Skin Care Ingredients & Cancer

An Industry Review Report 

A survey conducted recently in the US called Skin Deep, examined over 10,000 ingredients used in cosmetics. The survey was conducted by The Environmental Working Group (EWG) that concluded that most of these ingredients had not been evaluated or approved by any authority and in particular the FDA.

EWG toxicologist Dr Tim Kroppwent further to say that even the ones that had been tested had shown concerns of cancer and developmental problems. After studying more than 7,500 brand names, EWG's investigation found 356 personal care products had not been assessed for safety and suggested that these products should be immediately recalled or reissued with warnings. As many of these products were also available in Australia, the local press decided to profile the topic in a bid for a good story.

Media Investigation

On the 9th September this year Channel 7 aired on the Today Tonight show a program that explored some of these concerns. As the investigation of ingredient safety is a pressing issue that directly affects our industry, we decided to explore some of the claims made to determine the credibility and validity of their deductions.

Today Tonight approached environmental scientist Dr Peter Dingle from Western Australia's Murdoch University, who believes approximately 90 per cent of products on the market have toxic ingredients he'd like to get rid of. On top of his list are the same chemicals highlighted in the American survey - the potential cancer causing triethanolamine and substitute oestrogens known as parabens e.g. methylparabens and propylparabens recently linked to breast cancer. (This report will be discussed further in this article.)

When investigating the presence of these ingredients in Australia, Today Tonight found five products on sale each with the suspect ingredients triethanolamine and propylparaben and other questionable chemicals nominated in EWG's research. These were L'Oreal's Double Extend Lash Extender; Revlon's Colour Stay Lash colour; L'Oreal's Feria Haircolour, St Ives Apricot Scrub and L'Oreal's Pure Zone Exfoliating Gel Wash. Today Tonight contacted the products' Australian office and each company stood by the safety of their product.

So how valid are these claims and how can we as skincare professionals determine the validity of these statements given that parabens and triethanolamine are also readily found in professional skincare products?

Australia's Rwgulatory Standards

Within Australia the governing body responsible for ingredient safety is NICNAS (National Industrial Chemical Notification and Assessment Scheme). The APAA contacted NICNAS to explore their position on these claims. We spoke to Dr Roshine Jayewardene, Head of the New Chemical Assessment Division. Dr Jayewardene assured us that NICNAS is very stringent when it comes to chemical and ingredient safety within Australia. "We take cancer very seriously, and work closely with the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which is part of the World Health Organisation, based in France."

IARC is respected as the world's research authority on cancer. IARC's mission is to coordinate and conduct research on the causes of human cancer, the mechanisms of carcinogenesis and to develop scientific strategies for cancer control. The Agency is involved in both epidemiological and laboratory researches and disseminates scientific information through publications, meetings, courses and fellowships.

Dr Jayewardene further assured us that NICNAS relies on its own assessments, views reports and stringently determines whether a chemical is safe for use in Australia. All new chemicals must submit testing documentations and results for stringent assessment by NICNAS. If they are found to be deficient they will not be recommended to be sold within Australia. "Our ingredient safety criteria is very rigorous in this country,”she assured us.

From there we questioned the specific claims regarding the parabens and trielthanolamine. Here is some more in-depth information regarding these chemicals that was provided to us:


Triethanolamine is a viscous liquid widely used as a corrosion inhibitor, a surface-active agent and an intermediate in various products, including metalworking fluids, oils, fuels, paints, inks, cement, cosmetic and personal hygiene products, herbicide and algicide formulations.

Triethanolamine was adequately tested for carcinogenicity in one study in mice and in one study in rats by oral administration in the drinking water. No increase in the incidence of tumours was observed. It was also tested by dermal application in one study in rats and no increase in the incidence of tumours was found. Further studies on humans concluded inadequate evidence of carcinogenicity.

Dr Jayewardene added that it is important when conducting testing on animals to determine the movement of chemicals in the body in order to ascertain at what level they will react. Often testing on animals is conducted with extremely high doses. The aim is to determine the risk assessment and their relevance to the human body. "We participate in the evaluation of carcinogenesis and build them into our risk procedures," she stated.

Dr Jayewardene went on to say that Australia has one of the most stringent regulatory standards in the world. "We assess all new chemicals and look for provisions that may require the need for reassessment," she stressed. "It is not enough to just look at hazards, you need to identify how much of the chemical used establishes a hazard and how often it is used to establish a hazard.”

Other issues that were clarified during our discussion were as follows:

All new chemicals to be used within Australia are required by law to be first assessed by NICNAC. If they are not, they are in breach of the law.

All therapeutically active chemicals must go through the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA). If an ingredient or chemical is Federal Drug Administration (FDA) approved (the US equivalent body to the TGA), this does not mean that it will automatically be approved in Australia, as Australia has more stringent laws than the US.

All naturally occurring substances are still chemicals.

If you are suspicious of a chemical you can nominate to have this reviewed by NICNAC, but is important that you must give your reasons why you are concerned.

NICNAC keeps a watchful eye on all chemicals that state they have studies to confirm that they are carcinogenic and liaise with IARC to also determine their findings.

