Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Women, Cosmetics, Contraceptives and Cancer

Disclaimer: I am a sociologist and not a medical practitioner. This post is based on observations and experiences and not on any controlled laboratory research or any epidemiological studies.

Over the last decade, an overwhelming number from among my close family, relatives and friends have been struck with cancer.  What is uncanny is that it is not the rather happy go lucky – smoking- drinking- men who have been so much attacked by cancer cells as the rather sober women I know of. Each time I hear of an aunt or a woman friend or a woman relative detected of caner, I wonder what caused it as it is invariably that she is/was a non smoker, non gutka eating- disciplined woman. It is not merely my observation. A report in the Times of India also suggests that in India, more women are affected with cancer than men (see link below).

The numbers of cancer cases among the women I know have been so disproportionately high as compared to men, that one day, I asked my grand aunt the reason behind so many women falling victim to cancer. My grand aunt who was an excellent and very well informed medical doctor passed away only very recently at the age of ninety two. She was a voracious reader and kept herself well-versed in all subjects, particularly medicine. I used to depend on her for all the unsolved medical mysteries. I remember her reply very clearly, “Although I have no research to back my claim, I am convinced from my observations that it is the contraceptive pills that have led to this scenario.”

This reply did make some sense to me also because my mother, who too is a doctor with fifty – five years of medical practice over three countries to her credit, has also shared with me the disturbing trend of the ease with which women have been using over the counter contraceptive pills. She has been greatly troubled not only with the easily available contraceptive pills but more so with the day-after pills or the morning-after pills and / or the emergency contraceptive pills that have led to complications in many of her patients. Thinking on the subject, I recall that a few years ago, Johnson & Johnson Company had recalled its contraceptive pills (see link below).

As I reflect further on this subject, I also remember that the very first rally I took part as a young student in Baroda was against amniocentesis and other such methods women were being subjected to as selective birth control. Another campaign run by feminist groups against Norplant as a contraceptive device and its controversial trials in India also come to my mind as I write this. The firebrand feminist and a close friend, who led the rally I participated in thirty years ago and who led many such campaigns affecting women’s reproductive lives, too unfortunately succumbed recently to cancer. 

The rampant use of the over the counter pills have penetrated rural markets in India and I find women even in villages popping pills for birth control and/ or to postpone periods as period blood continues to be considered impure particularly during family or religious function at home or in the village. These pills do have side effects and are listed in different studies. An article by Sarojini N B titled- Women as Wombs, is a good read on the history of contraceptive devices  and women’s movement around it in India (see link below).

While I was thinking of women and contraceptives devices, sometime early this year a news item concerning the giant multinational Johnson & Johnson Company being fined for its talcum powder that led to ovarian cancer caught my attention[1]. The fact that the news did not receive the wide coverage that it should shocked me more. While Johnson baby powder as the name suggests is for babies, the company targets women greatly with their advertisements. The irony is that women are made to believe that Johnson & Johnson products are indeed safer than the others in the market and are safe even for their babies!


In the mean time, another report in the Down to earth magazine regarding cosmetics and their side effects also drew my attention[2]. These reports made me wonder whether factory manufactured cosmetics also have anything to do with the high cancer rate among women in India.

While the use of cosmetics among women in India dates back to ancient times[3], the use of mass produced- factory manufactured, synthetic cosmetics is not too old. While I do not remember when we made the transition in our house from besanatta- haldi and malai paste or multanimitti as body cleanser to Lifebuoy soap by Hindustan Unilever, I recall that one of the first factory manufactured cosmetic products that we switched to in the small town that I lived in, was shampoo. I also remember that I was delighted to shift from the use of aritha (soap nut) to bottled-readymade shampoo as the process of making aritha shampoo at home was a bit cumbersome. Moreover we believed that the branded-factory shampoo will make our hair smother and better. Yet, we used shampoo only sparingly and continued the use of artiha often, more so as my mama’s house had a large aritha tree and our supplies came from there- fresh and free. I also remember that some members of my extended family did use talcum powder but it was only those who sweated more and not all of us. 
Soap nuts, Source:

The next factory made product that I saw making inroads into homes while I was still a girl was hair dye. I saw many women color their hair black. Yet it was still very out of the ordinary for women to wear lipstick or perfume or nail polish or any other makeup. It was just a very few who used these products. But by the time I was in college, the market and eventually homes were flooded with all kinds of cosmetics including hair conditioners and mascaras, moisturisers and fairness creams, perfumes and deodorants and so on. I am afraid that there is no looking back as I have seen only a rise in the use of makeup among women as well as girls since.

Let me also share that during the same period, the cosmetics that men use have not increased in an equal proportion. Brylcream and Old Spice after shave were the only two cosmetic products that I remember as a girl a few select men in my family used. I remember that one of the first advertisements of a beauty product that fascinated me as girl was of Old Spice after shave lotion.  Its packaging as well as its fragrance was so good that I used to be delighted if my uncle let me apply some on my face. However, there were still not that many cosmetics for men back then. 


Although the use of factory made cosmetics even among men is on a rise, I don’t think it can come anywhere close to the number of products that women use today. I need not elaborate on the subject and the use of synthetic cosmetics as everyone reading this will be aware of the extent of its use. But I wish to share that synthetic factory made cosmetics have made inroads into some of the remotest areas of the country I know of. Moreover the market of cosmetics in India is likely to grow many folds in the next few years.

Considering this, it is all the more disturbing that Johnson & Johnson talcum powder and ovarian cancer news is not big news at all. Similarly, the report by Down to Earth Magazine on cosmetics and its side effects have not received the attention it deserves.

Conclusions: Although cancer among women concerns me a lot, particularly as women do not indulge in tobacco smoking or chewing as much as men, I must admit that there are no easy answers to the issue. In addition, I am not an expert on the subject. Moreover I am not familiar with any scientific and conclusive research that may or may not have linked contraceptives and cosmetics to cancer among women. Besides I also believe that every woman has to decide her own comfort zone while using both, contraception and cosmetics. And yet, there is no harm in suggesting cheaper and safer alternatives. Also, there is no harm in reminding what women’s rights groups have been saying on the subject.

Birth Control and Contraceptives
1.       Focus more on the natural methods.
2.       Focus more on barrier methods.
3.       Focus more on the responsibility of men in contraception and birth control.

Beauty and Cosmetics:
1.       Women are beautiful and there is no need for makeup really.
2.       For personal hygiene and care – use of homemade and/or tested/reliable natural products is possible (besan, haldi, aloe vera, ghee, malai, aritha, avala, lakdi ghani oils, honey, powdered orange peels and so on)
3.       If required, for makeup too, use of homemade and / or tested/reliable natural products is possible (mehndi, kajal, alta made out of betel leaves, sandalwood and so on). 

For those who wish to make at home some of the natural products for personal and home care may see the following guidelines on the web site of an organisation that promotes toxic free living: