Not Just a Pretty Face

The beauty industry is campaigning to eradicate breast cancer while including chemicals in beauty products that may be contributing to the rise of the disease.


| April 2013


Lead in lipstick? 1,4 dioxane in baby soap? Coal tar in shampoo? How is this possible? Simple. The $35 billion cosmetics industry is so powerful that they've kept themselves unregulated for decades. Not one cosmetic product has to be approved by the US Food and Drug Administration before hitting the market. Not Just a Pretty Face (New Society Publishers, 2007) author, Stacy Malkan, delves deeply into the dark side of the beauty industry, and looks to hopeful solutions for a healthier future. This scathing investigation peels away less-than-lovely layers to expose an industry in dire need of an extreme makeover. 

Pinkwashing: a term used to describe the activities of companies and groups that position themselves as leaders in the struggle to eradicate breast cancer while engaging in practices that may be contributing to rising rates of the disease.  

The bald woman in the pink T-shirt looks wistfully off into the distance in the ad in Yoga Journal. She is standing in a sea of pink hats and hopeful faces. We can live without our hair, the caption says. We can  live without our breasts. We cannot live without our hope for a cure. I feel the anguish of this woman, recalling images that will never leave me: my grandmother doubled over on the chair with blood leaking from the bandage where her breast used to be; my terror when I first brushed across the lump in my own breast. I want to hug this bald woman in the ad and cry with her. But I also want to shout: We should not have to live without our hair! We should not have to live without our breasts! Why is this happening? 

In just my lifetime, the risk of getting breast cancer for women living in the United States increased dramatically. More American women have died of breast cancer in the last 20 years than the number of Americans killed in World War I,World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War combined. Once a disease almost exclusive to postmenopausal women, breast cancer now strikes women in their 20s and 30s—especially young African-American women — and it is the second leading cause of death (after heart disease) in American women ages 25–54. What’s going on?

More than half of all breast cancer cases can’t be explained by any of the known risk factors, such as genetics, diet or reproductive history. Growing evidence indicates that the explanation lies in the environment around us: in the carcinogens and hormone-disrupting chemicals women are routinely exposed to throughout our lives. The patterns of breast cancer indicate the importance of environmental factors. Breast cancer rates are much higher in industrialized countries, such as North America and northern Europe, than in developing countries. People who move to industrialized countries from countries with lower breast cancer rates soon develop the higher rates of their new country.

The increase in breast cancer also parallels the proliferation of man-made chemicals since World War II. Many of these chemicals persist in the environment, accumulate in body fat and can remain in breast tissue for decades. Some have been shown to induce mammary tumors in animals, while others disrupt the delicate hormonal balance in the body. “Compelling scientific evidence points to some of the 100,000 synthetic chemicals in use today as contributing to the development of breast cancer, either by altering hormone function or gene expression,” according to State of the Evidence 2006: What Is the Connection between the  Environment and Breast Cancer?, a report that summarizes more than 350 studies on the environmental links to breast cancer. The report, published by the Breast Cancer Fund and Breast Cancer Action and peerreviewed by leading scientists, also identifies radiation exposure, such as nuclear radiation and X-rays, as the “longest-established environmental cause of breast cancer.”