3 Beauty Treatments that May Give You Cancer

Skin Care
Stylized DNA replication fork with nucleotides...

Author’s Note:  The truth of the matter is, cancer is a natural by-product of living.  If you think about driving, the longer you drive, the higher your chances of an accident, right?  Well, the longer you live, the more rounds of cellular replication you’ll have, the higher your chance of mutations – and cancer – will get.

Cancer is common in modern, technologically-advanced societies where citizens live for many years, leading to ample grant monies funding cancer research.  Many of these results turn up in sensationalist headlines – like “3 Beauty Treatments that Give You Cancer,” ;-),  only to be later refuted or disproved by other scientists.  But the rebuttals are rarely published in the more audacious publications.  I want to make it clear that I plan to follow-up on each of these with my readers as other scientific studies are conducted – whether proving or disproving.

So, on that note, I will continue:

1.  Spray tans


A male model receives a spray tan backstage. (Image credit: Getty Images via @daylife)

Spray tanning has been touted as a “safe alternative” to tanning beds or sunbathing.  Yet a study conducted by ABC News found that the active ingredient in spray tans, dihydroxyacetone (DHA), should not be inhaled as it is during spray tanning. The FDA actually has not approved DHA specifically for use in spray tanning, only as a tanning agent in creams and lotions.

“I have concerns,” said Dr. Rey Panettieri, a toxicologist and lung specialist at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine. “The reason I’m concerned is the deposition of the tanning agents into the lungs could really facilitate or aid systemic absorption — that is, getting into the bloodstream. These compounds in some cells could actually promote the development of cancers or malignancies,” he said, “and if that’s the case then we need to be wary of them.”

Nicki’s Take:  I personally feel all self-tanners should be avoided before going out in the sun.   According to a 2007 study, DHA causes the skin to release 180% more free radicals once being exposed to the sun for 24 hours.  If you must go into the sun after using a self-tanner, this means sun protection is even more important for the next 24 hours.

Still, while pale skin is clearly the safest option for your skin, self-tanning is still less detrimental to your health than tanning beds or sunbathing.  I recommend Beautisol self-tanners ($29), with FreshScent Technology.  Or if you prefer bronzers, I’ve heard great things about Too Faced Royal Oil Coconut Oil Body Bronzer, ($35) or Chocolate Soleil Milk Chocolate Bronzer ($29).

As far as the new study goes, I’m curious to find out if the FDA will approve DHA for use in spray tanning or not.  The determining factor will be how much DHA, on average, is inhaled during the procedure.  The likely outcome will be something like breathable safety coverings must be warn over the mouth and nose, or DHA is only allowed in spray tanners up to a certain concentration, or both.  I’ll be back with updates!

2.  Mineral Powders

Mineral powder contains finely-ground substances, like mica and titanium dioxide, that can be harmful if inhaled in large quantities.

As I mentioned in my earlier post, The Essential BareMinerals Shopping Guide, I’m not a big fan of mineral powder for anyone except those with oily skin, due to the grayish tint it can impart after hours of wear.  Still, millions of other women are, which brings me to the concern that mineral powder may cause cancer due to the finely-ground mica and titanium oxide within the formulation.

Mica has been shown to cause pneumoconiosis (a lung disease) and fibrosis in the lungs and the liver (Thorax, 1978; Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 1983).  While these studies typically analyze the exposure of coal miners and other industrial workers, many experts are concerned that use of mica-containing cosmetics over time could lead to lung disease.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer, or IARC, recently classified titanium oxide as an IARC Group 2B carcinogen, which may cause cancer to humans.  While titanium oxide has been classified as safe for use on the skin, rats tested in the lab developed respiratory tract cancer after inhaling titanium dioxide dust.

Nicki’s Take:  I personally avoid mineral makeup because it leaves my normal/slightly dry skin looking a bit gray and dull.  However, I know many women with oilier skin who swear by it.  So, I make two points.  One, the exposure to mica and titanium oxide is likely to be very small.  Even if summed up over time, typical doses are likely to be nowhere near the exposure of industrial coal-miners or other workers.  That’s the first point.

The second point is, many women feel it’s better to be safe than sorry.  (That’s probably how we managed to still exist as a species through countless wars and natural disasters in the first place!)  If you feel you must keep using mineral powder but want to be cautious about it, take a deep breath.  Or gently plug up your nostrils with a broken-up tissue before you open the container and apply!

3.)  Hair-Straightening Treatments

Afrikaans: 'n Vrou se hare vóór en ná haarvers...
Hair before and after straightening.

Many salon hair straightening treatments either contain formaldehyde or methylene glycol.  Unfortunately, once methylene glycol gets into water, it forms formaldehyde anyway.  Even in low doses, formaldehyde has been found to cause DNA damage and delays in DNA repair in human skin cells (Experimental Dermatology, 2004).  The National Cancer Institute recently classified formaldehyde as a known human carcinogen, associated with both nasal sinus cancer and nasopharyngeal cancers (National Cancer Institute website).

