

Her treatment would require a mastectomy and five weeks of daily radiation.

Deacon, who had eaten organic food for more than a decade, cleaned her house with vinegar and exercised regularly, was stunned that her diligence in making healthy choices hadn't shielded her from the disease.

"I was about four to five months into all this enraging research about the studies showing links between parabens in body care products and breast cancer and, lo and behold, I get diagnosed with a hormone-fed breast cancer tumour," she said from her home in Toronto. 

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Broadcaster and author Gillian Deacon releases new book on the many toxins in personal care products. (J.P. Moczulski/The Canadian Press)

"The one thing I wasn't as aware of or rigorous about was steering clear of chemicals in my body care products and I can't say for sure that's why I got cancer...but I certainly had my eyes opened after the fact."

Deacon, 44, spent about nine months fighting the disease and getting healthy -- she is cancer-free, but still has about three more years of drug treatments.

She then returned to her work, which has resulted in a comprehensive book on the myriad toxins added to everything from baby powder and mascara to toothpaste and moisturizer.

"There's Lead in Your Lipstick," now in bookstores, runs through most, if not all, of the different types of products men, women and children ingest, slather or spritz on themselves every day.

Studies estimate that the average woman applies 126 different chemicals each morning, with some of them not even listed on the packaging.

Deacon, who also wrote "Green for Life," said she had little idea that even the most innocuous seeming personal care products could contain carcinogens or other chemicals linked to hormone disruption.

She lists 20 toxins consumers should try to avoid, including:

  • Coal tar, a carcinogen banned in the European Union but used in North America in bath soaks, hair dyes and anti-dandruff shampoos.
  • DEA (diethanolamine), TEA (triethanolamine) and MEA (monoethanolamine), suspected carcinogenic foaming agents found in shampoos, face and body washes.
  • Formaldehyde, listed as a probable carcinogen and skin irritant used in shampoo, hair colouring and as a hardener in nail polish. It has been banned in the European Union.
  • Lead. Traces of the neurotoxin have been detected in many lipsticks, but it is not listed in the ingredients because it is considered a contaminant.
  • Parabens, chemicals found in moisturizer, shampoo, shaving cream, cleansing gel and toothpaste that the author says are linked to endocrine disruption and breast cancer because they mimic natural estrogen.

The federal government recently restricted the use of phthalates in toys and children's products. But the compounds are also found in a slew of fragranced products and are usually not listed on labels because they're part of a proprietary cocktail used to create a scent.

Ottawa didn't limit their use in body care goods, a point Deacon says underscores what she feels is a lack of safety testing and oversight when it comes to such chemicals.

"When I began this work, I was really dumbfounded at how little regulation there is and how little safety testing there is and how little we knew about it," she said.

"It all adds up to this outrageous toxic soup, and protection is not in place where people think it is."

Her research found there are up to 100,000 chemicals being used in the marketplace, with 85 per cent of those never having been tested for human health impacts, particularly over the long term.

Get educated

Her main message is that consumers should get educated, read labels and make informed decisions about their toothpaste, after-shave, lotion, simple bars of soap and everything in between.

She writes in the 338-page book that consumers have to be savvy about "greenwashing," a trend involving companies claiming a product is natural or organic when, in fact, it might not be.

She argues too that people can make their own products or replace them with truly natural alternatives. The book includes dozens of companies that offer healthier body care products.

Instead of moisturizer, Deacon rubs sweet almond oil and essential oil on her skin when she gets out of the shower. It hydrates her skin and provides a fragrance.

Other things like coconut oil, olive oil, baking soda, honey, brown sugar and cornstarch can be turned into balms and deodorants.

She includes recipes for homemade lotions, sunscreen, baby powder and a facial scrub made out of almonds, oatmeal, cornstarch, chamomile flowers and lavender oil.

"What's so great is just this unbelievable satisfaction of like, 'Wow, I just pulled some almonds and this, that and the other thing out of the pantry and saved myself $25 for the next six months,"' she said.