Cell phones. Deodorant. Grocery store receipts. At times, it can seem like everything causes cancer. Substances that cause cancer are called carcinogens.
“Our understanding of what causes cancer is always evolving,” says Therese Bevers, M.D., Medical Director of the Cancer Prevention Center at MD Anderson.
The most common cancer risk factors are tobacco use, sun exposure, inactivity and excess body fat.
Protecting yourself from these known carcinogens is the best way to reduce your cancer risk. But it doesn’t hurt to be careful when it comes to other potential dangers, Bevers says.
Cell phones do emit a form of radiation. But Bevers says the type your phone puts out hasn't been shown to cause cancer.
“At this point, we don’t have enough data to totally eliminate the possibility of a risk,” Bevers says. “But we do have data showing cell phone use does not increase a person’s risk for the two most common forms of brain cancer.”
Basically, current evidence strongly suggests phones are safe. But if you want to be extra careful, Bevers recommends wearing headphones.
Like your cell phone, microwaves are a source of radiation. But all the radiation stays inside the microwave.
So unless it’s damaged or somehow operating with its door open, you’re not exposed to any of the radiation. And neither is the food you’re eating.
There’s some concern that microwaving plastic may leach unhealthy chemicals into your food. Those concerns aren’t backed up by much research. But you can play it safe by using glass or ceramic containers.
Some data suggests there may be a link between ovarian cancer and talcum powder, more commonly known as baby powder. But that data is not definitive, Bevers says.
Before the 1970s, talcum powder contained asbestos. Asbestos has been linked to lung cancer. But the product as we know it today does not include this ingredient.
If a risk does exist, it’s small, Bevers says.
“If it was a big risk factor we would have a lot more cases of ovarian cancer than we do,” she says. “If you’ve used talcum powder you’re not destined to get ovarian cancer.”
She recommends avoiding the product if you’re concerned about your ovarian cancer risk.
This chemical is often used to make hard plastics and the linings of cans and other food containers. BPA also is found in paper used to print grocery store receipts.
Because BPA is so common almost everyone has detectable levels of it in their blood, according to research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
But there’s no hard evidence that BPA increases cancer risk in adults or children, Bevers says.
If you’re concerned, you can avoid BPA by sticking to glass or ceramic food containers, Bevers says. Buying whole or bulk foods—not stuff packaged in cans—is another way to lower your BPA exposure.
Deodorant / Antiperspirant
There’s data that shows that breast tumors often appear in the outer portion of the breast—the part you might accidentally swipe with deodorant. But it’s not clearwhether this is due to deodorant exposure or because the outer portion of the breast contains the most breast tissue.
If you want to play it safe, Bevers recommends shopping for deodorant products that do not include aluminum. And check the ingredients on the label. You should avoid items containing ingredients with the word “paraben” in their names, such as “methylparaben.”
Some research hints that the very tiny chemical particles used in sunscreen products may be able to bypass your skin and get into your bloodstream.
It’s possible—though not proven —that if these chemicals can get into your blood, they may be able to produce inflammation or trigger other reactions that could raise your cancer risk.
There are some unanswered questions, Bevers says. But compared to sun exposure, which is a well-documented and deadly carcinogen, “the harms of not using sunscreen far outweigh the potential benefits,” she says.
How Best to Protect Yourself
It’s very, very difficult for cancer researchers to prove that something does not cause cancer.
But compared to major risk factors like poor diet, physical inactivity, tobacco use, sun exposure or skipping vaccinations, stuff like cell phones and deodorant chemicals should rank well down your list of cancer fears.
If you want to protect yourself, focus on the known carcinogens—not the unknowns.