There's nothing that makes you sweat like opening an innocuous e-mail to find a warning about antiperspirants causing breast cancer. Or reading a story in The New York Times, as I did recently, suggesting that breast growth in some boys has been linked to certain shampoos. From toxic moisturizers to chemical-laden perfumes, there has been unavoidable buzz recently about health risks—from slightly alarming to deeply scary—lurking in beauty products. In an effort to separate real dangers from speculation, I quizzed scores of dermatologists, chemists, and toxicologists. Here's the (mostly good) news.
The fears: Back in 2003, the Internet hummed with rumors warning that many brands of lipstick were laced with dangerous amounts of lead. The American Cancer Society quickly dismissed the talk. But recently, similar reports have resurfaced.
The facts: Lipsticks are safe. Most color additives are no longer made from coal tars that contain high amounts of lead. Almost all pigments now come from petroleum, and the FDA certifies each batch. "You'll find far more lead and mercury in the foods you eat than the lipstick you wear," says Ni'Kita Wilson, a cosmetics chemist at Cosmetech Labs in Fairfield, New Jersey.
The fears: A handful of studies have associated long-term use of permanent hair dyes with a slightly higher risk of several types of cancer. Some studies reported a greater risk for those who started coloring their hair before 1980. (In 1979 the Food and Drug Administration asked cosmeticmakers to put warning labels on hair dyes containing coal-tar derivatives that had been found to cause cancer in lab animals. Instead, manufacturers voluntarily removed the ingredients.)
The facts: "Any and all potentially carcinogenic ingredients in hair dyes were removed from the market years ago," says Wilma Bergfeld, head of clinical research and dermatopathology at the Cleveland Clinic and chair of the Cosmetic Ingredient Review (CIR) expert panel. (The CIR is a group of scientists and physicians responsible for assessing the safety of cosmetic ingredients in the United States.) And, in fact, no study has ever shown that haircolor causes cancer in humans. Scientists analyze hair-dye use among healthy women and those with cancer, and then draw correlations based on that information. A recent study in The Journal of the American Medical Association reviewed nearly 80 studies from the past 40 years and found no strong evidence linking hair dye to cancer. And most experts say you can keep coloring—within reason—during pregnancy. "No one can tell you with 100 percent certainty that it's completely safe, so try to minimize it; that's what I did when I was pregnant," says Doris J. Day, MD, clinical assistant professor of dermatology at NYU Medical Center. "Wait until your second trimester, and then extend the time between coloring. If you usually color every six weeks, go eight." Sharon Dorram-Krause, head colorist at John Frieda Salon in New York City, advises pregnant clients to consider getting only highlights (to keep chemicals off the scalp) or using weaker, semipermanent dyes.