Reduce your risk

Chemicals and the environment

Chemicals and the environment

Why chemicals and the environment matter

Many chemicals in everyday products and the environment affect your risk of breast cancer.

This is due to the growing mix of chemicals you encounter over time, not from any single use of a particular chemical.

Chemicals that affect your risk of breast cancer add to the growing levels of chemicals your body has to deal with.  This is called our body burden.

Lowering your body burden will help you

  • reduce your risk of breast cancer
  • live a less toxic healthier life
  • better protect the long-term health of people, wildlife, and the environment

Types of chemicals and breast cancer risk

Some types of chemicals are linked to breast cancer by the effects they have on the system that manages hormones in your body – the endocrine system.  For this reason, they are called Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals (EDCs).

EDCs are used in everyday products such as cosmetics, cleaning sprays, packaging, fabrics, and the food chain and last for a very long time in the environment.

However, the harmful effects of EDCs are not as well understood as chemical carcinogens in tobacco, for example, so the risks from EDCs are more hidden, and more research and better public protections against them are needed.

EDCs that affect the natural hormone oestrogen are the most likely to increase breast cancer risk and the ones you should most try to avoid.

Remember it is the combined effect of EDCs over your lifetime and in the environment, not any single use of any one of them that affects breast cancer risk. So make it a healthy habit to always avoid EDCs.

What you can do

Avoid EDCs as part of an overall healthier lifestyle to help reduce your risk of breast cancer and the chemical burden on your body and the environment.

 

Try our tips for avoiding EDCs

Cosmetics and beauty products  What you can do

Cosmetics and beauty products 

In cosmetics, endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) are often used to prolong shelf life. They’re also used as fragrances or solvents. Many don’t add to the effectiveness of the product. EDCs can be found in a wide range of cosmetics including:

    • Shampoos and hair care products
    • Face creams
    • Makeup
    • Shower gels

 

What you can do

Be aware of what you’re buying.  Don’t presume labels such as ‘Natural’, ‘Chemical-free’ or ‘Green’ are free from endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs). Whenever possible try to:

  • Check ingredients lists on product labels against our list of Chemicals of concern in cosmetics.
  • See and share our Ditch the Junk leaflet on chemicals in cosmetics
  • Use fewer products, less often.
  • Use fragrance-free products or those which don’t contain “Parfum” or “Perfume”. These very often contain EDCs.
  • Buy organic beauty products as these are less likely to include ingredients on our list.
  • Buy products free from parabens and phthalates or check they are absent from the ingredients list.  
  • Make your own  you can make your own cosmetics using readily available natural ingredients such as coconut oil, shea butter, lemon, olive oil, and oats.  Check out some of our recipe videos on our youtube channel.
Cleaning products   What you can do

Cleaning products  

Some household cleaning products contain EDCs which may be linked to breast cancer. These can be anything from detergents to cleaning sprays. Using these products could increase your exposure to EDCs, either by inhaling them, or getting them on your skin.

Look to avoid products containing them and be aware of what ingredients normal household products contain.

What you can do

  • Use fewer cleaning products in smaller amounts and less often.  Regular cleaning with hot soap and water is normally enough for good household hygiene.
  • Avoid household products with antimicrobial compounds such as triclosan or triclocarban.
  • Clean your home frequently to reduce the build-up of dust, which may contain chemicals from other sources.
  • Vacuum and damp dust regularly and avoid using chemical sprays to remove household dust.
  • Check labels and choose products less likely to contain harmful chemicals on our A to Z Chemicals of Concern list.
  • Choose products with official organic accreditation from organisations such as the Soil Association, which are more likely to be EDC-free.
  • Choose fragrance-free or naturally fragranced products such as essential oils and products without synthetic fragrances containing for example phthalates or synthetic musks such as tonalide.
  • Make your own Many websites have suggestions on how to make your own cleaning products. Many common store-cupboard ingredients can be used alone, or in combination, for a range of household applications. Most cleaning projects can be tackled with nothing more than vinegar, baking soda, soap, and water.
Household items What you can do

Household items

Your home may be a source of many potentially harmful chemicals, from flame retardants in your furniture or carpets to non-stick compounds and plasticisers in the plastic cookware you use in the kitchen.

Flame retardants

These are chemicals used in consumer and industrial products to help prevent fires from starting or to delay their spread. Some flame retardants pose a risk to human health. They include brominated flame retardants (BFRs), chlorinated flame retardants, and organophosphorus flame retardants. Compared to the rest of the EU, the UK has the highest recorded levels of flame retardants in human body fluids and breast milk. Flame retardants can often be found in:

  • Electronics such as circuit boards, computers, and TVs.
  • Furniture and furnishings such as furniture foam, mattresses, wood, and carpets.
  • Clothing including children’s clothing, sportswear, and outdoor clothing.
  • Building materials including cable coatings, and insulation cladding.
  • Vehicles including car seats, interiors, and bumper bars.
  • Firefighting foam often includes certain types of PFAS (poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances).

See our science brief for more

Non-stick, stain, and water-repellent products

PFAS are chemicals used in non-stick cookware (like Teflon), in food packaging, and as stain repellents in carpets and textiles. Certain PFAS are classified as “possibly carcinogenic” by the International Agency for Cancer Research and have been linked to many other health problems.

Plastics

Not all plastics contain potentially harmful chemicals, however, some contain EDCs. They may be used in plastics production, or as plasticisers which are added later to make plastics soft. Examples include BPA and other bisphenols such as BPS – used to make polycarbonate plastic, resins that line metal cans, CDs, and thermal till receipts; and phthalates – used as plasticisers in PVC.

