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What Is a Carcinogen? - Definition & Examples

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  • 0:01 What Is a Carcinogen?
  • 0:54 Examples of Carcinogens
  • 3:52 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Sarah Lawson

Sarah has taught nursing courses and has a master's degree in nursing education.

You've probably heard about carcinogens, but what are they exactly? They're present in many things that would probably surprise you. Learn about carcinogens, how they operate, and what you can do to avoid exposure.

What is a Carcinogen?

Think about your typical morning routine: wake up, brush your teeth, take a shower, get dressed, put on makeup, maybe grab breakfast, and then off to school or work. When you were doing any of these activities, probably the last thing on your mind was whether the products you were using contained carcinogens.

A carcinogen is any substance that has the potential to cause cancer in living tissues. Carcinogen exposure can occur from the inhalation, ingestion, or absorption of many different types of substances into our bodies. Carcinogens act on our DNA, causing dangerous changes at the cellular level. These include a change in the rate of cell division, which increases the probability of abnormal DNA synthesis. This can lead to cancer, a group of diseases involving abnormal cell growth with the potential to metastasize or spread to other parts of the body.

Examples of Carcinogens

There are many examples of carcinogens in our environment. Most people are aware of the common carcinogens. These include tobacco and tobacco smoke, pesticides used to control bugs, asbestos, radon, and arsenic. What we aren't aware of is how many carcinogens are present in our everyday products, foods, and environment. Some of these substances are naturally occurring, like asbestos, which is only harmful when it is breathed in in large amounts. Others are made in laboratories and are found in things ranging from personal care to lawn care products.

Many types of toothpaste contain saccharin and phenol fluoride. Soaps and shampoos contain formaldehyde, quaternium, and dyes. Some makeup contains BHA, talc, titanium dioxide, and triethanolamine. All of these big, hard-to-pronounce words are carcinogens.

Products with 'PEG' or '-eth' in their name are carcinogens. They are in items such as conditioner, body wash, perfume, deodorant, lotions, cleaning products, and again, toothpaste and shampoo. These substances are often added to increase the shelf life of a product or to add fragrance and color, and should be avoided.

There are many other chemicals that are carcinogenic, such as those used on lawns and in gardens. Reduce the use of these or at least wear protective gear when handling any chemicals.

Ultraviolet rays from the sun can also produce changes to our skin resulting in various types of cancer of the skin. Wearing sunscreen along with protective clothing will help to reduce this exposure by blocking these rays.

Carcinogens are also present in the food we eat. Foods that are over-cooked or charred, especially meats, are carcinogenic. Refined and processed foods are known to have preservatives and additives that are carcinogenic. Consuming organic meats, fruits, and vegetables raised or grown using natural feed and fertilizers instead of chemicals or hormones is a great way to avoid carcinogens in your food.

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