These Cancer Survivors Wanted Nontoxic Beauty Products — So They Created Their Own Lines

Beth Greenfield
·Senior Editor

From staying out of the sun to watching what foods we put into our bodies, lifestyle choices are often driven by our fears of aging and illness — particularly the Big C. But what about being cautious about what goes on our bodies as well?

That was the takeaway question for two women who, despite the healthy choices they made — eating organic, exercising regularly, and even opting for chemical-free cleaning supplies — wound up diagnosed with breast cancer. It made them wonder where else they were possibly getting dosed with toxins, and their conclusions were the same: their makeup and skin products.

“I thought that if products were on the market, then there was somebody looking out for us, and that there were certain standards,” Meryl Marshall, breast cancer survivor and co-founder of Hynt Beauty, a nontoxic line of elegant, nonirritating makeup, tells Yahoo Beauty. “But that could not be further from the truth.”

Marshall is referring to the largely unknown fact that there is barely any regulation of the $60 billion-a-year makeup and skin products industry — and that the weak federal Food, Drug and Cosmetics Act, which is supposedly there to provide it, was last updated in 1938. That’s essentially allowed the 1,300-plus chemicals that are banned from EU beauty products to have free range in the U.S. — which bans just 11 ingredients by comparison, including the no-brainers of mercury and chloroform.

Having breast cancer inspired Marshall to want to make a difference in the industry — same as it did for Gina Maisano, a two-time breast-cancer survivor. Instead it leaving them defeated, the terrifying brush with illness and rounds of chemo and radiation treatment put both women on a quest for answers and healthy alternatives, and reshaped them into cosmetics entrepreneurs in the process.

“Before cancer, I was an idiot,” Maisano, creator of the new Bétèrre Skin+Care line, brimming with rich creams and serums, tells Yahoo Beauty. “It was what I was eating that was the problem, what I was drinking, so sure — just put this cream on and use this shampoo. But what on earth happened to make my first cancer, not hormone-responsive, become hormone-responsive in [a quick] amount of time?” It inspired the former chef to do research on the chemicals people put on their faces, eventually writing a book about surviving cancer. “That’s when I discovered that things allowed on shelves in the U.S. can disrupt your hormones and can cause cancer. So we’re worried about hormones in chicken and beef, but we’ve got hormone disruptors in things people use every single day — and it takes less than 30 seconds for your liver to metabolize what you put on your skin.”

According to the Breast Cancer Fund’s Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, Maisano and Marshall have the right idea. “The Breast Cancer Fund has spent over a decade researching the evidence connecting exposures to toxic chemicals, including in personal care products, with breast cancer incidence,” Breast Cancer Fund spokesperson Denise Halloran tells Yahoo Beauty. “Exposure to these chemicals as well as others we encounter in our everyday lives are likely contributing to our risk of breast cancer and other serious health outcomes. While we are working to remove toxic chemicals from our environment through legislative action and working with responsible companies and retailers, women can decrease their burden of exposure now by avoiding products that contain ingredients of concern and demanding full transparency on ingredients from the brands they support.”

With that in mind, Yahoo Beauty sat down with each entrepreneur to hear more about their beauty-product inspirations.

Gina Maisano, 54, of Long Island
Founder of: Bétèrre Skin+Care: nontoxic, cruelty-free, and largely vegan; launched in June 2016. Available online.
Diagnosis: Breast cancer in 2001 and 2007

Yahoo Beauty: What was your initial diagnosis like for you?

GM: I had just turned 39 … and I was quite surprised because I was so health-conscious — I didn’t eat meat, I didn’t drink or smoke, I exercised. It was very scary. I had basal ductal breast cancer of the left breast that was triple negative — but in 2001 they just called it “the one that has the poor prognosis.” Basically they said there’s nothing they could do for me after doing all the chemo they could. I had a lumpectomy, chemo, and radiation. Then, in 2007, I was diagnosed a second time, in the right breast. It was lobular, a different type and quite large, and it spread to my lymph nodes and outside the lymph nodes. I had a year of chemo, radiation, and mastectomy with reconstruction.

What was it like to endure all of that chemo?

