Cosmetic Chemistry: Even Dinosaurs got cancer.
Cancer isn’t a new thing, even dinosaurs got it and that, I feel, is relevant.
As a chemist I am patently aware of the fact that I am seen by some as part of the ‘modern life’ problem. We live in a world full of chemicals and as a chemist I have to be a part of that. The pop culture theory goes that modern life is so toxic and it is that toxicity that is making us sick, giving us cancer. Personally I feel that our modern lifestyle possibly does contribute to many sickness, could make us sick. I also accept that some types of chemical exposure would add to that sickness but I am more inclined to think that much of our modern malaise stems from modern life being mentally stressful and that it often leads to us making poor lifestyle choices which then go on to cause disease. Indeed, I wouldn’t be surprised if one day we can prove that modern life is so un-natural that it causes most dis-ease.
But we can’t blame modern life for cancer, well, at least not all of it.
I know this isn’t a cheery subject but I feel it is still important to know that as long as there have been animals, there has been cancer. That cancer is as natural as we are, a side-effect if you like, of being alive.
Let’s have a look.
I was listening to a program called ‘The Health Report’ on ABC radio national last night and was made aware of Lynch Syndrome, a syndrome where sufferers carry a genetic malfunction that affects their DNA repair system and can manifest in a whole cluster of cancers including those of the bowel and stomach. This triggered me to share the above data, data that I’d put together last year when the question of cancer-causing-cosmetics came up. As you can see from the above data, elephants are far less likely to develop cancer than humans and that has been attributed to the fact that they have double the DNA repairing ability of humans. This, along with what we are just finding out about Lynch Syndrome starts to make the world feel less like a cancer lottery – you never know who is going to get what – and leaves it feeling much more knowable – much of the risk is written into our genes. I appreciate that is cold comfort for mutated gene carriers of which I may well be one, I don’t know. But as we pour more and more money into this area and spend more time looking into how the genes affect our cancer risk we can can also take the next leap and work out how to repair those rogue genes. I think that is exciting.
On top of the genetic cancer risk there is also the viral risk. Many melanoma cancer cases have a genetic sub-component to them which again gives us a common thread to grab hold of when looking at ways to help treat or even cure this aggressive skin cancer. Again, I think this knowledge is power.
So where does this leave chemicals, cosmetics and the pursuit of beauty?
It is absolutely true that some individual chemicals are carcinogens. It is also true to say that some manufacturing processes are polluting and damaging to the environment and this being a connected world, that pollution and damage will most likely come back to bite us. But I wouldn’t go so far as to say that our cosmetic products are nasty, toxic polluters that are the most likely (or even in the top ten) daily habits that could increase our risk of getting cancer. I would hypothesise that in most cases, for most people, the cosmetics you use would be quite low down in the risk stakes, behind sun exposure, diet, genetic risk, sleep habits, stress levels, virus exposure, age, drug and smoking habits, weight, Job, happiness and plus daily exercise patterns. But we like to focus on our cosmetic choices because these are the low-hanging fruits, the easy things to change and that is significant.
Risk Free Beauty?
Given all of the above, my advice to cosmetic brands looking to make ‘safe’ cosmetics would be this -Put the risk into perspective and then aim to work on one aspect that could be improved. For example, you might be a brand or a consumer that has decided that the safest choice is a cosmetic made from ingredients that are all readily biodegradable and manufactured in environmentally responsible ways. You might decide that safety is best served as a Certified Organic product – be sure to point out why. alternatively, you might decide to use only simple plant-based ingredients or make your own products using the rationale that at least people/ you know what these ingredients are and can avoid what they might be allergic to – this philosophy is quite restrictive but could work for very basic products. Or you might decide to use any ingredients that are available to the cosmetic chemist and have all of your products tested by a toxicologist (EU safety assessment style) as evidence that your formulations are safe. You could always advice the toxicologist that you want them ultra-safe so assess the products as if they are being used on babies (from 0-3 yrs). If none of that suits or if you want an extra layer of information/ security you might pursue some real-life panel testing to see how a group of people respond to your products at least in the short-term. Whatever you pick whether customer or brand owner I think it is worth appreciating that cancer came before the chemical revolution and dinosaurs didn’t get their cancers from lipstick. It is also worth noting that in the grand scheme of things your cosmetics are probably never going to be the main risk factor in your life and that maybe, just maybe the most helpful thing of all you can do in this space is to donate some profits back into those uncovering the truth of what causes cancer and ultimately what can help cure the various different types.
Whatever way you pick to engage with the market for safer products my one wish and hope is that it is done respectfully and without hysteria. There is much work to do in this area, we can always produce cleaner, greener and more skin-similar products but nothing is more damaging and dis-ease causing than fear and so selling safe cosmetics using fear as a driver for decision-making makes absolutely no sense at all.
And on that note, does fear contribute to our cancer risk? Is there any evidence of that?
I found this interesting and it seems relatively logical to me:
Although stress can cause a number of physical health problems, the evidence that it can cause cancer is weak. Some studies have indicated a link between various psychological factors and an increased risk of developing cancer, but others have not.
Apparent links between psychological stress and cancer could arise in several ways. For example, people under stress may develop certain behaviors, such as smoking, overeating, or drinking alcohol, which increase a person’s risk for cancer. Or someone who has a relative with cancer may have a higher risk for cancer because of a shared inherited risk factor, not because of the stress induced by the family member’s diagnosis.