Cosmetics and cancer: Adverse event reports submitted to the food and drug administration

Saya L. Jacob, Erika Cornell, Michael Kwa, William E. Funk, Shuai Xu*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalComment/debatepeer-review

14 Scopus citations


There have been numerous controversies surrounding cosmetic products and increased cancer risk. Such controversies include associations between parabens and breast cancer, hair dyes and hematologic malignancies, and talc powders and ovarian cancer. Despite the prominent media coverage and numerous scientific investigations, the majority of these associations currently lack conclusive evidence. In 2016, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) made publically available all adverse event reports in Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition's Adverse Event Reporting System (CAERS), which includes complaints related to cosmetic products. We mined CAERS for cancer-related reports attributed to cosmetics. Between 2004 and 2017, cancer-related reports caused by cosmetics represented 41% of all adverse events related to cosmetics. This yielded 4427 individual reports of cancer related to a cosmetic product. Of these reports, the FDA redacted the specific product names in 95% of cancer-related reports under the Freedom of Information Act exemptions, most likely due to ongoing legal proceedings. For redacted reports, ovarian cancer reports dominated (n = 3992, 90%), followed by mesothelioma (n = 92, 2%) and malignant neoplasm unspecified (n = 46, 1%). For nonredacted reports, or those reports whose product names were not withheld (n = 218), 70% were related to ovarian cancer attributed to talc powders, followed by skin cancer (11%) and breast cancer (5%) attributed to topical moisturizers. Currently, CAERS is of limited utility, with the available data having been subjected to significant reporter bias and a lack of supportive information such as demographic data, medical history, or concomitant product use. Although the system has promise for safeguarding public health, the future utility of the database requires broader reporting participation and more complete reporting, paired with parallel investments in regulatory science and improved molecular methods.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numberpky012
JournalJNCI Cancer Spectrum
Issue number2
StatePublished - Apr 1 2018
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Oncology
  • Cancer Research


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