Could Perfume Marketed to Benefit Breast Cancer Also Cause the Disease?

Every October, America drowns in a flood of pink ribbons as a vast array of items gets painted, printed or stickered with the symbol of breast cancer awareness. But, according to some activists, one of those products -- a perfume marketed by the country's most prominent breast cancer foundation -- may actually be contributing to the cancer epidemic it claims to be fighting.

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."

Beyond the immediate issue of Promise Me's potentially hazardous ingredients, there is the larger question of Komen's partnerships. Cause marketing -- the linking of consumer products with charitable causes -- is big business, and Komen is a giant in the field. "As the largest breast cancer foundation in the world, Komen is in a unique position," Jaggar argues. "It has the ability to leverage partnerships in order to get its partners to ensure that their products are not contributing to the breast cancer epidemic."

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."

Pink Noise

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, or follow him on Twitter at @bruce1971.

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Would anyone wear "Eau of Emphysema" or "Toillette due Terminal Disease"? I am a "survivor" four years now; but think the Whole "think pink" or "pinkwashing" of America is shameful.

October 09 2011 at 12:28 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Stwart Jenssen

Pancreatic cancers come with a very low survival rate: 75 percent of patients die less than a year after diagnosis, and 94 percent die within five years, according to PCAN.

Stwart Jenssen

October 07 2011 at 8:58 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

My theory-breast cancer like most other cancers are cureable, but they are big money makers for way too many hospitals, pharma co's, 'charity' organizations, etc. The only way the cure will come about is when it is worth more than the treatment.

October 05 2011 at 9:23 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply


October 05 2011 at 8:46 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

The Komen Foundation, at some point, went from a small family organization to a HUGE beast of a company.
My mother volunteered at the local chapter in for YEARS and was essentially forced out for "younger" models in Susies own hometown.
And now a possible link to cancer in their perfume? Please, any of Susies family left - Ellie, Nancy - this is not the legacy you want for Susie.

October 05 2011 at 8:39 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

You can cure any cancer with a plant based diet wake up everyone the rich are just getting richer and the pills are just keeping you sicker! I'd say consult with your doctor and if he doesn't agree with you and gets u a plan then get yourself a holistic practitioner that performs alternative medicine! This so called perfume should have been made with essential oils not toxic chemicals, Personally i'd say nice try but, no thanks.

October 05 2011 at 8:36 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I am allergic to MOST perfumes... not so bad on men's colgone... mostly women's hair products (hairspray, relaxers, etc.) & perfumes. But there's no getting away from it... work, grocery stores, banks, drug stores, etc. IT LITERALLY makes me sick! Headaches, sneezing, wanting to throw up... it's all in a day's work for those of us who are hyper-sensitive... but you cannot ask people to cut down on their dowsing themselves in it... that would be like asking people to actually smoke in the SMOKING section, or not to smoke at all.... it's like you're invading on their RIGHTS... what about our right to breathe clean air... or to breathe at all?

October 05 2011 at 8:18 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply

I can't help but wonder if this is yet another Chinese "accidental" poisoning. Can anyone tell me where the manufacturing facility for TPR Holdings is located? I checked their website and it is very ambiguous. The word "international" is used repeatedly but no specifics.

October 05 2011 at 6:33 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to janicefenton's comment

Hey, wouldn't it be great if Komen demanded that all their "pink" affiliates manufactured in the U.S.? They could use their considerable influence to bring jobs home!

October 05 2011 at 9:12 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

I would suggest remove the perfume...too many people are allergic to harsh aromas, not to mention possible cancer causing ingredients. Just go take a good whiff of God-given flowers, if you are longing for pretty much perfect aromas. Try Ingrid Bergman roses...smells just like raspberries. By the way, I am not being flip; I, too, am a cancer survivor (not breast, though) . Original surgery in 1996, and recurrance in 2000, so I am cancer free for almost 13 years. I never wear perfume....and like Kay, no PP for me either.

October 05 2011 at 6:21 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Ginger's comment

I too have had my share of cancer, not breast cancer myself but friends and relatives, but I enjoy perfume. I use it very sparingly though. I wish all "frangrances" would be removed from deordorants, shampoos, soaps, fabric softners, etc. they interfer with scents I want to use.

October 05 2011 at 6:52 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

I have lost relatives to breast cancer and have friends that survived it because of the treatment they recieved. They always do the "run for the cure". I hope they all read this story. I didn't like the scent of the perfume, it made me sneeze and try to buy organic milk products because of the hormones used in cows. I now have yet another reason to read labels before buying. Perfumes and other scented products should start getting labeled.

October 05 2011 at 6:20 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply