These actions might lower cancer risk. But doctors aren’t sure, mainly because there hasn’t been enough research to prove or disprove a link. Until the verdict is in, take up these habits if the reassurance they bring outweighs the inconvenience.

By Melinda Beck & Molly M. Ginty
Updated September 19, 2017
Illustration: powders, lotions, shampoos
Credit: Amy van Lujik

Tossing Talcum Powder

A Los Angeles jury recently awarded $417 million in damages to a woman who charged that talcum powder caused her ovarian cancer. Research has been mixed, but one theory is that talc particles used for feminine hygiene travel up the vagina and cause inflammation, which could increase cancer risk. While the scientific jury is still out, some experts say it makes sense to avoid using talcum powder in the genital area or substitute cornstarch.

Keeping Your Cell Phone at Arm’s Length

The idea that radio frequency waves emitted by cell phones might penetrate users’ skulls, damage brain cells, and cause brain tumors has worried some people for decades. But there’s very little evidence that this occurs. “There’s a greater risk of physical harm from not paying attention to where you’re walking or driving while using a cell phone,” argues Linda Nebeling, PhD, deputy associate director of the National Cancer Institute (NCI)’s Behavior Research Program in Rockville, Maryland. That said, other experts suggest playing it safe until more is known. “I frequently tell patients to use a wired earpiece if they’re worried,” says Otis Brawley, MD, chief medical officer of the American Cancer Society (ACS). (Children may be more vulnerable to cell phone radiation than adults, who have thicker skull bones.) And if you store your phone in a T-shirt pocket or bra, break the habit, advises Marisa Weiss, MD, founder and chief medical officer of “Even if you’re not using it, the antenna is still active, and breast tissue is highly sensitive,” she explains.

Limited Charbroiling

Cooking meat over high heat for a long time creates chemicals known as heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which may cause DNA changes in the body that might lead to cancer. Just how much charred meat you need to eat to raise your risk isn’t known, but experts say having a well-done burger once in a while should be fine. Cutting meat into smaller pieces to reduce overall grilling time and turning meat frequently while cooking may reduce exposure to these chemicals.

Passing on Parabens and Phthalates

Parabens, used as preservatives in personal-care products, can act like weak estrogens in humans, and phthalates, which make scents longer-lasting and nail polish less brittle, can disrupt the balance of hormones that interact with estrogen. Studies have suggested these chemicals could stimulate the growth of breast cancer cells. The science is far from definitive, but more paraben-and phthalate-free products are appearing for people who want to avoid them. “It’s true that what goes on you goes in you,” says Weiss, but “these are areas of concern, not known risk factors.”

Bypassing BPA

A chemical known as bisphenol A, found in many rigid plastics, can linings, and cashier receipts, is also a potential hormone disrupter. How much risk it poses to humans isn’t clear, but you can minimize exposure by transferring food from plasticware to glass or ceramic dishes for cooking, buying fresh rather than canned foods, and washing your hands after handling register receipts, says Weiss. Plastic containers that have the number 7 in the recycling symbol may contain BPA.