Founders Lisa Potter-Dixon and Helen Addis discuss prioritising ‘cancer-kinder’ beauty products and why the time is now for the industry to take action
When I was first diagnosed with aggressive thyroid cancer, in September 2015, my beauty and skincare regime wasn’t at the forefront of my mind. Fear, and then survival, were my only thoughts. As the hospital appointments become more frequent and more prolonged, I found solace in the quiet ritual of my self-care routine. I have learned that a pea-sized amount of tinted 8-hour lip balm on the lips and cheeks can revive gaunt-appearing skin in seconds, and the gentle roll of lavender oil on wrists and behind ears is an elixir for stress and anxiety. If I was feeling particularly agitated, a spritz of my favourite rosewater scent helped me to feel grounded, more present.
Following extremely invasive surgery on my neck – a smiley face-shaped incision from ear-to-ear – to remove my tumorous thyroid gland and lymph nodes, a generous heap of ultra-rich and cooling moisturiser on my cheeks, forehead, and hands offered a moment of escape from my hospital bed. When I was well enough, a slick of my favourite shade of fuchsia matte lipstick made me feel like me again – even just briefly.
What I’ve gone through is not unique, but the freedom I had to maintain some control over my life – by way of my favourite beauty cabinet products – is. For millions of cancer patients currently undergoing pre- or post-cancer care, this is not the case. Chemotherapy drugs and radiation therapies cause catastrophic changes to the appearance and texture of skin, hair, and nails and to date, patients are forced to forgo their favourite hero products for mild baby products instead. When undergoing cancer treatment, every single product – from toothpaste and the toothbrush you use to body scrubs, loofahs, moisturisers, shampoos, deodorants, and hairbrushes – requires a new, gentle approach. One in two people, or half of the population, will experience a cancer diagnosis in their lifetime, and right now the £28 billion pound beauty industry isn’t catering for them.
“When I got my diagnosis, in the same conversation I was told I was going to lose a boob and lose my hair and I was also going to rethink the products I was using because my skin was going to become very, very sensitive,” says Helen Addis, a TV producer, cancer campaigner and co-founder of The C-List, the new wellness platform promoting “cancer kinder” products for people undergoing cancer treatment. “The time when I needed my war paint the most was when I was going through this shit. And it was the time I was told, ‘Nope! You can’t wear it!’”
On the advice of her care team, Helen – who was 39 when she was diagnosed with a destructive form of breast cancer – searched the high street for alternative beauty products she could adopt during her two-year-long treatment plan, but was wholly at a loss at the options available to her. She recalls feeling like “an alien” when shop assistants would pussyfoot around the word cancer, as though it was something she should conceal despite the fact that in 2020, 19.3 million people globally were diagnosed with some form of the disease. “I didn’t have my eyelashes so I just had to go bare, but how much do I wish I had fake eyelashes. I got my eyebrows tattooed before I went into treatment, but apart from that, I was just using E45 products. My mental health would have been a whole lot better if I had the confidence to use other products.”
“A lot of brands were petrified to get involved to begin with. Brands have a lot of hoops to jump through when it comes to sustainability, science, and being vegan or cruelty free. Cancer isn’t at the forefront of their minds, which is what we’re hoping to change” – Lisa Potter-Dixon, co-founder, The C-List
The C-List began, almost by accident, during an Instagram live last summer. It was during the hour-long make-up lesson where Helen and make-up artist and co-founder of The C-List, Lisa Potter-Dixon, identified a gaping hole in the beauty industry’s arsenal. “It started as a list jotted down on a piece of paper,” Helen says of the epiphany moment between her and long-term friend Lisa. “But the more we researched, the more we realised that, actually, there’s more to this.”
