The stuff we put on our bodies

Yesterday my daughter sent me a link to an article. Researches have established a causal connection between dark hair dyes, chemical hair relaxers and breast cancer. Here’s the link:

Breast cancer and hair products

I started finding grey hairs when I was in my early 20’s and started dyeing my hair shortly after that. Because I was naturally dark brown, I chose to dye it to something close to my natural colour (apart from a scary auburn period during the 80’s, but hey, it was the 80’s!). That’s more than 30 years of what my husband referred to as ‘soaking your head in toxic chemicals’ about every six weeks.

It was at Graham’s suggestion that I stopped colouring it. I also shaved it off to raise money for blood cancers, because this seemed like a great way to break the dying addiction and support a charity. Two years later I lost it all again thanks to chemotherapy.

I’m now naturally grey. To my surprise and delight I get more compliments about my hair than I have at any time in my life. It’s got this great thing going on that looks like I’ve paid a fortune for highlights. I haven’t. It just grew back like this. Meanwhile I see lots of girls in their twenty-somethings colouring their hair grey!

It has always seemed odd to me that we have strict laws about food and very few about cosmetics. We know that the skin is great at absorbing chemicals. That’s why nicotine patches work. It’s why you can now get transdermal patches for all kinds of medical conditions. They allow you to absorb chemicals over a long period of time rather than getting it all at once from an injection or a pill.

So why is don’t we have the same kind of regulations around cosmetics? We are essentially consuming everything we put on our bodies. It turns out that a large number of cosmetic products contain known carcinogens and that even those that don’t contain chemicals with unknown risks to our health. Yuck.

And it’s not just cosmetics we need to be concerned about. It’s everything that comes into contact with our bodies. Take triclosan. You’ll see it listed as an antibacterial ingredient in hand sanitiser, toothpaste, dish washing detergent and liquid soap. Pretty much anything claiming to be ‘antibacterial’ either includes triclosan or has been treated with it, including furniture coverings, bedding and underwear. Triclosan is a hormone disruptor. Here’s an extract from the Wikipedia article about it.

Because of potential health concerns spanning from antimicrobial resistance to endocrine disruption, triclosan has been designated as a “contaminant of emerging concern (CEC)”, meaning it is under investigation for public health risk. “Emerging contaminants” can be broadly defined as any synthetic or naturally occurring chemical or any microorganism that is not commonly monitored in the environment but has the potential to enter the environment and cause known or suspected adverse ecological and(or) human health effects.[34] Triclosan is thought to accumulate in wastewater and return to drinking water, thus propagating a buildup that could cause increasing effects with ongoing use.[35]

In an article from May 2015 on the current status of triclosan, Gurpreet Singh Dhillon and colleagues cite various studies that report “emerging health concerns related to the use of TCS such as microbial resistance, dermal irritations, endocrine disruption, higher incidence of allergies, altered thyroid hormone metabolism and tumors development due to TCS and its by-products”.[36]


Interestingly, it’s still considered safe ‘in small amounts’ but how much is too much? If you’re working in a hospital and sanitising your hands several times a day, wouldn’t you be absorbing a huge amount of triclosan? And here’s the kicker; it doesn’t work as well as soap and water when it comes to cleaning your hands.

Of course this is just one example of one chemical. The list of potentially toxic substances that wind up in our homes is a long one. You can spend a disturbing time googling and reading for more information. This chart is a pretty comprehensive one, but it only has household products, not cosmetics or all personal care products:

Toxic products in the home

If you’d like to really spoil your day then here’s a couple of articles about those:

The 20 most harmful ingredients in beauty products

15 toxic beauty products that most women use anyway

So what to do? Well, educating ourselves is the first step. Know that ‘organic’ is nonsense then it comes to beauty products or household cleaners. It might just mean they’ve included a few organic ingredients with the chemicals. It might mean they’re using the scientific definition of ‘organic’ (hint; everything is organic!) rather than the commercial use which is supposed to indicate that food has been grown or manufactured using only a limited range of approved chemicals (another hint; there is no such thing as ‘chemical free’ because everything is made of chemicals.)

It’s a good idea to read labels and choose products that avoid the known nasties. True, the thing you buy could contain something that gets proven to cause disease next week (or next year, or whenever) but at least you’ll have limited your exposure to things that are known to be bad for you. This might mean having slightly less shiny hair, but you’re worth it.

