Is your beauty regime damaging your health?

Ladies: think twice before you powder your undercarriage. In the International Journal of Cancer last month, a study of 3,000 women reported that those who regularly talced their underwear had a 17% higher risk of ovarian cancer than those who did not. (Ovarian cancer kills more than 4,000 women a year.) This follows a number of studies that have made a similar link, including an extensive one a few years back, which suggested that such use of talc might increase the risk of ovarian cancer by 33% (from a baseline risk of 2% over a lifetime).

And talc isn't the only commonly used product to have aroused suspicion recently. Just last week it was reported that new research funded by the British breast cancer charity Genesis suggests a potential link between aluminium in antiperspirants and breast cancer. Aluminium salts are widely used in antiperspirants, as they are highly effective in sweat prevention. A small-scale study carried out by Dr Chris Exley of Keele University found that - of breast tissue taken from 17 patients who had had mastectomies - "all had higher concentrations [of aluminium] in the breast tissue closest to the underarm". Exley went on to explain that he doesn't actually know that "that aluminium originated from antiperspirant, but one can put two and two together and make a guess on that ... Aluminium is known to cause cancer in animal models. We need to make sure aluminium in antiperspirants isn't contributing to breast cancer".

Studies such as these seem to crop up almost weekly, raising a host of questions regarding our beauty and upkeep regimes. Is all our primping and preening really damaging us? We have become adept at reading food labels, but close scrutiny of the ingredients in our toiletries and cosmetics (which companies are required to list in full) is far less common. Hardly surprising. Scan the label on any number of products and the profusion of unpronounceable chemical names can quickly make the eyes glaze over.

Considering the number of beauty products that many of us now use, paying more attention would seem worthwhile. Earlier this year it was reported that each of us can expect to absorb 4lb 6oz of chemicals through our skin each year. On average, women apparently use 12 makeup and skincare products every day, a combination that can contain as many as 175 different chemicals. The average man uses fewer but, in these image-conscious times, is fast catching up.

For some years now, the British organisation the Women's Environmental Network (WEN) has been calling attention to the dangers it suspects are lurking in our cosmetics. Liz Sutton, the network's communications coordinator, specifically highlights parabens (also known as alkyl parahydroxy benzoates), as a source of potential concern. Used as preservatives in a wide range of cosmetic products, parabens have been linked to dermatitis and allergies, and, Sutton says, are also "linked to hormone disruption" - specifically as oestrogen mimics, which some fear might contribute to the development of breast cancer.

Another group of compounds that concerns WEN are the plasticisers known as phthalates, which are used in many cosmetic products to give them a smooth texture and durability. "There is a growing body of evidence that these are a threat to fertility and reproductive health," says Sutton, "and we don't believe that chemicals that are any kind of threat to fertility - whether the case is absolutely proven or not - should be in personal-care products."

Potential dangers also lurk elsewhere. In June, the Trading Standards Institute reported that 18 out of 20 teeth-whitening kits that it had tested (bought over the counter or the internet) contained illegal levels of hydrogen peroxide. High levels of bleach cause chemical burns to the mouth, and could also exacerbate gum disease and cause heightened sensitivity in teeth.

This was followed by a report in the New York Times that US environmental organisations are concerned about the health of the country's 300,000 nail salon workers and their children. A study by researchers at the University of Toronto found that children whose mothers had been working in nail salons during pregnancy performed poorly in tests for cognitive function, attention and language. Three chemicals commonly used in nail salons - toluene, formaldehyde and dibutyl phthalate - have all been linked to cancer and birth defects. (One of the leading suppliers to nail salons, OPI Products, last year announced it was removing dibutyl phthalate from products, and this year it will phase out using toluene.)

While numerous studies prompt concern about many of our cosmetic products, conclusive proof is often elusive. In fact, the recent worries raised about antiperspirants have been strongly rebutted by respected bodies including Cancer Research UK (CR-UK). As Ed Yong, CR-UK's health information officer, tells me, "the recent finding that 17 women with breast cancer had aluminium in their breasts does not in any way demonstrate that aluminium in antiperspirants can cause breast cancer. The researchers didn't compare the levels they found to those in other parts of the body, or in the breasts or bodies of women without cancer. If you look at all the research so far, there really isn't any compelling evidence to support this link."

The claims regarding aluminium aren't the first allegations to have been made against antiperspirants and deodorants. "It started off with absolute nonsense about antiperspirants blocking your pores," says Dr Christopher Flower, director general of The Cosmetic Toiletry and Perfumery Association, "and the suggestion that you could therefore build up a backlog of toxins. That is nonsense . . . Now, suddenly, we get: well, it must be the aluminium. What we do know is that 99.99% of what you apply is not absorbed into the skin, and that you get 50 times more aluminium into your body from food and drink."

Flower continues: "when it comes to parabens, the most commonly used ones - methyl and ethyl parabens - have no oestrogen-mimicking qualities at all. The others are able to mimic oestrogen, but their potency is vanishingly weak. They're far weaker than soya - so if you're happy to drink soya milk, you certainly shouldn't worry about parabens. There were a number of phthalates that were thought to have the potential to harm unborn children. They have been banned."

Flower is equally direct in denying the claims made against talc, but Yong is much more equivocal. Yong notes that "the evidence linking talcum powder and ovarian cancer is strong," buts adds that, "it is still inconsistent. Even if talcum powder is confirmed to increase the risk of ovarian cancer, its effect is very small and doesn't seem to increase the more talcum powder you use. Until larger studies are done, women who are concerned about talcum powder should consider avoiding it or using cornstarch-based powders instead."

There are some talc-free powders on the market - Crabtree & Evelyn Talc-Free Body Powder and Burt's Bees Dusting Powder - and a number of websites that specialise in parabens-free products, including mypure.co.uk and lovelula.com. And what of people who are worried about all the other toiletries cluttering up their bathroom cupboard? Sutton suggests that we should endeavour to become much more savvy shoppers. "If you use perfume - which can contain between 50 and 100 ingredients - just use it occasionally, don't spray it all over every day, because you actually become sort of immune to it if you do, and tend to use more and more. If you've got a favourite product and you're concerned about some of the ingredients, write to the manufacturers expressing your concerns, because they do respond to consumer feedback." And her final suggestion? "Think about the products that you use and try to work out: do I actually need them all?"

Thanks to guardian.co.uk who have provided this article. View the original here.