Sun Creams , Breast Cancer and Children

With the launch of our recent organic high SPF 30 & 50 sun creams my attention was drawn to a study in Denmark commissioned by the EU. The study discussed the exposure of two year olds to chemical substances in consumer products such as rubber clogs, sun creams and moisturising lotions.

A few exposures to a high content of an endocrine-disruptor, such as that of [the phthalate] DBP in rubber clogs may result in a critical risk for the two-year-old.”

“…The amounts that two-year-olds absorb from the [preservative] parabens propylparaben and butylparaben can constitute a risk for oestrogen-like disruptions of the endocrine system. This contribution originates predominantly from cosmetic products such as oil-based creams, moisturising creams, lotions and sunscreen.”

“Not only is there a need to reduce exposure to anti-androgens and oestrogen-like substances from food products, indoor air and dust, but also to reduce exposure to [domestic] products, as these contribute to both indoor air and dust and to direct exposure.”

“There is also a need to reduce possible contributions from other sources, such as propyl-, butyl- and isobutyl paraben in cosmetics, and phthalates in footwear (such as light-weight sandals and rubber boots).”

Professor Andreas Kortenkamp, Head of Toxicology at The School of Pharmacy in London also discusses the growing concerns about chemicals with hormonal activity. In his report he states:

“There is convincing evidence that natural and synthetic oestrogens play a role in breast cancer. This has led to renewed concerns about chemicals with hormonal activities found in food , personal care products or as environmental contaminants. These substances include organochloride pesticides such as DDT, polychlorinated biphenyls, polychlorinated dioxins, plasticizers, UV filter agents in sun creams, widely used preservatives and antioxidants such as parabens. Many of these agents were shown to behave like the female sex hormone oestradiol although much higher concentrations are usually required to show effects of similar strength. However their high persistence combined with their widespread presence in human tissue adds to fears regarding their potential role in the development of breast cancer. It appears plausible to suspect that these compounds too would be contributors to breast cancer risks just like pharmaceutical oestrogens………..

Evidence emerging from recent research shows that two important issues must be fully addressed to avoid wrongly dismissing a role of chemicals in breast cancer. First, studies have largely focused on a single chemical but have ignored the large number of agents that occur together in women’s tissues and therefore act in concert to contribute to breast cancer risks.

Second, to understand the role of chemicals in breast cancer, exposure during critical windows of vulnerability including development in the womb must be captured. Studies that only examine at the time of breast cancer diagnosis run the risk of overlooking disease causing factors.

Breast cancer and the pollutant “cocktail effect”

Chemicals such as o,p’-DDT, p,p’-DDE and PCBs do not act in isolation in a woman’s body, but in concert with natural oestrogens and a large number of other hormonally active chemicals and carcinogens. These include: chemicals released during the preparation of food (for example, during the grilling of meat); a growing plethora of man-made chemicals found as environmental pollutants (dioxins, certain PCBs and pesticides); those used in cosmetics (such as antioxidants, UV-filter agents, and some synthetic fragrances); those that leach from plastics (for example bisphenol A, nonyl phenol); and plant-derived oestrogens in certain foods.

The hormonal strength of many of these chemicals is considerably lower than that of natural or pharmaceutical oestrogens. Nevertheless, laboratory experiments have shown that a sufficient number of such chemicals can significantly enhance the effects of natural oestrogens, even when they are present at levels that individually do not produce measurable effects. There is now good evidence that combined exposure to hormonally active chemicals can produce additive effects at low doses. Whether the individual doses are effective on their own, is not the key determinant. What also drives the likelihood of mixture effects is the sheer number of chemicals present in a “pollution cocktail”. Thus, in principle, combination effects will result from toxicants at or even below threshold doses, provided sufficiently large numbers of components sum up to a suitably high dose. Whether such “cocktail effects” are likely to arise in reality, depends on the nature of hormonally active chemicals, and their number. At present, information about these factors is patchy, but indications are that scores of chemicals may be involved . The recent advances in our knowledge about determinants of mixture effects highlight that the focus of the previous human studies of the effects of chemicals on breast cancer was wrong. Instead of concentrating on a few, arbitrarily selected substances, the entirety of hormonally active chemicals must be considered.

A recent study among Spanish women suggests that cumulative exposure to hormonally active substances is significant. Breast cancer risk was associated with the body burden of lipophylic organohalogen oestrogenic chemicals, excluding the natural hormones. This is the first evidence that chemicals in our environment, with oestrogenic properties that are ‘accidental’, and not just natural hormones or pharmaceutical oestrogens may contribute to the development of breast cancer. Similar epidemiological studies should be repeated in other countries.

Breast cancer and exposure during periods of increased vulnerability

There are periods in a woman’s life when the breast is particularly vulnerable to cancer-causing influences. One such period is puberty, when the breast experiences the first significant growth phase of the ductal system, the other is during development in the womb, when the breast tissue is laid down.


The increased sensitivity of the breast tissue at this time of life was first noticed in the aftermath of the atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As a result of the massive levels of radioactivity, breast cancer in Japanese women increased significantly, but only in women who were exposed during puberty or at an even younger age. Older women experienced far less pronounced breast cancer risks .

The importance of exposure to chemicals before or during puberty was very recently highlighted in a US study of breast cancer and DDT exposure at a young age. Previous investigations of a link between DDT and breast cancer have looked at exposures later in life, when the breast tissue is less vulnerable. However, it could be shown49 that in women born after 1931, high levels of p,p’-DDT were associated with a 5-fold increased breast cancer risk. When DDT came into widespread use, these women were under 14 years of age, and mostly under 20 when DDT use in the USA peaked. Many women exposed to DDT in puberty have not yet reached the age of 50, when breast cancer becomes more common.

Development in the womb

Another key period is during development in the womb, when the origins of the mammary gland ductal system are laid down. Elevated levels of natural oestrogens during this critical time are associated with increased breast cancer risks of daughters later in life.

The recent demonstration of elevated breast cancer risks in the daughters of women who took diethylstilboestrol (DES) to avoid miscarriages shows that synthetic oestrogens can have similar effects. The risk is expected to grow further as these “DES daughters” reach menopausal age. It is thought that DES exposure of the developing foetus in the womb may have promoted the growth of ductal end buds, thereby enlarging the number of cells from which cancer can develop later in life.”

I have always been a firm believer in informed choice and whilst we have no choices in the air we breath or some of the chemicals we are exposed to – sun cream and personal care is certainly an area we have complete control over.

One Response to “Sun Creams , Breast Cancer and Children”

Beth Kay says:

Yes the chemicals used in suncreams are worring I stick to the organic versions like lavera – their family sun spray is fantastic and smooths in well. Good articles thanks for the info.
Beth –

Leave a Reply