3 Tricks to Avoid Pinkwashing

Know your ribbon. No more pink washing!Is your newsstand looking a bit flushed? It must be October, when the beauty industry slaps pink ribbons on products that donate to breast cancer research, and writers tint their editorial in solidarity.

Although financially supporting research is lovely, I’m inclined to think that companies should stop formulating products with phthalates, parabens, synthetic fragrances and other chemicals that cause cancer in the first place.

With one in eight women now at risk for breast cancer, it’s time we all learn how to support breast cancer research without carcinogens—and pinkwashing.

That’s a practice succinctly known as pinkwashing, which is defined by Breast Cancer Action’s Think Before You Pink campaign as “a company or organization that claims to care about breast cancer by promoting a pink ribbon product, but at the same time produces, manufactures and/or sells products that are linked to the disease.”

Couldn’t have said it better myself.

I’ve been writing about pinkwashing for a few years now, and every October it seems the story gets bigger. The 2011 highlight was the Susan G. Komen “Promise Me” perfume debacle, in which the foundation commissioned a perfume that turned out to contain known carcinogens including toluene, a petroleum-based solvent that’s banned by the International Fragrance Association. Oh, and Komen planned to donate a mere 3% of it’s $59 purchase price to breast cancer research.

In 2012, the Breast Cancer Fund stepped up its pressure on General Mills, which owns Progresso soup, to phase out carcinogenic BPA as part of their Cans Not Cancer campaign. The company’s decision to donate to Susan G. Komen for every lid customers sent in took the pinkwashing crown that year.

But this may finally be the year that the world wises up to the environmental causes of breast cancer. A new NIH report from the Interagency Breast Cancer and Environment Research Coordinating Committee pinpoints the effects of chemical exposures on the breast and calls for the development of chemical tests to identify breast carcinogens.

Another study finds women working in plastics and canning factories face a five-fold increase in breast cancer risk. The study involved 1,000 women, and is yet more evidence linking endocrine-disrupting chemicals such as BPA with the disease.

This year, the Breast Cancer Fund nails the whole concept with their Beyond the Pink campaign, including a comprehensive analysis of the science linking breast cancer and the environment. Click through to get involved!

Meanwhile, here’s how to avoid pinkwashed products:

  1. Ban the can: Even pink-ribboned cans are lined with BPA, which has been linked to brain cancer, among other problems. Sadly, Progresso still isn’t one of those that’s BPA-free.
  2. Identify endocrine disruptors: PVC (also known as vinyl), synthetic perfume (“fragrance,” on a label) and most plastics contain endocrine disruptors, which typically mimic estrogen in the body and have been linked to cancer.
  3. Preserve without parabens: Found in breast cancer tissue, parabens are a common preservative found in conventional personal care products from moisturizer to sunscreen; look for them prefaced by “methyl,” “ethyl,” “propyl,” “butyl” and “isobutyl.”

For me, spreading the word has become a personal mission: In the last 12 months, my mother-in-law and aunt both were diagnosed with stage one breast cancer. With one in eight women now at risk, it’s time we all learn how to support breast cancer research without carcinogens—and pinkwashing.

Don’t you agree?



  1. screwdestiny says

    This is what I love about working at Whole Foods. We’re seeing the pink ribbons already, of course, but it’s on products like cherry tomatoes and all natural moisturizers. I’m pretty confident that none of the products sporting the pink ribbon in that store also cause cancer, but it’s sad that for most places people go, that will often be the case. Thank you for spreading awareness about this!

    • Rachel Sarnoff says

      Oh that is so great!! Yes, I agree, there is less homework to do at Whole Foods when you’re buying personal care products. It makes decisions a LOT easier!! Thanks for commenting 🙂

  2. Hi Rachel, I have been saying this for the last ten years that breast cancer is a result of all the chemicals in cosmetic products and our food. The way western medicine think is to treat symptoms but not the source. Since your voice became powerful, let’s make it bigger! Too many business are making money with cancer research and awareness and this is very WRONG, Thanks for fighting!


  1. […] year, I published tricks to avoid pinkwashing in food and beauty products, and earlier this year, I shared information on Harvard University study that identified the 17 […]

  2. […] you can read about here. During the month of October, I regularly share three easy tactics to avoid pinkwashing in food and beauty products as well as the 17 easy-to-avoid chemicals in everyday products that Harvard University identified […]

  3. […] many recipes (in all honesty, I’m not a very good cook). And I might use the opportunity of a pinkwashing post to share that my mother-in-law and aunt have both battled breast cancer, but I just can’t […]

  4. […] you get the message about pinkwashing? It should be pretty clear by now that manufacturers who use carcinogenic chemicals can’t get […]

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