Cancer And Cosmetics: An Interview With Rachel Aiello On Switching To Natural Personal Care Products

Junior women’s volleyball student-athlete, Rachel Aiello (’19)

Rachel Aiello’s family has a history of breast cancer, so she was frightened to learn that chemicals in her cosmetics could potentially cause the disease. Her shampoo, conditioner, toothpaste, and deodorant all contained carcinogens.

“I have to get genetic testing done (when I turn 21) to see if I have a particular gene that increases the risk of breast cancer,” she said, being ‘red-flagged’ for the disease after her grandmother was diagnosed at a young age. “If I have the gene, I feel like me using the products isn’t a good idea.”

The link between cancer and cosmetics is murky at best. Long-term studies on their health effects don’t exist, and the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) can’t require companies to test their products for safety. Governments in Canada and the European Union have banned over 1,300 cosmetic ingredients due to safety concerns. The United States has banned just 11.

Consumers in the United States are left to discern for themselves what products are safe to use, which is where my conversation with Aiello begins:

Jon-Ryan Maloney: Where does it seem most relevant to start talking about natural beauty products?

Rachel Aiello: I think it’s so fascinating.

Maloney: Why?

Aiello: I’ve never been into this at all, but one day I was in class and my professor talked about the balance between business profit and business sustainability–that companies need to be profitable but also be concerned about their consumers’ health. I found the horrors that happen (with beauty products) fascinating, and I wanted to stop using certain ones to see how my body can change. I had a skin issue a while back and I couldn’t figure out why. When I started researching what my products contain I realized that a lot of skin irritation was being caused by them and I stopped using them. I was interested to see what else I could do with this knowledge.

Maloney: What were the horror stories you were hearing about in class?

Aiello: One girl in my class has a disease–and I don’t remember exactly what it is–but she had to switch out all the products in her house because the chemicals in them were causing the disease. You don’t realize the long-term effects of what you’re putting on your body. When I started researching the products I use, a lot of the long-term effects were linked to cancer, and my family has a history of breast cancer. Also, a lot of the products have been linked to issues of infertility. I found that really fascinating and I want to find an answer for why these things happen.

Maloney: What have you found so far?

Aiello: The other day I found out that my face wash is a ’10’. I was horrified.

Maloney: What does that mean? A ’10’?

Aiello: I have an app called “Think Dirty” that rates beauty products on a scale from 0-10. Products that get a rating between 0-3 are highlighted in green, meaning the chemicals they use aren’t harmful to your body. I’ve learned that often it’s the fragrance that’s harmful. Companies will write “natural fragrance,” but if they can’t tell you what that fragrance is it’s not natural. Products rated between 4-7 are highlighted in yellow, which isn’t that bad, but those products have an increased chance of doing harm. If it’s a ‘4’ I look in detail at each ingredient to see what’s wrong with it. Sometimes the effect is only for certain populations with certain skin types that I don’t have. And then ratings between 8-10 are highlighted in red, and when I see that I’m like, “Oh my gosh!”, because those will 100% cause harmful effects to you in the long run. They’re products you use every day.

Maloney: Like what?

Aiello: Your shampoos, your conditioners, your lotions, your toothpaste, your deodorant, your cleaning products–things you wouldn’t even think of as being harmful. Remember when I was coming to workouts and my skin was so itchy? Then I would put that fragrant lotion on it and it just made it worse. My skin hasn’t been irritated like that anymore.

Maloney: So what products do you use now?

Aiello: I’m open to all brands and products. I went to Target and spent a lot of time bar-coding all their products to find ones that fit in the ‘0-3’ category and don’t smell awful. There are some that are so horrid-smelling that I cannot use them, so I find fragrance-free ones that I don’t have to worry about. Then I went to T.J. Maxx and scanned everything–I didn’t care about the brand–to see which ones fit in my ‘0-3’ category that smell okay.

Maloney: Are there some products that might not be an organic or natural brand, but are still completely fine?

Aiello: Yes, a lot. My lotion is Aveno, which I wouldn’t expect to be okay, but it’s only a certain fragrance-free one that’s okay–the rest of them are bad. So if you find a brand that’s bad, try a different fragrance and you might get a better result. That happened to me with my Burt’s Bees lotion: the grapefruit fragrance was so bad but the milk and honey one wasn’t. You have to buy certain fragrances.

Maloney: I’m wondering how credible this “Think Dirty” app is.

Aiello: I wonder that too, actually.

Maloney: I’ve never heard of it, so I don’t know.

Aiello: The thing I like about it is that–here, I’ll show you–I can see where the warnings have come from. They can be governmental warnings. I research how much of a difference these products will make, and if it’s that much to stress over. Our regulations here are so much different. Chemicals that are allowed in the United States are banned in other countries.

Maloney: Are there scientists working on this app?

Aiello: I’m not sure, but the girl in my class who had to switch out all of her products recommended it. Since she has a medical issue and she’s using it I trust it. Some of the products need more extensive research.

Maloney: Why are all these chemicals allowed in the United States but not in Europe if we know they have harmful consequences?

Aiello: I have no idea, but a lot of times companies aren’t using a lot of the chemical because there’s a regulation on how much they can use. I haven’t gone into why it’s like that; I just think, “If it’s bad, I’m done.”

Maloney: I like that my Dr. Bronner’s soap is a ‘1’.

Aiello: It’s really nice and surprising when I find something I have that isn’t bad. It’s hard. Shaving cream for women is really hard to find, but I can go on here and look up shaving cream and it will give me a bunch of different (good) options. Some options are a ‘7’, while others are a ‘3’, usually because of the fragrance. I like to look at the health impacts.

Maloney: [Looking as Aiello scrolls through the app] That’s what immediately catches your attention.

Aiello: Yes. Sometimes it uses words I don’t understand, so I Google them. There are a lot of carcinogens in these products.

Maloney: Oh, they have links to a bunch of studies in here.

Aiello: That’s what I was trying to find for you. They link to the research that’s been done about each product.

Maloney: It’s almost a crowdsourced app.

Aiello: You could spend hours looking at it. I always tell people, “Before you get the app, know that this is going to take over you life for a little while. It’s time-consuming and it’s addictive.” I’m concerned about everything that I use now.

Maloney: You could freak yourself out.

Aiello: My sister-in-law said she was freaking herself out way too much and she had to stop.

Maloney: Do you think about food like this too?

Aiello: Food is a whole other ballgame. I feel like food is really hard to control. It’s easy when it’s in your home but not when you go out to eat–you don’t even know what they’re using. So I feel like the products that I use on my body are easier for me to control than the food. I feel like that’s even harder, and would take more consumption in my life to do. Maybe I will after I get this down.

Maloney: I think it’s interesting that you can find things that aren’t labeled “natural” or “organic” and still be fine.

Aiello: Things that are labeled “natural” usually aren’t natural. There’s just enough in it to say that it is, but it’s truly not.

Maloney: How do you think about this in your own life as a future businesswoman?

Aiello: My roommate and I are both business majors and we were like, “It would be amazing to bring this to the market as a store.” You can buy products on the app from affiliates, but I don’t like buying stuff online because I don’t actually get to smell it and see what it’s like. So then I go to the store, but it’s hard in the stores because you’re going through tons of aisles and brands. So we said, “It would be so cool if we had a store of products that we’ve found over time that are good and we only carry those.”


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