Know that most liquid things that come in plastic bottles will also be contaminated by the plastic bottle. If you want to go hard core you might consider decanting shampoo and conditioner into glass or ceramic dispensers (most people won’t) and give up liquid soaps and body wash products completely in favour of a bar of soap.

Go natural. Okay, it’s not practical for a lot of women because there’s still this weird expectation that we all look a certain way, a requirement that strangely does not apply to men. If you have to wear makeup, or you love to wear makeup, you might want to avoid cheaper brands, opt for a less ‘made up’ look so that you wear less, and choose things with fewer ingredients and none of the nasties. A simple rule of thumb is to buy things labelled ‘fragrance free’ or ‘sensitive skin’ because they will have less dangerous chemicals than the perfumed varieties.

And finally, have a long hard think about your hair and what you would like to do with it. Now that there’s a clear link between dark hair dye, chemical straighteners and cancer, do you really want to keep putting that stuff on your head. If the answer is ‘yes’ then perhaps consider hunting for safer products and going lighter. Or perhaps it’s time to get a really flattering cut from a great hairdresser using all the money you’re going to save on hair products. There’s an obvious pun here about dying for dyeing but I’m not going there.

If you are a man reading this then please start telling the women in your life how great they look when they haven’t put makeup on their faces. Love them as they are and support their decisions about kicking the dyeing. I read a comment from a woman recently who said her husband tells her to colour her hair so she doesn’t look old. Seriously.

I’m pragmatic about all of this. A ‘chemical free’ home is almost impossible to achieve. If you don’t have tank water then there’s chlorine in your water and it evaporates into your home every time you shower. But you can reduce the toxic load by making smart choices about what you choose to use.

As a final tip, avoid redecorating disease. Lounges, cushions and soft furnishings like mattresses are typically treated with flame retardants that are, you guessed it, highly toxic. Get something with washable covers or just keep the things you already have until they fall apart. You’re probably rolling your eyes at all this. I don’t blame you.

That’s enough about chemicals. I’m off to the garden to put my feet into some healthy dirt. Apparently, there’s something in the soil biome that helps us to avoid depression. It turns out that lots of bacteria are beneficial to human life and that trying to kill them all off with disinfectants, herbicides, fungicides, antibiotics and solvents was a really stupid idea. Imagine.


Should we stop talking about cancer?

This month I celebrated four years since the trip to BreastScreen that found triple negative cancer in my left breast. It’s an important milestone for me. Unlike other forms of breast cancer, the risk of recurrence drops every year I stay cancer free, right up until year five when I’m actually at the same risk as everyone else. It’s about the only positive to triple negative!

I don’t put a lot of things on my Facebook page about cancer. I have a separate page at Positive3negative for that. I separated out the cancer related stuff fairly early on. I realised that some people didn’t want to read about my treatment or my recovery. I think I also wanted to identify the cancer as being something apart from me, a thing that was happening to me and not who I am.

Anniversaries are different. I’m aware that my initial diagnosis prompted a lot of friends to go and get their breasts checked. This is a good thing. Early detection saved my life and in spite of a raft of negative press about mammograms, I’m definitely a fan. It’s true that there have been issues with early detection of DCIS (ductal carcinoma in situ). It’s at the lowest level of breast cancer and some argue it should actually be classified as ‘pre-cancerous’. It’s clear that many of these cases will be healed by the body without any treatment.

Of course, some of them will also go on to develop tumours and a subset of those will metastasise and ultimately kill you. The problem with DCIS is that we don’t know which versions are the self-healing ones and which are potentially fatal. There’s research going on to identify the difference and until they can do that, there will be women having surgery for DCIS that didn’t need it. Personally, I’d rather not need the surgery and have it than need it and not have it. The important thing for all women is to have as much information as possible. Some may choose not to have mammograms, or to have them less often.

In any case, for those that choose to have them, posting something that lets them know another year has gone by is the least I can do. I always get a few friends thanking me for the reminder. This year I also got a message that said:

If you keep that thought in your mind it repeats itself. Let it go and no return, by deed or thought. No one seem to learn the lessons.


