Scam Alert! Are You Being Pinkwashed?

October 24, 2013

Ingredients in products touting pink ribbons could actuallly be linked to cancer.

Chances are you've stumbled upon lots of pink ribbons during the past few weeks, lots of them worn by well-meaning men and women who have been touched by breast cancer in some way. Today, nearly 300,000 women will be diagnosed with the disease annually in the U.S. But not all pink ribbons are rooted in sincerity, and many corporate pink ribbon campaigns could appropriately be called pinkwashing—promoting a cure for breast cancer while the company behind them engages in practices that may in fact be contributing to rising rates of the disease.


Welcome to October, Breast Cancer Awareness Month, where everything from fried chicken and potato chips to lipstick, pink vodka, candy, and perfume bears the ubiquitous pink symbol. Even the White House fell under pink lighting at the end of October.

The problem? U.S. lawmakers and industry aren't doing nearly enough when it comes to what is arguably the most important tactic for conquering breast cancer—stopping it before it starts.

Perhaps it should be no surprise that pink ribbons are getting a bad rap. In fact, the whole concept of pink ribbons was born out of a major conflict of interest. Breast Cancer Awareness Month is a slick public relations campaign designed by Imperial Chemicals Industries, now part of the drug maker AstraZeneca, a corporation that sells both carcinogenic pesticides and drugs used to treat cancer, according to the nonprofit Breast Cancer Action.

In a recent pinkwashing exposé by The Investigative Fund, writer Eric Wuestewald pointed out how companies like Estée Lauder, Bumble and Bumble, Aveda, and Clinique, among others, united for a "We're Stronger Together" pamphlet advertising 15 beauty brands that are devoted to defeating breast cancer. Interestingly, those companies have a long history of using toxic ingredients that are in fact linked to breast cancer.

As scientists continue to find that what we eat, drink, and put on our skin affects our health, many pink ribbon companies are still using harmful chemicals that could increase a women's breast cancer risk. Parabens, fake fragrances, and isobutene, a propellant used in many gels and hairsprays and shaving cream all have ties to breast cancer.

Read More: 11 Unsettling Breast Cancer Facts

For years, the The Breast Cancer Fund has fought for true breast cancer prevention—not just early detection of the disease but actually stopping cancer before it invades the body. The group focuses on getting toxic chemicals out of everyday products, and in the past it's been critical of companies like Avon. This year, the group is setting its sights on Revlon for "steadfastly hanging on to toxic chemicals in their cosmetics while raising awareness about breast and other women's cancers," a spokeswoman said.

Its Does Revlon Care campaign is urging the company to get the following toxic compounds out of its products, including:

Butylated compounds (BHA, BHT): Found in hair dyes and lip gloss; linked to cancer

Quaternium-15 and other formaldehyde-releasing chemicals: Found in mascaras, pressed powders, and eyeliner; linked to cancer

Parabens: Found in eyeliners and hair dyes; an endocrine disruptor linked to cancer

Octinoxate: Found in foundation makeup; an endocrine disruptor linked to thyroid disorders

Resorcinol: Found in hair dye; an endocrine disruptor and allergen

p-Phenylenediamine: Found in hair dye; a respiratory toxicant

Carbon black: Found in eyeliners; linked to cancer.

There are other ways pinkwashing is invading the marketplace. Here are top pinkwashing practices companies are guilty of, according to The Breast Cancer Fund. They:

• Sponsor breast cancer walks and events while using toxic chemicals linked to breast cancer.

• Sponsor breast cancer walks and events by taking money from companies that use toxic chemicals linked to breast cancer.

• Put pink ribbons on products while refusing to remove toxic chemicals they contain that are linked to breast cancer.

• Put pink ribbons on products without dedicating all sales to breast cancer causes.

Here's how to push for safer products:

• Demand better laws. Tell your federal representative to support The Safe Cosmetics and Personal Care Products Act. You can also sign Breast Cancer Action's petition demanding stronger chemical reform.

• Find safer products. To rate the safety of your current personal care products—and to find safer alternatives—check out Environmental Working Group's Skin Deep Cosmetics Database. And in general, get in the habit of using fewer products on your body and around the home. Cutting out artificial fragrances in products you use every day like personal care products, air fresheners, laundry detergents, cleaners, and scented candles is one way to strip out unnecessary chemicals from your life. Read labels and look for the terms "fragrance" or "parfum" to avoid them.

• Clean greener. Cleaning product companies don't have to list ingredients on the label. To know what you're actually using, use these green cleaner recipes.

• Ditch plastic and BPA. Many plastics contain hormone-mimicking compounds, ones that often leach more readily when heated in microwaves or in dishwashers. Ditch plastic for food and opt for glass, ceramic, and food-grade stainless steel. Bisphenol A, or BPA, has been linked to breast cancer, and it's found in most canned food and drink containers. Opt for fresh or frozen foods and say no to trivial receipts—many are printed on BPA-laced paper.