“A lot of brands immediately said no,” says Lisa of the laborious research and outreach, adding that the rejection actually motivated the pair to pursue the project even more. “A lot of brands were petrified to get involved, to begin with. Brands have a lot of hoops to jump through when it comes to sustainability, science, and being vegan or cruelty free. Cancer isn’t at the forefront of their minds, which is what we’re hoping to change.” From their research, Helen and Lisa identified two main issues; inadequate research and poor advice, and no centralised place for patients to get a practical list of beauty brands considered safe for damaged hair, skin, and nails. “We found out that a lot of the stuff that had been said about what can and cannot be used for people going through treatment was based on tests done 10 years ago and it stuck. So much has developed since then, so what we decided to do was put this (information) into the hands of the brands,” Lisa adds.
On The C-List you’ll find cult brands, whose ingredients have been verified by dermatologists and oncologists as safe for use for hair loss, ulcerated skin, thinning and grey skin, and blackened nails, like Elemis, Elizabeth Arden, Larry King, La Roche-Posay, Nioxin, and Victoria Beckham Beauty as well as lesser-known, independent brands like Tropic, Maysama, Manta, and SVR. The site works via affiliate links, the profits of which are then donated every month to a cancer patient to experience a spa day or be treated to a hamper of products.
The physical changes that manifest during treatment can be extremely triggering for anyone experiencing a diagnosis, and side-effects can be so bad they can cause patients to pause treatment altogether. Funding and research on the impact of the cosmetics industry and cancer care is scarce. As a result, most doctors (unless they specialise in skincare) aren’t equipped to advise patients on whether their favourite high street strip lashes are considered safe – which can have a long-lasting impact on the relationship between a patient’s physical appearance and their mental health. The lack of clear and concise advice and guidance forces patients to self-research and self-test, which can do more harm than good. “I was told I couldn’t even brush my hair and to not wash it,” Helen says, recalling moments during her 18-months of invasive treatments. “In a time in your life when everything feels out of control, it’s the one thing that feels like, “this does empower me” and it does give me a sense of control and a sense of who I am.”
“I definitely think it’s an area where there’s a need for more targeted research,” says Dr Waseem Bakkour, a consultant dermatologist and dermatological surgeon at The London Clinic, of the gap in critical research pertaining to the cosmetics industry and cancer care. “I’ve come across some limited research where they haven’t specified the products but have advised the patients to use a face moisturiser, a body moisturiser, and a wash. But it didn’t say what the products were and what they were made from.” Dr Bakkour’s message rings true: a quick Google search on cosmetics and cancer care will result in a slew of entries on cosmetics and carcinogens and exposure to hormone disruptors in hair dye, but little by way of practical advice. “In medicine we rely on research, and there’s definitely not been enough research considering the number of patients that experience these problems,” he adds. When looking for specialised products, Dr Bakkour recommends “sticking to products which are highly moisturising,” and avoid products that are heavily enhanced like acids, retinoids, cleaners and products that contain preservatives.
A good cleanser will be very gentle and preferably perfume-free and when rinsed or wiped off it should ideally leave the skin “feeling calm and hydrated,” says Dr Hextall, La Roche-Posay’s consultant dermatologist. Dr Hexall combines her own expertise with her husband’s – Dr Sebastian Cummins, a consultant oncologist – to advocate for better patient information when it comes to maintaining skincare health during a period of intense illness. “I would advise skincare that has as few potential sensitisers as possible. For example, when receiving radiotherapy the skin will invariably become red and irritated like a sunburn. This ‘sunburnt’ skin barrier is less robust and is more likely to be irritated and sensitised by certain ingredients such as perfumes and preservatives,” Dr Hextall says, adding that brands like Cetaphil, CeraVe, La Roche-Posay, Avene, and SkinCeuticals are firm favourites in her skincare stockpile.
The platform is also an information hub, with Helen and Lisa producing easy-to-follow video guides on eyebrow mapping and how to talk to your children about a cancer diagnosis. Helen and Lisa’s hope is to expand their cancer-kinder offering to include sex products and accessible clothing (“We’re trying to build a ‘Goop for the cancer world’ and build a community that helps cancer to feel a lot less shit than it actually is,” Helen quips), but the long-term plan is to establish an international certified logo that easily identifies safe beauty products for anyone going through cancer treatment. Think the vegan rabbit, only cancer kinder.