CBC MARKETPLACE: HEALTH » COSMETICS
Cosmetics and the cancer connection
Broadcast: January 28, 2003 | Reporter:
Erica Johnson; Producer: Carmel Smyth; Researcher: Colman Jones
The personal care products industry
is a $4 billion-a-year
business in Canada
Many of us wear make-up, or use personal care products -
like shampoos, deodorants and hair spray. But would we
still use them if we knew what Health Canada has known for
years: that these products contain ingredients suspected
of causing cancer?
Angelika Hackett of Vancouver has read up on the cancer
and cosmetics connection. She's concluded there’s nothing
pretty about a lot of products:
“I don’t think people should really be using
them. And also I don’t want my daughters to start using
a lot of them on their skin or hair.” Hackett says she
doesn’t want her teenage daughters buying into the beauty
The personal care products industry is a $4 billion-a-year
business in Canada. Health Canada approves the products: how
bad can they be? Marketplace has uncovered a small
but fierce debate. A growing number of scientists say the
chemicals in these products may -over time- give us cancer.
Angelika Hackett doesn't want her daughters buying into
the beauty myth
Hackett’s concerns are with chemicals like butylated
hydroxyanisole, Titanium Dioxide, and dozens of other cancer-causing
agents analysed for a decade in books by Dr. Sam Epstein,
a cancer scientist at the University of Illinois in Chicago.
“Mainstream cosmetics produced by mainstream industries
are literally a witch’s brew of carcinogenic ingredients,”
Epstein told Marketplace.
Those are ugly words to the beauty business. Epstein's 40
years of research have convinced him loads of personal care
products may be giving us cancer.
Epstein’s research found a common skin cream contains
at least two ingredients linked to cancer. A mascara: three.
A blush: four. A lipstick: five. That’s enough to worry
Cosmetics contain 'a witch's brew of carcinogenic
ingredients' says Dr. Sam Epstein
Why haven’t the ingredients been removed? A powerful
cosmetics industry argues the contentious chemicals are in
such small amounts, they can’t do any harm. Critics
agree the amounts are small, but say the danger lies in using
these products over and over, day in and day out. And since
we’re already swamped with so many
avoiding any is important.
Marketplace tried to interview a dozen cosmetics
companies, but none would talk. So we turned to Canada’s
main industry lobby group, the Cosmetics Toiletry and Fragrance
“We remain very confident the ingredients used in cosmetics
in Canada are safe when used at the levels they are used at,"
Carl Carter, the association's director said. "They're
the ingredients that are used throughout the world.”
That's not exactly correct. In Europe, regulators have told
the industry it can’t use some 400 chemicals - including
suspected carcinogens. And they’re about to ban more.
The U.S. and Canada ban only a handful.
In Canada, the beauty business is barely
Health Canada to find out why. We reached the head of cosmetics,
Hugh Davis. He told that "Canada’s regulations
are so outrageously antiquated, they’re not worth
the paper they’re written on."
God,' says Dr. William Lijinsky
Davis called cosmetics "high risk," "because
you’re applying them directly to your body.”
But Davis wasn’t allowed to give us an on-camera
interview – instead, his boss Marta Caris stepped
"The 10,000 or more chemical ingredients present in
the marketplace," she said, "most of those products
-if not all of those products- are safe for use as intended
Caris won’t admit the products contain ingredients
linked to cancer: “I have not in any of my comments
indicated that a carcinogen is actually present in cosmetics.
I have indicated that there has been evidence that suggests
that there may be some potential for cancer causing potential
Comments like that anger Dr. William Lijinsky, a retired
scientist who used to work for the U.S. National Cancer Institute.
“They’re playing God … How dare they?"
He says. "People used to think mercury was safe. People
used to think using phosphorous was safe. But they weren’t.”
The hair dye debate
A recent study out of California found that women who use
dark permanent hair dyes double their chances of getting bladder
The hair dye debate has been raging for decades. When
Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis
died in 1994, many scientists suspected her
cancer came from her hair colouring.
The California study is prompting European scientists to
call for an urgent review. In Canada, there’s been barely
a whisper. The industry says there’s no problem.
“The dyes are extremely safe in fact, they're one of
the most studied classes of products in the world today,”
Carl Carter of the Cosmetics Toiletry and Fragrance Association
'Those products are safe for use as intended by
consumers,' says Marta Caris, Health Canada
That's not enough to convince Angelika Hackett: "The
industry will tell you, 'our product has never caused cancer
in anyone. It's perfectly safe. The amounts are so minute.'
But you can say the same thing about smoking or drinking.”
Hackett’s not the only one who thinks industry’s
giving people the brush off. In Europe, groups like Friends
of the Earth have organized protests, demanding chemical-free
Biochemist Michael Warhurst approves of Hackett’s campaign:
"I think the main thing Canadians can do is increase
pressure on their politicians to regulate things properly,
to actually try to look at the regulations from the point
of view of public health and the environment."
Ingredients may not be listed
Hackett refuses to buy products with ingredients she questions.
Of course, that assumes ingredients are actually listed. That’s
not often the case. Unlike most developed countries, Canada
has no law forcing companies to label ingredients - although
Health Canada has been talking about it for 20 years.
“There is a priority that has been afforded this exercise.
I cannot definitely speculate on the ultimate date on which
the regulations would be promulgated,” Health Canada's
Marta Caris explained. In other words — don’t
hold your breath.
That means a lot of work for Angelika Hackett. She calls
companies to find out what’s in products and complains
when the ingredients are on her toxic hit list. Some promise
to check on her concerns and call her back. She's still waiting
for several of those return calls.
Like Hackett, Dr. Samuel Epstein practices what he preaches.
He only buys products he says won’t increase his chances
of getting cancer. "Shaving cream, shampoo - there are
You may pay a little more for these alternatives, but Hackett
believes that’ll change as more people demand personal
care products get a makeover.