Difference Between Mutagen and Carcinogen

Mutagen and carcinogen are two terms that have a lot in common. There is a potential that a single substance could be both of them at the same time and be only one of the two, as well. Mutagens and carcinogens have been given a lot of attention in order to reduce cancer risk and take preventive measures for cancer. The substances, which are classified as either mutagen or carcinogen, are usually avoided in any industry unless there is no other alternative.


Mutagen is anything which has the potential of generating a mutation. The mutation, which is discussed here, is the genetic mutation; mutation is DNA code. Mutations are not always a bad thing. Species evolving better is a result of mutations occurring through various generations. Mutations are possible without mutagen activity, and that is through spontaneity. If a mutagen causes a mutation in body cells it is not passed to the next generation, but if it is in gametes it is passed to the next generation, sometimes producing a genetic disease.

A mutagen could be of physical or chemical origin. Very popular physical mutagens are x-rays, gamma rays, alpha particles, UV rays, and radioactive decay. Among chemical mutagens reactive oxygen species, nitrous acid, polyaromatic hydrocarbons, alkylating agents, aromatic amines, sodium azide, and benzene are some popular substances. Heavy metals such as Arsenic, Chromium, Cadmium and Nickel also have the ability to induce mutations. Biological agents such as some viruses, transposons, and bacteria may also change genetic material, which may lead to mutations.

The natural protection against mutagens is given by antioxidant rich vegetables and fruits, Vitamin E, C, polyphenols, flavonoids, and Se rich foods.


Carcinogen is anything which has the potential of generating cancer. Cancer is a phenomenon which occurs as a result of mutated cell cycle processes. A cell ideally has a life cycle, and after sometime it faces a cell death. If the cell cycle is mutated or related processes are changed due to some factor cells may live longer and multiply rapidly without proper functioning. This is very harmful for the normal cells and normal biological processes. Carcinogens can induce such cell behavior inside one’s body.

Carcinogens are divided into two types; radioactive carcinogens and non-radioactive carcinogens. Radioactive carcinogens are gamma rays and alpha particles, and non-radioactive carcinogens are asbestos, dioxins, Arsenic compounds, Cadmium compounds, PVC, diesel exhaust, benzene, tobacco smoke etc. Carcinogens can cause skin, lung, liver, and prostate cancer, and some cause leukemia. Carcinogens can also form tumors. Some natural carcinogens are Aflatoxin B produced by a fungus growing on stored nuts and Hepatitis B virus. Not all carcinogens are mutagens because a mutation is not essential for cancer to take form. But most carcinogens are mutagens.

What is the difference between Mutagens and Carcinogens?

• Mutagens cause mutations in the genetic material but carcinogens cause cancer.

• Most mutagens can be carcinogens and most carcinogens can be mutagens but, it is not necessary for one substance to be both.