Could Perfume Marketed to Benefit Breast Cancer Also Cause the Disease?
In April 2011, Susan G. Komen for the Cure, America's largest breast cancer foundation, released "Promise Me," a perfume that it describes as "a sophisticated floriental fragrance" whose "feminine heart evokes softness and beauty." The perfume's pink-beribboned bottle references the famous campaign, while its name alludes to Promise Me, the memoir of Komen founder Nancy Brinker, who promised her dying sister -- Susan G. Komen -- that she would "do her best to end the suffering caused by breast cancer."
A Surprising Secret Ingredient
The perfume was designed and produced by TPR holdings, a consumer products company that manufactures a wide array of colognes and cosmetics. In return for Komen's endorsement, TPR donates $1 million a year to the charity. The perfume does not list its ingredients on the label, so the advocacy group Breast Cancer Action sent a sample to the Petaluma, Calif.-based chemical laboratory Analytical Sciences. What they found was a surprise.
Among other questionable ingredients, Promise Me contains galaxolide, a synthetic musk. A hormone disruptor, it accumulates in the body and has shown up in the fat, blood, and breast milk of women who wore perfumes that contained it. More disturbing, some studies have shown that it may be a contributing factor in the development of breast cancer.
Before going public with their findings, BCA executive director Karuna Jaggar sent a letter to Komen, asking them to pull the perfume from store shelves. The foundation's response was oddly contradictory. On the one hand, it was dismissive, claiming that "our Medical and Scientific Affairs team has thoroughly reviewed and evaluated current research about the perfume ingredients...and concluded that these ingredients do not elevate breast cancer risk in humans." Despite this position, however, Komen also agreed to "reformulate the perfume to remove any doubt about the ingredients." The original perfume was discontinued, and the new perfume "is expected to be ready for distribution and sale in early 2012." In the meantime, the original version of Promise Me -- complete with galaxolide -- is still available from Nordstrom, Amazon, and dozens of other stores.
Komen sent a similar message to inquiries about Promise Me, with an added, semi-libertarian edge: after acknowledging the concerns about the perfume and the findings of their Medical and Scientific Affairs team, the foundation notes that "we make this information available to our constituents, respecting that they are intelligent consumers who make informed decisions about the use of products based on evidence."
Will the New Recipe Be Better?
In response to Komen's comments regarding the safety of its ingredients, Jaggar argues that caution is vital: "Until we reach a scientific consensus about the environmental causes of breast cancer, companies should follow the precautionary principle: 'When in doubt, leave it out.'" This concern extends to Komen's proposed reformulation of the perfume. Jaggar notes that the new recipe may have some of the same problems as the old one: "without adopting the highest standards of precaution, there is nothing to ensure that we won't have similar or worse problems with the new formulation."
Unfortunately, some of Komen's other partnerships have been questionable. Last year, for example, it joined with KFC (YUM) in the "Buckets for the Cure" campaign, in which the fast food restaurant sold Komen-branded buckets of fried chicken. The year before, it partnered with Yoplait, which was using milk from cows that were fed rBGH, a synthetic-growth hormone that has been linked with cancer. BCA describes these partnerships as "pinkwashing," which it describes 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."
Jaggar emphasizes the danger of these partnerships. In addition to harming women, they also generate what she calls "pink noise," a hubbub that, she stresses, "is inhibiting a real discussion of breast cancer and a robust understanding of the systemic changes needed to end this epidemic." In response, BCA has launched a "Think Before You Pink" campaign every year for the last decade. Designed to highlight the devil's bargain between Komen and companies that might be contributing to health problems -- including cancer -- these campaigns have been quite successful, derailing the KFC partnership and extracting a promise from Yoplait owner General Mills (GIS) that the yogurt company would stop using milk produced with rBGH.
This year, BCA is focusing on Promise Me, which Jaggar describes as "in our opinion, the most egregious example of pinkwashing right now." While Komen's promise to reformulate is a hopeful development, it is hardly the end of the matter. In addition to asking the group to pull the perfume from store shelves, Jaggar notes, "We suggested that they use this opportunity to evaluate their other partnerships, and asked them to sign our pledge to prevent pinkwashing." With women's health on the line, it remains to be seen if this will be a turning point for Komen, or merely another in the group's long history of problematic relationships.
Bruce Watson is a senior features writer for DailyFinance. You can reach him by e-mail at email@example.com, or follow him on Twitter at @bruce1971.