It was posted by someone that was once a very close friend. She rarely posts or comments on anything on Facebook. She turned up once at the very beginning of my treatment to tell me to ‘be positive’ and I haven’t seen her since. Not when I needed people to drive me to chemotherapy, not when I could have used some help around the house and not when some company during radiation would have been welcome. She was nowhere to be seen when I had two (now ironically named) breast conserving surgeries and not even a card when I was in hospital for nine days following the surgical removal of both breasts.

I could have been outraged. Fortunately, a friend that has been a true friend through all of this happened, quite coincidentally, to send me this TED talk around the same time:

Forgiveness in the age of anger

It’s worth twenty minutes of your time. There’s a lot of great advice here but the part I really loved was about the way social media seems to be full of outrage. “I can’t believe she said that!” “How could he be so rude!” “What were they thinking!”

The speaker, Brant Hansen, makes the point that our outrage is usually misplaced, particularly when someone is behaving in a manner that is entirely consistent with their past behaviour. “You can’t believe your mother behaved that way? How many years has she been behaving that way? Why can’t you believe it?”

Hansen is the author of a book called ‘Unoffendable’ where he suggests that learning not to be offended by anything can have a profound impact on our lives. I agree. When we can let go of being outraged, accept that human beings consistently behave in ways that are inconsistent with our own values and simply let that stuff go we are much better off.

I asked my ‘friend’ to explain her comment about letting go of cancer. I added this:

How about ‘congratulations on still being here four years after you were told you were probably going to die’. I have managed to defy predictions of my early death. I’m pretty sure I’m going to keep doing everything I have been doing, even if you disagree with it.

Reading that back, it’s possible to interpret that comment as outraged but it seriously wasn’t. Try reading it again in a calm voice and you’ll get my intention. I wanted it to remind this person that the reason I’m celebrating four years since my diagnosis is because I’ve worked hard at staying alive, and part of that process for me has been recognising all of the things that impact my health and taking action. I know that ignoring cancer and pretending nothing happened is an option for some people. It’s just not an option for me. Here’s her response:

That’s great. I just don’t think talking about it all the time is healthy. Let’s just leave it at that. Txting messes with people’s minds. Xx

I’m still not offended. Here’s my take. This person is clearly not comfortable with cancer. There might be some history there or she might just be one of those people that likes to avoid any reminder of her own mortality. She could either ‘unfriend’ me or hide my Facebook comments if she doesn’t want to read the very occasional posts about cancer, or she could just scroll on by, but for some reason she feels compelled to comment.

I can only conclude that it is her world view that the best way to avoid cancer is to not mention it. This makes sense. It’s entirely consistent with her behaviour. It would also explain why she has completely avoided me since my diagnosis.

I don’t routinely mention my medical history to people. In spite of the fact that I am surgically flat chested, most people don’t even notice. I could just look this way naturally. From time to time when it’s appropriate, it will be part of a conversation but usually because someone else has raised it. I get that everyone wants to move on. I do too.

Continuing to write about cancer occasionally, to offer support to the recently diagnosed, to write books about it and to maintain a Facebook page with updates on the latest research might be seen as me trying to remain the centre of attention. It’s true that I have never felt more loved than when I was in treatment. I also never, ever want to have to go through that again! I’m not ‘hanging on to it’. I’m giving back.

I know that the people that had come before me were hugely supportive to me during treatment. Reading about those that had survived triple negative inspired my own survival. There was also lots of practical advice. I’m just paying that forward. It is great to hear from people that are now in the cancer tunnel that they can see the light I’m holding. I got to here and they can too.

To be honest, there’s some self interest here too. I don’t want to forget. There were some life changing lessons in the whole experience. I know that it’s not just my cells that got replaced after chemotherapy. I feel like a completely different person. Perhaps mentioning cancer is a cypher for that; it’s a way of saying ‘You might think you know me but I’ve been through this transformational experience and I’m not that person any more.’

My husband and I shared a table at an event recently. He told the strangers sitting with us that we were celebrating a cancer anniversary. The woman next to him replied ‘At some point that stops being a thing.’ Her husband explained that she’d had breast cancer a decade before. I get it. I think it’s likely that at some point I’ll stop writing about cancer. I don’t think it’s likely that I’ll stop thinking about it and I don’t want to. It reminds me to take good care of myself. It also reminds me to share those reminders with people I love. A timely mammogram might just save a life.

And the person that thinks I should just stop mentioning it? She’s entitled to her own opinion. Hopefully she’ll keep it to herself in future.