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In honor of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, we took a look at natural beauty expert, Britta Aragon’s book When Cancer Hits: Your Complete Guide to Taking Care of You Through Treatment. The book is great for those who have encountered cancer, but also for anyone interested in product safety. Read on for my interview with Britta, during which she makes natural product suggestions (even a natural hair dye!) and shares her views on pinkwashing, and why doctors don’t know everything.
Tell me about your history with cancer.
I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma when I was 16 years old. I lost my hair, gained weight and my skin became very dry. I didn’t really understand the diagnosis of “cancer.” Losing my hair was the bigger deal, funny enough. The moment my hair started to grow back in, I got extensions. I have very long hair today, and it’s kind of like a security blanket because I had it taken away from me twenty years ago. I take care of my hair with pristine care now.
My second experience with cancer occurred when my father was diagnosed with colon cancer eight years later. I only had five or six months of chemotherapy then went into remission; I didn’t suffer a lot of the side effects that he did.
My dad’s diagnosis is what has put me on the path to what I do today. He had so many side effects and reoccurrences, and secondary cancer in his brain. There were multiple surgeries, radiations and drugs. I saw how taxing it was; my mother and I struggled to keep him comfortable. He was a good-looking, vain man, who took pride in what he looked like.
What was it like being trained in skincare and nutrition and going on to become a makeup artist, only to realize that you couldn’t figure out why certain personal care products were hurting your father? They actually seemed to burn his skin.
It was shocking. I had gone to school for this, worked for a dermatologist, was a buyer for a distributorship in Canada – we went to Europe to buy hair and body products that we’d sell in North America. I was also a representative for a couple of skin care lines. Not once in any of my training did it come up that there could be potentially harmful ingredients in any of the products that I used or was working with.
Just call it intuition; when the moisturizer burned my dad’s skin, I turned the product around so I could see the label and I wondered, what is in here? I trusted the package – surely someone had done all the due diligence for me, but that’s not how it works. That was the first moment I took things into my hands and questioned what ingredients were actually in the products I was giving my father. Dealing with cancer yourself and being a caregiver are very different. As a caregiver to my father, I would do anything for him to have the utmost care. The first time I did research on a product and its ingredients, I was shocked; some of them were carcinogens, banned in Europe…as a caregiver, I couldn’t have my father using this.
Can you tell me about your background in skin, nutrition and makeup?
I went into nutrition and fitness after being diagnosed with cancer. I am a trained makeup artist, and I’ve worked in the beauty industry for over ten years. I am a safe cosmetics advocate, in addition to author and cancer survivor.
As for the moisturizer that actually burned your father’s skin upon application – can you name names and let readers know what specific product that was? If not, can you tell me what ingredient in it irritated your father’s skin?
It was a popular department store brand moisturizer. It had three different types of parabens, synthetic fragrance, synthetic dyes, a chemical sunscreen and dimethicone.
All in one product?!
Did cancer make your father’s skin more sensitive? How does that work?
We all have skin that is permeable; the way that nicotine or hormone patches work is an excellent example of this. When you go through cancer, specifically chemotherapy, chemo kills all fast-growing cells. That includes cells that do cellular turnover, the ones responsible for growing hair and nails – which is why skin gets dull, hair falls out and nails get brittle during treatment. The skin also gets compromised and damaged. It’s more at risk for exposure to bacteria and chemicals. It’s so under-nourished and the barrier is so damaged that it drinks up whatever is put on it. Harsh ingredients are more irritating. Essentially, the skin is malfunctioning at that moment.
I know that you seek out all natural deodorants, toothpastes, and such. Do you find that they work as well as more conventional ones?
We’re making headway in green technology. The conception in the beauty world is that “natural” is great for your baby and your body cream. But if you really want anti-aging, you really need the conventional stuff. The same goes for shampoos and deodorant.
It takes a lot of trial and error to find safe and natural products that work. I’ve bought so many things and not everything works. But that’s the same for more conventional products, too.
The goal is not to go into your cabinet and throw everything out and go all natural overnight. A, that would be expensive, B, it would be overwhelming and C, it wouldn’t be practical. The key is to go product by product and when you’re ready to switch, do it and get something more natural.
Natural and safe products really can work – go on a quest and make it fun! Get recommendations from people, read reviews, invest a little time into what people are saying and recommending.
