There’s a lot of fear mongering these days about everything from the food we eat, to the cleaning products we use in our homes, to the cosmetics we put on our bodies. It’s not uncommon to read headlines about “deadly, cancer-causing” products.
The sad truth is that there are a lot of less-than-healthy factors at play when it comes to consumer goods in North America.
That being said, there’s no need to panic: by educating yourself about what you’re putting on, in, and around your body, it’s entirely possible to make smart choices, and avoid unhealthy products.
When it comes to skin care products (our special area of interest) one of the most important topics to learn more about is the nature of carcinogens, and how to avoid them.
How Cancer Cells Work
At its most basic level, cancer is caused when the DNA - or blueprint - of a cell is changed. These newly-created cancer cells aren’t recognized by our immune system because they’ve been altered, and our white blood cells (our immune system’s soldiers) attack the cancer cells, destroying our body’s otherwise-healthy cells in the process.
These changes to our healthy cells can be the result of hereditary factors - the genetics you inherit from your family, and have little control over.
Our cells can also be mutated by carcinogens.
What are Carcinogens?
The American Cancer Society has a simple-but-effective description of carcinogens: they’re substances and exposures that can lead to cancer.
These substances and exposures have the ability to change the DNA of our normal, healthy cells, creating the mutated cancer cells described above.
Think of excess sun exposure, or smoking: it’s now well known that they can cause cancer. That’s because ultraviolet sun rays and tobacco smoke are two of the most well-known carcinogens.
Other carcinogens include harmful chemicals, medical treatments like radiation and hormone treatment, and pollution. All have the ability to change our cells, and trigger the cancer response.
Not all Carcinogens are Created Equal
To be clear, not all carcinogens are equally powerful, nor do they have the same potential to affect the DNA of your cells. Some don’t even directly affect the DNA of your cells - they simply split your healthy cells and make them more susceptible to DNA changes.
There are many scales for rating the strength of a carcinogen, and they can range from known to be carcinogenic to humans, to probably not carcinogenic to humans.
Obviously, avoiding known carcinogens is a priority.
This doesn’t, however, mean it’s easy to do.
Unfortunately, many of the chemicals and ingredients used in mass-produced products - especially skin care products - fall somewhere on the carcinogen scale. These chemicals provide easy solutions to cosmetic-related issues, like making a shampoo lather, a face cream feel silky, or a deodorant prevent body odour.
They also, however, negatively affect us at the cellular level.
Avoiding Carcinogens in Skin Care Products
With the prevalence of carcinogens in your products, you might feel a little overwhelmed on your next visit to Sephora.
What’s more, when you actually review lists of known carcinogens, it can read like Greek. Comparing various lists to the ingredients list on your products isn’t the easiest option for most of us.
To reduce some of the stress but still stay healthy, we suggest you use your newfound knowledge of carcinogens in a few different ways.
1. Find a non-profit group to do the research for you.
Organizations like The Environmental Working Group and CertClean provide great, unbiased, scientific reviews of cosmetic products and companies, and provide no-nonsense lists of what products to trust.
2. Start with one product
You don’t have to throw out everything in your makeup bag at once: try going product by product, and replacing mass-produced products for natural ones you find on lists of healthy cosmetics. You can start by switching up something you use every day, like moving to a natural deodorant or body wash.
3. Live a healthy lifestyle, generally.
Cancer prevention isn’t limited to your cosmetics. Eating an organic, whole foods diet, getting 8 hours of sleep, exercising 4 times a week, and reducing stress have a massive impact on your body’s ability to stay healthy.
Watch your products while paying attention to your lifestyle to reduce the risks of carcinogens.