What you can do

Flame retardants and PFAS

  • Avoid products with brominated, organophosphorus or chlorinated flame retardants. These are commonly found in new furniture, carpets, and other soft furnishings.
  • Choose less-flammable materials such as wool and cotton for home furnishings. These are less likely to contain harmful flame retardants.
  • Skip optional stain-repellent treatment on new carpets and furniture, which may include PFAS. If possible, opt for natural floor coverings such as wood, cork or ceramic tiles that contain fewer harmful chemicals.
  • Avoid buying plywood furniture as it may contain formaldehyde, a carcinogen.
  • Air all newly-bought furniture.

Plastic containers and cookware

  • Choose plastics labelled recycling code 2, 4, or 5and avoid plastic containers labelled recycling code 7 or 3. These may contain BPA or other bisphenols. They may release potentially harmful phthalates or vinyl chloride into food or drink. Better still, use stainless steel bottles.
  • Don’t allow PET bottles to get warm for long periods as they may release antimony (a metalloestrogen).  These can be identified as recycling code 1.
  • Avoid storing food in plastic containers, or using cling film. Use glass, ceramic, or stainless steel for food and drinks storage and microwaving.
  • Microwave food in ceramics or ovenproof glass dishes and use ceramic or glass lids to cover your food when you heat it, instead of cling film.
  • Opt for wooden or metal (not plastic) eating and cooking utensils.
  • Use food-grade stainless steel boxes for packed lunches and bottles for drinking.
  • Avoid cookware that is coated in a non-stick coating, such as Teflon (a type of PFAS which are EDCs). Use stainless steel and cast iron cookware instead.

Clothing

  • Avoid treated clothing if you can. Those treated with anti-bacterial compounds, non-stick coatings, or flame retardants could contain harmful chemicals. And children are especially vulnerable. 
  • Source organic cotton if possible. It’s likely to contain fewer harmful chemicals such as pesticides.
Air pollution What you can do

Air pollution

There is increasing evidence that exposure to high levels of polluted air may increase breast cancer risk.

Early exposures during pregnancy, infancy, and teenage years may be especially harmful. Sources of outdoor air pollution include road traffic, industry, and farming activities.

Small particles from building fibres, biological contaminants, and chemical contaminants from tobacco smoke, household items, and cleaning products may all contribute to polluted indoor air.

Read our science brief for more

What you can do

Reduce your exposure to air pollution by cutting down on your use of pesticides and cleaning products that contain harmful ingredients.

  • Avoid the use of garden pesticides which often contain harmful ingredients that may be EDCs. Use organic solutions if possible. Read our organic gardening tips blog for some suggestions.
  • Limit outdoor physical exertion on high air pollution days or near sources of heavy air pollution.
  • Don’t smoke indoors – better still give up entirely.
  • Always work in a well-vented environment.
  • Vacuum regularly and keep your home aired and dusted to help remove pollutants from inside your home.
  • Avoid synthetic fragrances, scented candles, air fresheners, and perfumed cleaning products as some contain EDCs that can have an impact on your health. Use house plants as natural air detoxifiers, and fresh flowers or herbs for scent.
  • Avoid new carpets or furniture that contain harmful chemicals. These include biocides, waterproof sprays, and organic flame retardants (see our Household Items tips above).
  • Properly maintain appliances such as boilers, stoves, and fires that burn fuel of any kind.
  • Choose less-flammable materials. These include wool and cotton for home furnishings which are unlikely to contain and release flame retardants.
  • Avoid synthetic fragrances. These may be used in air fresheners and other sprays.
Pesticides What you can do More information on pesticides

Pesticides

Studies have shown that exposure to certain banned pesticides increases the risk of breast cancer.

Pesticides currently in use, such as glyphosate (a weed killer) and malathion (used to kill insects), may also increase breast cancer risk, although more studies are needed to confirm this.

Pesticides can act as breast carcinogens, interfere with the development of mammary glands and make us more susceptible to breast cancer, or interfere with oestrogen.

Eating organic food reduces pesticide exposure.

What you can do

  1. Buy organic fruit and vegetables as often as you can. They are largely pesticide-free and widely available. To identify fruit and vegetables grown organically, look for these logos:

2. Grow your own produce. If you have a garden, try growing your own vegetables and fruit. Herbs can be grown on a window sill in small pots too.

3. Wash and/or brush fruit and vegetables well, to help remove pesticide residue.

4. Know which fruits and vegetables are exposed to the highest levels of pesticides. Check out the Dirty Dozen – lists of fruit and vegetables with the most pesticide residues.

5. The best method of pest control in the garden is to keep your plants healthy so they don’t attract bugs. Homemade pesticides are a safe choice and can be made from inexpensive ingredients that most people have in their homes. 

More information on pesticides and breast cancer

Look at our key fact sheet for more

Read our more detailed scientific brief for information on pesticides and breast cancer risk.

Chemicals to avoid

 

Further information

Watch our webinar series  – Breast Cancer Risk and Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals

Warning: YouTube may contain ads or third-party material not endorsed by Breast Cancer UK

Chemicals iGuide

Read our science brief on breast cancer risks.

Help us ban EDCs, and sign our pledge to ban EDCs.

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As desperate as we are to understand the causes of breast cancer, we firmly believe that this can be done without harm to animals. Please donate today to help our scientists undertake world-class research. Thank you.