By Doctor Sumayya Ebrahim

How many of us open a jar of our favourite moisturizer or spray on some deodorant every day without a second thought? Apply your lipstick multiple times? Shampoo your hair?

Here are some interesting facts about contaminants that are present in our lives on a daily basis, in the items we use for self –care, in the items that we think are keeping our bodies clean, healthy and beautiful. These chemicals can affect our health and even contribute towards formation of certain cancers. My intention with this article is not to further enhance fears about getting cancer. Instead, it is to encourage an awareness of what we do on a daily basis, to empower us to lead healthier, more fulfilled lives. Lives filled with vigour and vitality!

What we use on our bodies is just as important as what we put into it with our food and water. Worldwide, the laws governing what is allowed into cosmetics and personal care products are limited. This often means that certain carcinogens (hazardous chemicals) are legally allowed to be in them. So it is up to the consumer (that’s us) to make intelligent, informed choices. Fortunately we don’t have to do all the hard work! It has been done for us already. The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) is an intergovernmental agency and part of the World Health Organisation. IRAC’s mission is to enhance collaboration in cancer research internationally. IRAC reviews all the scientific evidence and has a classification system for chemicals that are harmful to humans. Of the 113 agents listed as known human carcinogens, at least 11 are found in personal care products.


These substances are essentially used as preservatives and stabilizers:


Substance: Found in (product): Effect on health:
Formaldehyd Found in keratin hair straighteners, nail polish, eye shadow, mascara, nail treatment, blush ,shampoo carcinogen


Phenacitin Found in facial hair bleach, hair color and hair removal creams carcinogen


Coal Tar Found in hair dyes, shampoos, dandruff /scalp treatment and redness/rosacea treatments carcinogen


Benzene Found in hair conditioner and styling lotion Carcinogen and endocrine disruptor
Mineral oils (untreated and mildly treated) Found in eye shadow, moisturizer, lip gloss, lipstick, conditioner, hair color, bleach, facial treatments, styling lotion, blush and concealer.


carcinogenic (cancer-causing)
Ethylene Oxide Used to sterilize medical equipment and ends up in cosmetics as an impurity carcinogen and endocrine disruptor
Heavy metals Found in colourants in eye shadow and lip gloss, facial lotion , foundation, shampoo carcinogen
Cadmium and its compounds Found in colourants in cosmetics allergies, neurological disease and carcinogen allergies
Arsenic Found  as a contaminant in cosmetic colourants and ingredients carcinogen, endocrine disruptor, vascular complications, skin conditions like hyperpigmentation
Chromium Found in cosmetic colourant carcinogen
Silica Found in lipsticks, lip gloss, eye shadow, eye liner, foundation, sunscreen, lotion , shampoo carcinogen, allergies



What are Xenoestrogens?

Found in everyday items, such as makeup and plastic containers…


Naturally, all women have estrogen. This hormone, one of many, is an integral part of our menstrual cycle, our breast health and our fertility. It is also important in influencing tissue growth and development. Too much of this hormone however causes problems like growths of fibroids, ovarian cysts, and estrogen dependent tumours like breast cancer, uterine cancer, and melanoma. Too much of this hormone can also unbalance the entire endocrine system of the body.


Xenoestrogens, are foreign estrogens that mimic our natural estrogen. They enter our bodies when taken in from food, water or chemicals, attach themselves to our cell’s estrogen receptors, thereby taking over or enhancing our cell’s natural estrogen effects.

What are endocrine disruptors?

These are chemicals that can interfere with the normal hormonal (endocrine) systems of the body. These disruptions appear to be dose and timing related: The higher the dose, the worse the effect. Exposure to a developing fetus may have a different effect than if exposure occurs in an adult. Disruptions caused by these chemicals can cause cancer, birth defects, and developmental disorders like learning disabilities and attention deficit disorder. Scientific papers describe them as substances that “interfere with the synthesis, secretion, transport, binding, action, or elimination of natural hormones in the body that are responsible for development, behaviour, fertility, and maintenance of homeostasis (normal cell metabolism)”

Special word on Parabens

Parabens are the most widely used cosmetic preservative found in personal care products. They stop the growth of fungi and bacteria in our favourite products especially in the warm, moist environment of a bathroom. These chemicals are cheap and have replaced formaldehyde in many products. Parabens have been detected in research studies in many cancerous tissues especially breast cancer cells. Research oncologists have argued that they may play a role as an endocrine disruptor or a xenoestrogen and so be harmful to humans. However the US FDA disagrees until more research is done, and has deemed parabens safe at current exposure levels. However, researchers and organisations such as the US Environmental Working Group (EWG) still argue that we must not just evaluate individual product content. It is the cumulative impact of many products over many years – especially since EWG’s surveys show the average adult consumer to use an average of nine personal care products a day! It seems that manufacturers are aware of this controversy and “paraben free” labels are popping up frequently on new and older products.


You decide!


TAKE HOME MESSAGES: What can you do to minimize risk?


  1. Read labels: minimize the use of products with harmful substances. While it may not be possible to always eliminate them altogether, we can reduce our exposure.
  2. Check up on the products you currently use. Use a website called SKIN DEEP ( They have a database of over 25000 tested products.
  3. Choose products that you have researched. Many are available at local stores like Discem and Clicks. Try online stores too.
  4. Take action. Sign a petition for a campaign to encourage manufacturers to make safer products. Never underestimate the power of combined action. For current campaigns go to


Acknowledgements: This article was first published in Buddies for Life Magazine