Nicki’s Take:  I know many women are willing to suffer a little for beauty – but cancer is pushing it too far!  Formaldehyde-free alternatives, like Keratin Perfect, do exist today.  Unfortunately, these are not nearly as long-lasting or effective as salon treatments, particularly for African-American hair.  Until the cosmetology world develops a better alternative to formaldehyde or methylene glycol, I think it’s best to avoid salon straightening, and try to maintain your curly or wavy hair as best you can with formaldehyde-free products.

Bottom Line

Until more studies come out, I will be cautious about spray tans and mineral powder, and avoid hair straightening salon treatments entirely.  I will keep you updated!

As far as other potential cancer-causing treatments go, here is my current take:

  • Parabens – I’m not popular for saying this, but I do believe that parabens are safe in the concentrations in which they are used in skin care and cosmetics.  Only used in toiletries up to 0.25% in the United States, parabens are allowed in food up to 1.0% – and no one ever talks about that!  [Read more:  Are You Aware of the Parabens You Eat?].  Even if parabens do accumulate in the system, it is only for a maximum of 3 years at a time – and I just don’t see it as a valid concern from skin care and cosmetics.  Maybe future evidence will convince me otherwise, but I doubt it.
  • Petrolatum – Petrolatum is an ingredient in many of my favorite products.  The U.S. FDA has established cosmetic-grade petrolatum as safe, as it must meet certain purification standards that remove toxic petrochemicals.  Still, the European Union establishes petrolatum as a carcinogen (European Commission, 2009) and will only allow its use in cosmetics “if the full refining history is known and it can be shown that the substance from which it is produced is not a carcinogen” (European Commission, 2009).  I still use petrolatum, but it’s high on my watch list!

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  • @Casey- I would not breathe in as much as possible when you get spray tans, or I would switch to using bronzer OR self-tanners with lots of sunscreen afterwards. Hope this helps! Good luck on your modeling career!

  • @Jessica – I’ll look into that right away. Interesting. My instincts tell me that’s incorrect.

  • @Kaye – The honest answer is, nobody knows if DHA is safe to inhale or not, whether naturally-derived or not. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has only approved DHA from natural or artificial sources for use via topical application on the skin, not via sprays. For now, based upon what the scientific community knows, I would avoid breathing in DHA as much as possible. Hope this helps!

  • @K and @Erika – Thanks for the great question! Beautisol, like all other self-tanners I know of on the market right now, does contain DHA. Overall, I believe that not being tan – whether naturally or artifically – is the best option. However, many people don’t like how they look without a tan. Fair enough. If you are one of those people who *must* be tan, I recommend Beautisol. I’ve tried it in the past, it applies smoothly, and it doesn’t smell terrible. I make sure, however, that I apply loads of sunscreen after using it – I don’t want DHA increasing my free radical production upon sun exposure. Hope this helps!

  • Casey

    I am a male model and I get weekly spray tans…this information is pretty alarmingly. Nicki, can you address the questions stated above? The salon I go to uses naturally derived DHA from apples and sugar beets. Does this pose a difference?

    Additionally, I am interested in these Beautisol products and I have the same questions as listed above.

    Thank you.

  • Jessica

    I was going to get my very first spray tan today! I guess not..lol

    ps. Nicki, I live in Canada and yesterday a popular talk show host here had on an “eco expert” who was touting essential oils over “all the crap in cosmetics”. She made a lot of claims that seemed false to me (after reading your blog I feel like I am so much more informed!) but one claim she had made was that raspberry oil has an spf of 28-50 and we should be using it instead of sunscreen. I will continue to use my sunscreen but I am wondering if there is any truth to this claim.

  • kaye

    what about DHA that is derived from sugar cane or beets? is that form of naturally derived DHA safe to inhale?

  • Erika

    Wait…I’m also confused. I love Beautisol- it’s the only self-tanner that gives me a natural glow without looking streaky or fake. But I have the same question- wouldn’t the Fresh Scent Technology only mask the scent of DHA…not the DHA itself?

    But then again, you mentioned DHA is approved for lotions/creams, not for spray mists. So it’s still okay if I apply the Beautisol self-tanner directly onto my skin? Is there a chance I may still inhale the self-tanner if I apply it directly onto my skin?

  • K

    im an avid spray tanner and im a little scared to hear this! i also just purchased beautisol when they had a sneakpeeq deal. is there a reason you recommend beautisol w/ their freshscent technology? because wouldnt it only mask the scent of DHA but not the DHA itself?

  • Great article, as always!

  • Stacey B

    Wow…use the top 2! yikes! Shocked right now.

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