Personally, I have a hard time finding a natural deodorant that works. Can you recommend one to me?
There are a lot of safer options for deodorants out there, but there’s really no antiperspirant that’s all natural. The deodorant that I use – and what I pair with a little lip balm for Christmas gifts, by the way – is Healthy Deodorant by LAVANILA. I love the vanilla lavender scent.
But, to be honest with you, if I’m going to go on a run or I’m out in 110-degree weather, I still have to go to my antiperspirant. I’m very honest about that. But, 80 percent of the time I use the deodorant. If during the fall, winter and spring I can wear the natural deodorant, that’s a huge step and I’ve probably reduced my toxic load greatly.
So, you avoid aluminum in deodorant – that’s a controversial one. I can’t find any absolutes in terms of studies, though there are plenty that claim aluminum “may be linked” to breast cancer. Do you steer clear of all ingredients that may be linked to adverse effects, just to stay on the safe side?
There are a few ingredients I tend to stay away from the most: parabens, phthalates, sodium lauryl sulfate, synthetic fragrance, chemical sunscreen and aluminum.
There are also five products I stay away from; fragrances are probably the most toxic things, along with dark hair dye. Then there are skin-lighteners with hydroquinone, liquid hand soap with triclosan and nail products that are free of the three offenders. There’s really no chemical-free nail polish, but there are ways to avoid the main three toxic ingredients in your polish . Now there are polishes that are free of formaldehyde, DBP and toluene.
When readers sign up for my newsletter, I give them four wallet-size cards they can download; each card has a list of ingredients to avoid in food, personal care products, home and environment. When looking for safe beauty products, the first step is to take the ingredient to avoid card with you, avoid the ingredients listed on it, and research the brands you like. Then shift to anything you put on or near your lips like lipstick, balm and toothpaste, because we’re sort of eating it in a way.
Then move on to anything you inhale, like perfumes, hairspray, talc, baby powder, and mineral makeup. We’re taught to “swirl and tap” our powders, but we end up breathing it in. Even if it’s safe mineral makeup, you don’t want to be inhaling it – so swirl and tap away from your nose.
Next, you want to focus on whatever products you leave on for a long period of time. So rather than rushing to replace shampoos, cleansers and soaps, replace foundation, body moisturizers, face moisturizers, and things that are on for ten or twelve hours a day.
Any other skin care brands or specific products that you recommend?
I really like Kahina Giving Beauty. Their argan oil is something I often recommend since it can be used on nails, skin and hair. I also like RMS Beauty, which is mostly makeup. They have great concealer and shadows, but they also came out with a coconut cream that can be used as a cleanser and body moisturizer, and it has one ingredient only. The Kahina argan oil also only has one ingredient.
I tend to stick to brands per se; once you like one product and you know it’s clean, you can find out what other products the brand has. Most likely, they carry the same philosophy throughout the whole line. That way, you don’t have to spend all the time and research you did initially searching for that original clean product.
Any recommendations for natural hair dyes? Henna is popular, but it’s definitely hard to find a variety of natural hair dyes that work.
Its one of those things like antiperspirant – it’s just not there yet. We’re just realizing now that there’s formaldehyde and other toxic ingredients in hair products and procedures, so I think it will change soon. I do know of a German product called Logona, which makes dyes containing only 100 percent natural botanical coloring and conditioning ingredients.
Is there any way to completely avoid ingredients that may be carcinogenic in our personal care products?
I think there is a way to completely shift what you’re using. Can the products you use be all natural and cleaner and purer? Yes. Can they be a hundred percent safe? No. There is absolutely a way to avoid the ingredients listed on my site. It takes a lot of time and research. It takes becoming your own advocate and taking your health into your own hands. I think we can avoid 95 percent of toxic ingredients, and I say 95 because people may not want to give up their eye cream, for example, because it works – even though it has some questionable ingredients. I do think that eventually we’ll get to 100 percent. One day we’ll get to natural and safer products that do the same thing as synthetic ones, and they’ll be as effective.
Do you think that staying away from these ingredients can actually help people avoid getting cancer, or is avoiding them more important for someone who is actually battling cancer?
