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How Do Carcinogens Cause Cancer, and What Are Carcinogens?

Medically reviewed by John Paul Abrina, MD · Oncology · Davao Doctors Hospital

Written by Jan Alwyn Batara · Updated Jul 06, 2022

How Do Carcinogens Cause Cancer, and What Are Carcinogens?

Carcinogens are a term that we hear pretty often, especially when people are talking about cancer. While most people know what carcinogens are, not a lot of people are aware of how do carcinogens cause cancer.

Read on to learn more about these chemicals, and why they cause people to develop cancer.

What Are Carcinogens?

how do carcinogens cause cancer

Carcinogens are any substance that can induce cancer. Artificial sources such as cigarette smoke and certain chemicals are known carcinogens. But you can also find naturally occurring carcinogens such as aflatoxin in fungi1.

Another type of carcinogen is radiation, such as with x-rays, gamma rays, and even solar radiation from the sun.

Another characteristic of carcinogens is that some can cause more specific types of cancer. One example of this is asbestos. Back in the day, construction companies widely used asbestos as insulation and as a fireproof material. Workers who installed and used asbestos had developed a very specific type of cancer in the lungs called mesothelioma.

Another example is tamoxifen, which is a drug used to treat cancer. While useful in treating breast cancer because of its ability to block estrogen, this drug can increase the risk of uterine cancer as a consequence. So, although tamoxifen is an anti-cancer drug and estrogen is a natural hormone both are potentially carcinogenic.

But how do carcinogens cause cancer? What is in these substances that cause an abnormal growth of cancer cells?

How Do Carcinogens Cause Cancer?

In order to understand how carcinogens cause cancer, we need to talk about how people can get cancer in the first place.

In the absence of carcinogens, people can develop cancer when certain genetic changes happen during cell division. As a cell divides, the genes that govern what happens to the cell can randomly develop changes that leads to the creation of cancer cells2.

For carcinogens, they act as a substance that increases the risk or even triggers these mutations. If a person constantly interacts with carcinogens, then there’s a good chance that they will develop cancer as the carcinogen damages their DNA.

This is why people who smoke tend to develop lung cancer, since the cells in their lungs are exposed to the carcinogens found in tobacco smoke. The same thing goes for people who are exposed to the sun without any protection. This constant exposure can cause their skin cells to develop mutations which can lead to cancer.

Though, some carcinogens cause cancer through other ways3. Certain carcinogens can speed up cell division, which also increases the chances of cancer cells developing.

Carcinogens can also vary based on how long of an exposure a person needs to have before they develop cancer. Some carcinogens can cause cancer only after brief exposure, while others can take years before cancer can manifest. This all depends on the damage that the substance can do to a person’s DNA4.

It’s also possible for a person to be consistently exposed to a carcinogen, and still not develop cancer. This just shows how varied the effects of carcinogens are, and not all carcinogens pose the same risk. Though, this doesn’t mean that you should willingly expose yourself to these substances.

What Are Common Carcinogens?

Here are some common carcinogens found in the home, or you might encounter in your day-to-day life:

  • Solar radiation from the sun
  • Smoke from vehicles
  • Cigarette smoke
  • Processed meats
  • Alcoholic drinks
  • Parabens found in plastics
  • Phthalates found in cosmetics
  • Pesticides

It is important to be aware of what some common carcinogens are. This way, you can make more informed decisions about what products you buy for you and your family. While exposure to carcinogens doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll instantly get sick, it’s still a good idea to lessen your exposure in general.

Learn more about cancer prevention and diagnosis here.


Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

Medically reviewed by

John Paul Abrina, MD

Oncology · Davao Doctors Hospital

Written by Jan Alwyn Batara · Updated Jul 06, 2022

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