Concerning parabens, NICNAC's risk assessment did not demonstrate that parabens are a concern, especially when most are found in minute doses in products these days. They advised that therapists should check as to where they fit in the descending order on the ingredient listing of a product, as in most instances they are towards the bottom and present only in very small quantities.

With regards to allergic reactions to chemicals they stated that one can react to any chemical whether in a product or in a food. For example, one may react to a chemical in a mango or in chocolate. There are over 100 chemicals in these products and it would be impossible for a test to determine the exact chemical that one is allergic to. Therefore the recommendation would be to avoid that food altogether although the real problem may be just one chemical in that food.


Here is some valuable information on parabens:

The media has highlighted a recent publication in a scientific journal linking parabens, a class of chemicals commonly used as preservatives, with breast cancer "Concentration of Parabens in Human Breast Tumours" (Darbe, PD. et al. J. Appl. Toicol. w4, 5-13 (2004).

Parabens are a group of chemicals widely used as preservatives in food and cosmetic and therapeutic products. Some parabens are also found at low levels in nature. Paraben is the common name for this class of chemical, however, they are also known by other names such as esters of p-hydroxybenzoic acid, (a list of common parbens along with their synonyms and CAS Numbers can be found on the NICNAS website

How are products that contain parabens regulated in Australia?

Deodorants are regulated as cosmetics by NICNAS whithn the office of chemical safety. Antiperspirants are regulated as therapeutic goods by the TGA because of their activity to constrict the sudorific glands.

As we have said previously, Australia has one of the most stringent regulatory systems in the world for cosmetic chemicals. There are mandatory labelling requirements for cosmetics under the Trade Practices Act 1974. Ingredients must be listed on product labels, in descending order calculated either by mass or volume. This enables consumers to identify ingredients to which they may be allergic or which may cause an adverse reaction. As mentioned above, there is not enough evidence to substantiate that parabens are hazardous, especially when used in small doses in cosmetics. However, some individuals may react to them and therefore should look out for them in the ingredient information of products.

Cosmetic labels must also indicate specific hazards posed by ingredients, where applicable. For example, if the chemical is listed in a schedule for the Standard for the Uniform Scheduling of Drug and Poisons, legal requirements for warning or safety statement apply and should be placed on the container. If you are concerned regarding the presence of parabens all you need to do is check its presence on the label.

The TGA has advised that labelling requirements also apply to therapeutic products containing parabens, requiring them to be listed on the product label. Similarly, parabens used in food are also subject to labelling via food additive code numbers.

The cosmetic industry has been advised that many deodorant and antiperspirant products do not contain parabens as preservatives as these formulations are essentially self-preserving.

Proposed Regulatory Action In Response To The Study

As mentioned in the UK study, they have established the presence of intact parabens in human breast tumours. However, this research alone is insufficient to establish that these chemicals actually caused the breast tumours or that the source of the chemical was underarm cosmetic

NICNAS has reviewed the publication and other available data on the health effects of parabens. The study by Darbre et al (2004) utilised a small sample (20), no healthy breast tissue (or other tissues from affected women) was analysed and the source(s) of the parabens found in the breast tumours and routes of exposure were not identified. This paper, however, noted the need for further research to establish the significance of the presence of prabens in these tumours and to establish any link between parabens in underarm cosmetics and the development of breast cancer.

Data from published sources indicates that parabens demonstate weak oestrogenic activity in some experimental animals and that enzymes present in skin cells and subcutaneous fat cells are capable of breaking down topically applied parabens.

Following analysis of all available data, NICNAS believes that further research is required before a causal link between paraben in cosmetic products and breast cancer can be established. Therefore the official position of NICNAS is that parabens in cosmetic products are considered safe to use when the products are used as directed.

Products Of Natural Origin

We also need to clarify the term "naturally-occurring" substances and how they are classified by NICNAS.

"Naturally-occurring" substances are not considered to be relevant industrial chemicals and are excluded from NICNAS Registration requirements. However, you should note that the term "naturally-occurring" is tightly defined under the Act, and that a substance derived or extracted from natural sources may not itself qualify as a "naturally-occurring" substance. In fact, very few ingredients used in cosmetics would meet the definition of "naturally-occurring". You should not exclude a substance from NICNAS Registration considerations simply because it is of natural origin. (For a full definition of "naturally-occurring chemical" you can access the NICNAS Registration fact sheet under "Relevant Industry Chemicals" from their website.)

This point is illustrated as an example from raw materials used for perfumery. Although extracts of fragrance and flavour substances such as essential oils and resinoids are derived from plants, they are usually not considered by to be "naturally-occurring" because most of the methods used in their extraction are chemical in process. Under the Act, only mechanical processes are permissible if substances are to retain their naturally-occurring status. Oils obtained by mechanical separation (pressing) are considered to be naturally-occurring, whereas those obtained by steam distillation or solvent extraction are regarded as relevant industry chemicals. All synthetic equivalents of "naturally-occurring substances are, by definition, relevant industrial chemicals.

In Conclusion

As beauty and aesthetic therapists it is important that we review claims made in the media with further investigation, as often their information is not accessed from the most credible sources. It is therefore important that we determine the accuracy and validity of the statements made. It is also important that before taking a stand we explore credible bodies for verification of scientific facts rather than making assumptions on hearsay. Beauty In Action as the industry journal has a commitment to bringing such information to your attention.

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