Avoiding ingredients and being more conscious about reducing toxicity levels does not necessarily mean you will prevent health issues; no one can guarantee that you won’t get cancer. But we do know that many cancers have been linked to environmental toxins, which gives us control – and that’s empowering. I think avoiding certain ingredients is important for everyone, but especially for cancer patients.
Is there such thing as being overly cautious about personal care products? For example, you discuss buying organic towels in your book, which is something I’ve never even considered.
We can go crazy. There are toxins in the air, the apartment, and if you live in a city, what do you do, not go out? I think by getting organic sheets and towels you’re reducing the amount of pesticides you’re exposed to. Safety is one thing and organic is another thing. One is agricultural – safety is totally different. People who buy organic towels tend to do so because they don’t want synthetic things and are conscious of the environment. It’s possible to go crazy and get obsessed, though, and it’s important to prioritize. If I had to choose between natural deodorant and organic towels, I’d pick the deodorant. There are constant choices that need to be made, but it’s not about making it stressful. It should be simple, practical and easy enough so that you can take action today. The stress from obsessing about taking products to the next level can be more toxic than products themselves. I really want to emphasize this as not being stressful or overwhelming.
I think it’s interesting that you bring up pinkwashing in your book. What are your thoughts on the subject?
I have a lot of thoughts on the subject – it could be the topic of a whole separate interview! I think Breast Cancer Awareness Month has become more of a marketing tool and a way to bring money into the market place. Have more people gone to get mammograms or gone to see their doctors because of this whole pink campaign? Probably. Pink is everywhere. But where I see the system broken a little bit is companies putting a pink ribbon on their products and giving a percent of their profits to cancer research when their products’ ingredients cause cancer. A fried chicken company did that awhile back. They were selling fried chicken and donating proceeds to cancer funds, but fatty foods are one of the very things that are causing disease and illness toady.
One product that comes to mind is Susan G. Komen’s “Promise Me” perfume, which is also supposed to raise money for breast cancer. That upset a lot of people. There are there up to 200 chemicals in fragrance. Plus, cancer patients have a distorted sense of smell; fragrance-free is very important to them. Sometimes even natural fragrances can be tough for them, so they wouldn’t be able to tolerate this perfume.
In one chapter, you discuss people sometimes having to question their doctors, like if they recommend petroleum-based products, for example. Why do you think doctors are still promoting products that are linked to negative side effects and even cancer?
Doctors promote products from drug companies because that’s what they’re used to working with. I don’t think they spend time researching what’s new in terms of ingredients. They aren’t taught about safety when it comes to skin care products. For cancer patients, doctors are focused on survival and recovery. They’ll recommend what they know, stuff from the drug store. They’re just thinking, how do I make this patient more comfortable, calm the rash, get rid of the cancer? As far as they are concerned, it’s safe unless the FDA launches an investigation. And there hasn’t been safety testing for over seventy years.
But things are starting to change. You have to give companies credit for saying things like “paraben free” on their labels. We can’t expect change overnight, especially from big companies that sell products all over the world. They can’t just reformulate drastically and immediately. But they do have to start making changes because consumers are smarter. I think we’re going back to basics, to more simple, natural things, but that will take time.
People’s well being comes before money. That shift hasn’t completely occurred yet, but it’s starting. When people start thinking of well being, formulating with well being in mind, we’ll get very different products. The media drives what the consumer thinks and the consumer drives purchasing habits, and they’re demanding cleaner safer products. So companies will have to change to make money.
I’m coming out with a skin care line called CV Skinlabs, and I’ve formulated my products with well being in mind, a hundred percent. It’s expensive to think that way. It’s much cheaper to use petroleum and synthetic ingredients. But it’s worth it.
CV Skinlabs is good for compromised skin. Anyone suffering from eczema, rashes, diabetic skin, radiation, chemo, burns (sun or laser) or any sort of sensitivity will benefit from my line. One of the products I formulated is comparable to petroleum jelly in the way it feels, but it’s a lot safer and made from all natural and organic ingredients.
The line has been in the making for almost four years. An organic chemist and a Chinese medicine doctor were involved in the research phase of my venture. A toxicologist also helped with the development portion. This was a natural progression for me just like the book was. I wrote a book, a blog and developed products, the things that I didn’t have when I was caring for my father that I wish I had. Hopefully, now people won’t have to do the research. They’ll have the resources they need.