October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Of course, we want to find a cure and discover cutting edge treatment options for breast cancer. And….we mustn't forget, a vital part of awareness is to understand the many risk factors of breast cancer and gather tips and tricks for prevention.
I've been interested in learning more about the potential health impacts of chemicals that can be found in some household and personal products. Because we all use a variety of household and personal care products around our homes and on our bodies every day, it is important that we know what chemicals are in these products. Research studies have linked some of the chemicals found in personal care and cleaning products, like parabens and phthalates, to numerous health issues, including breast cancer. Some of these chemicals have the ability to mimic estrogen in the body, disrupting our natural endocrine functioning—increasing our risk for breast cancer.
Needless to say, I'm feeling more motivated to reduce my family's exposure to certain chemicals! Here are some of the strategies I've found, along with some background on many chemicals that I try to avoid.
1. Get in the know—or make your own!
Did you know that the law does not require cleaning product companies to list ingredients on their product labels? Look for cleaning products that voluntarily list their ingredients right on the label.
When it comes to your cosmetics, try using fewer products and monitoring the ingredient list of those products for chemicals you are trying to avoid. And keep an eye out for the word "fragrance"—companies are not required to disclose fragrance ingredients, so this one item can actually contain dozens of other chemicals. Some of these commonly used chemicals have been associated with hormone disruption and may be increasing our risk for breast cancer.
The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and the Breast Cancer Fund both have good lists of problematic ingredients found in cleaning and personal care products to help you learn more about what you are using around your home and on your body. Or, get creative and make your own. Check out Vassar College's Environmental Risks and Breast Cancer Program for some recipes.
2. Be Smart With Germ Control.
We live in an antibacterial-obsessed culture. Not only are many soaps, hand sanitizers, and detergents antibacterial, but toothpastes, clothing, bedding, bandages, toys, and cutting boards also boast the claim. Some of these products contain triclosan, an antibacterial ingredient that is suspected of interfering with hormone functioning. But guess what? The Center for Disease Control reports that washing your hands for 20 seconds with plain hand soap is as effective at removing germs and preventing illness as using an antibacterial hand soap. Even better news, triclosan (in consumer antibacterial hand soaps) was recently banned by the FDA - however; expect to see the ingredient on consumer shelves until fall 2017.
3. "Think Dirty" About Products You Can't Go Without.
Yes, your skin is a protective barrier but it is also an absorptive organ—so, what you put on your skin ends up in your body. If you really can't let go of a certain type of product, use Think Dirty (a database that provides info about products, ingredients, and cleaner options for nearly 100,000 personal care products) to find an alternative.
4. Get Clear About Sunscreen.
Many sunscreens contain hormone-disrupting chemicals that may put us at greater risk for breast cancer and other health issues. To steer clear of this risk, avoid sunscreens with 3-(4-methylbenzylidene)-camphor (4-MBC); octinoxate/octyl- methoxycinnamate (OMC); homosalate (HMS); and oxybenzone. Instead, choose sunblock with non-nanoized titanium dioxide or zinc oxide.
5. Go organic!
When possible, choose organic foods and hormone-free meat and dairy. Bovine growth hormone (rBGH/rBST)—commonly used in cattle to hasten growth--is suspected to have carcinogenic effects. Studies have shown links between dairy consumption and breast cancer in pre-menopausal women. rBGH has also been shown to raise insulin-like growth factor levels in the body, increasing breast cancer risk. Some pesticides and herbicides that are found on the food we eat have been identified as human carcinogens as well. Buying products grown organically reduces pesticide use, which is good for our families, but also farmworkers and the environment. Win! Win! Win!
6. Avoid the can, man!
BPA (Bisphenol A) is one of the most common chemicals that we are exposed to on a day-to-day basis. It is a building block of plastics and is used in the lining of metal food cans. Research shows BPA exposure has been linked to breast cancer and may interfere with chemotherapy treatment for the disease. Avoid canned foods until companies replace BPA-based can linings with safe alternatives.
7. Just say no to plastic
BPA isn't the only chemical of concern in plastics. Phthalates are considered endocrine disruptors that may also be increasing our breast cancer risk. When choosing kitchenware and water bottles, choose stainless steel and glass. Resist the temptation to microwave in plastic—even "microwave-safe" plastic can leach chemicals into your food when heated.
8. Ditch the Non-stick!
They may make our life easier, but the toxic polyfluorinated chemicals that are in non-stick pans and stain-resistant materials don't make it worth it. Choose stainless steel or cast iron pots and pans. While you are at it, skip the stain-resistant clothes and carpets too.
9. Give your garden some love.
Chemical pesticides are designed to wipe out pests and weeds, so I'm sure it is obvious why that is the last thing I want in my family's food, soil, and water. Common sense, right? And science shares the concern as it relates to breast cancer. Did you know that their residue can lurk around for years, providing ongoing exposure? Inquire about non-toxic alternatives at your local garden store, or look for DIY recipes that use items like vinegar and dish soap to get the job done.
Check out the Breast Cancer Fund to learn the science, get more tips, and take action.
Sarah Kolman is the mom of three boys, a Registered Nurse, an Integrative Nutrition Health Coach, and has a master's degree in Contemplative Psychotherapy. Her private practice as a health coach blends her experience and career as a nurse with her passion for nutrition and holistic wellness. She is the author of Full Plate: Nourishing Your Family's Whole Health in a Busy World.