GM: It’s horrifying. A nurse comes in wearing practically a hazmat suit and she has a bag of something in her hand that says “Warning: Do not touch,” then she hangs it on a pole so it goes directly to a tube into a port that goes directly to your heart. You’re watching these chemicals go directly into your body, and that is a pretty bad feeling. The only saving grace was I’d imagine that poison was getting in there and chasing every cancer cell it could find.

How did you make a connection between your cancer and skin care products?

GM: I was getting really bad side effects and couldn’t find anything to help me, so concocting things from the farmers’ market to help me with radiation burns while also researching my book, and then it all started to click. Nobody knows why I got cancer twice, but I know I did something, because I’m looking at these labels and they are deemed dangerous.

How did you start your line?

GM: I was a chef, so I was always creating things and using only the finest herbs and vegetables … I’m also quite an avid gardener, always surrounded by plants. I created a list of almost 2,000 [problematic] ingredients and met with a botanical chemist and said I wanted to create a line of skin care but not include anything on this list. If they were banned in the EU or Canada, I didn’t use them, and I followed the Environmental Working Group’s guidelines quite a bit. We would make formulas and then go to a medical aesthetician to have her put on every chemical she could, then I would go back to the lab and we’d try products on. If they stung, I said no, we can’t use them. It was a long process, but I had to make sure it really did what it was supposed to do. We had prototypes, about 100 testers, and got feedback.

What’s your advice for others trying to live cleanly?

GM: I think women should be careful — everybody should. Read labels in grocery stores and also in drugstores and department stores, [when buying] a cream or lotion. Then check the EWG website and see if it’s safe.

Meryl Marshall, 57, of New Jersey
Co-founder (with her husband) of: Hynt Beauty — nontoxic and vegan (except for the mascara, which contains beeswax); launched in 2015. Available online.
Diagnosis: Breast cancer in 2006

Yahoo Beauty: What did you do before becoming a makeup entrepreneur?

MM: I worked in the diamond and jewelry industry as a gemologist for 20 years. I learned to have a business sense and negotiate, and I worked with high-quality goods, which, to me, is very important, whether it’s cosmetics or clothing. But I retired from the diamond industry to be more of a stay-at-home mom, working in all types of odd jobs … and then became a 9/11 widow. My son was only 11. I was widowed at 42 years old. … In 2004, I remarried — a widower with two boys — and we blended our families. And six months later is when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I’ve been through a lot of trauma in my life.

What sort of connections did you make between your diagnosis and other factors?

MM: I wonder how that trauma really affected me, because I know so many 9/11 family members who were struck with one type of cancer or another. Also, we went down there [to the World Trade Center site] two days later, looking. I breathed all of that stuff in too. Also, just the stress. Who knows? I lived an otherwise healthy lifestyle, went to the gym, had low cholesterol, I eat healthy. … When I was diagnosed and going through chemo I started to read more and more about the food that we eat, and everything from what we put on our lawn to our cleaning products. I was very shocked that even with products like antiperspirant, it wasn’t really definitive on whether or not it’s safe. If it’s a question, why use it? So I started a slow journey of lopping things out and finding what worked for me. That’s really the start of it.

What aspects of the Hynt business have you been involved with?

MM: I’ve been involved in everything. I worked side by side with a cosmetic chemist and had a very long list of blacklisted ingredients. It’s often tweaked as I do research, using EWG and the EU as guidelines — plus other sources, like I read all kinds of trials, particularly on phenyoxyethanol, which a lot of companies are now using in lieu of parabens. We were using it in the past and then removed it. I’ve worked with the graphic artist and the marketing director, on everything from our logo to packaging. I really try to look at things not as a makeup industry person but as a consumer. Plus, we use focus groups and work with a lot of young bloggers and makeup artists, sending them samples for honest feedback.

Will you expand to retail spaces?

MM: Hopefully, but it’s been a challenge. With certain stores like Credo, there’s very small space, which limits what they can carry. We’ve implemented a sample program for people to try products in sample size. And we’re doing well internationally — in Norway, Finland, Sweden, Amsterdam. I think Europe really appreciates the natural aspect. But we get calls all the time from women who say they want to go natural, which is very nice to hear.

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