Chemicals and Toxins in Familiar Household Products

Some of the products that are used in the home, workplace, and many other places are said to be linked to the development of breast cancer and potentially other cancers. The association between sun exposure and skin cancer is well documented in medical literature, however, the relationship between common household products and development of cancer is less clear.

Cancer development is a complex matter, but the leading theory is that it is caused by the interplay of inherited genetic risk and the environment, which is largely a reflection of one’s lifestyle. Lifestyle is simply defined as the choices one makes concerning the manner in which they live and may involve voluntary or involuntary exposure to potentially harmful substances. In developed countries especially, it is very possible that exposure to certain chemicals in household products and even food, may contribute to the development of breast cancer. Several studies seem to agree.

Smoking and Exposure to Second-Hand Smoke

Cigarette smoke, either by smoking a cigarette or inhaling second-hand smoke, is directly related to the development of lung cancer, and many other cancers for that matter. The chemicals that are used to add flavor to cigarette tobacco are often carcinogenic or cancer-causing chemicals. Many of them can cause damage to the skin upon contact, and much more damage to the body when they are inhaled directly into the lungs. When you breathe, you draw in the air that is around you and it enters your lungs. Air is largely a combination of oxygen, nitrogen, and argon but can contain a vast array of other substances in the environment at various levels, including chemicals. When air enters your lungs, the contents within it are absorbed into the blood stream, which is how we get oxygen into our blood that is vital for life. When you smoke or are exposed to second-hand smoke, these carcinogenic chemicals and toxins are absorbed into your blood stream and are allowed to freely circulate through your body. By this mechanism, smoking is directly related to lung cancer and is indirectly related to almost every other known type of cancer. Breast cancer is no exception.

Research has been performed to determine if women who smoke or are exposed to second-hand smoke are more likely to develop breast cancer than their age-matched counterparts. A group of 116,544 women without a known diagnosis of breast cancer were divided into three categories. These were current smokers, passive smokers, which are those that previously smoked or were exposed to a large amount of second-hand smoke, and non-smokers who had never smoked but were rarely exposed to second-hand smoke. The study took place over five years, after which 2005 women were diagnosed with breast cancer. The vast majority of those diagnosed were in the current smoker category. Non-smokers that reported some exposure to second-hand smoke did not have a higher risk of developing breast cancer than non-smokers that had little to no exposure. The smokers that were found to be at the highest risk started smoking at a young age and had a high pack-year history, defined as the number of packs smoked per day multiplied by the number of years smoked. The genetic risk for developing breast cancer was the same across all categories and had no relationship to the amount of smoke a woman was exposed to.1

Hair and Beauty Products

Many women do not realize the potential risk of chemicals and toxins that are used in several of their hair products, beauty products and cosmetics. Fortunately, most studies find no direct relationship between the majority of these products and the development of breast cancer. They did, however, find that there may be an association with hematopoietic cancers, or cancers of the blood.2

Some hair products, particularly those used by African American females may contain estrogens or placental hormones. Over time, exposure to these can increase the risk of breast cancer development in adults or premature puberty in young girls, which is a known risk factor for breast cancer development. Estrogen promotes the growth and strength of hair and nails, which is why it used in these kinds of products. This is also the reason that menopause, and drastically reduced levels of estrogen cause hair thinning and hair loss.3

Antiperspirant use has also been erroneously linked to an increased risk of developing breast cancer. Studies show that the use of antiperspirants does not increase one’s risk of developing breast cancer.4

Household Cleaning Products

Many of the studies about chemicals in household cleaning products and their association with cancer were conducted with women that worked in industrial environments. One study of over 2,000 pre and postmenopausal women found that there was an association with the chemicals a woman was exposed to at work and development of breast cancer. 5 The risk of breast cancer was highest in those premenopausal women that worked as:

  • Electronic data processors
  • Hairdressers
  • Factory workers in a materials processing or chemical processing industry
  • A public transportation worker

In post-menopausal women, the highest risk for cancer development was in those who worked as:

  • School teachers
  • Nurses, doctors or other healthcare workers
  • Launderers or in dry cleaning
  • Factory workers in auto or aircraft factories

Other high risk occupations included farming, publishing, printing and mechanics. Research suggests that the increased risk was a result of exposure to chemicals, industrial solvents and pesticides.

When using chemicals and household products, you should wear gloves and try to avoid breathing the fumes of paints, varnishes, lacquers and glues. If at all possible, use these products outdoors or in very well-ventilated areas and follow all of the manufacturer’s safety guidelines for use.

“Green” cleaning products are designed to minimize the amount of chemicals they release into the environment upon disposal. Most of these products are quite effective as cleaners and they may not have as many toxins in them as typical household cleaning products. Avoid the use of any type of pesticide, herbicide or insecticide for plants that you may touch with your hands or even eat from your garden.


1 Reyonlds, P., Hurley, S., Goldberg, D. E., et al. (2004). Active Smoking, Household Passive Smoking, and Breast Cancer: Evidence From the California Teachers Study. Journal of the National Cancer Institute , 29-37.

2 Takkouche, B., Etminan, M., & Montes-Martinez, A. (2005). Personal Use of Hair Dyes and Risk of Cancer. Journal of the American Medical Association , 2516-2525.

3 Donovan, M., Tiwary, C. M., Axelrod, D., et al. (2007). Personal care products that contain estrogens or xenoestrogens may increase breast cancer risk. Medical Hyptheses , 756-766.

4 Mirick, D. K., Davis, S., & Thomas, D. B. (2002). Antiperspirant Use and the Risk of Breast Cancer. Journal of the National Cancer Institute , 1578-1580.

5 Band, Pierre R., Nhu, Le., Fang, Raymond., et al. (2000) Identification of Occupational Cancer Risks in British Columbia: A Population-Based Case-Control Study of 995 Incident Breast Cancer Cases by Menopausal Status, Controlling for Confounding Factors. Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine , 284-310.

This article was originally published on July 27,2012 and last revision and update of it was 9/2/2015.