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Hidden Endocrine Disruptors in Household Products

A list of the most commonly found offenders and how to avoid them

With Nicole Acevedo PhD

We put a lot of trust into the home and beauty products we use everyday, but if you do a little digging, you’ll find that some products have the potential to harm us, and one of those ways is by interfering with our endocrine system.

Several specific chemicals in beauty products are known as “endocrine disrupting chemicals,” or EDCs. EDCs have been linked to birth defects, tumors, negative effects on the reproductive system, obesity, diabetes, and more. A study cited by the Endocrine Society noted that the effects of some EDCs can even carry from one generation to the next.

What is the endocrine system?

We know that the endocrine system is a group of glands that release hormones to activate a set of target cells that then connect to specific receptors. According to the Endocrine Society, EDCs are dangerous because they can “trick a receptor by mimicking a hormone, which can turn on a hormone response and inappropriately trigger hormonal processes. Or they can bind to a hormone’s receptor and block activation, preventing appropriate hormonal processes from taking place.”

How bad are the EDCs in common household products?

“Some people say, ‘Well, you’re putting these products on your skin, and your skin is a good barrier.’ But some of these products have really meaningful effects,’’ said Dr. Nicole Acevedo, a reproduction and environmental health scientist. She is formerly the principal scientist at BeautyCounter, a clean beauty supplier, and was responsible for creating the methodology for makeup to be considered safe for use.

“The average woman uses 12 products a day, while men use five or six and teens use even more,” said Dr. Acevedo. “What if one product has parabens (an EDC), but you use 12 of those a day? You’ll have a bigger exposure. The danger is the additive effect and everyday exposure.”

She said, "The is to think about their impact during critical windows of development, including pregnancy (when high exposure rates could create irreversible damage on a fetus), with newborns, and during puberty. Readers of color take note: according to a recent study, women and men of color have even more exposure due to EDCs found in straightening products, and other haircare products.

Most endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) are unregulated in the United States

You may already know of some of the most dangerous EDCs, such as DDT, the chemical used for pest control, and lead. Unfortunately, EDCs in beauty products are lesser known, and unregulated in the United States.

“Technically they’re under the FDA purview, but they're actually not regulated. Currently the US has 11 ingredients that are restricted versus the 1,300 in the European Union which have been banned for use since 2009,” said Dr. Acevedo.

So what can consumers look for? Below is a list of a few of the hazardous EDCs to be mindful of when shopping for beauty products.

Parabens

The first in the list of EDCs is probably one of the most commonly known: parabens. They are used as a preservative in makeup, lotion, hair care products, shaving creams, toothpaste, suntan products, personal lubricant, and some deodorants.

Studies on parabens have shown that it can signal testicular cells to die early, which can lead to male infertility. Parabens have also been found in breast cancer tissue, though they are not directly linked to causing breast cancer.

Thankfully, most products bear the “paraben-free” label, making it easy to spot the right products on the shelf. Consumers can also avoid them by looking for the word “paraben” at the end of the words in the ingredients, such as methylparaben and propylparaben.

The bad news is that in fragrances there is little regulation and fragrance companies have been known to wrap parabens under the label of “fragrance” in the ingredient list. (More on that below.)

Phthalates

Phthalates (pronounced tha-lates), like parabens, are also linked to decreasing male fertility. According to the FDA, they are used in nail polish, hair sprays, and fragrance.

“Phthalates act as a binder for a scent to your skin or clothes,” said Dr. Acevedo. They also work in nail polish to bind the polish to the nail. “People say, ‘Oh, it's just your nail,’ but things pass quite effectively through your nail into your bloodstream.”

In the US, if a product contains a certain amount of phthalates, it is required to be clearly marked. However, like parabens, phthalates do not have to be noted on the labels for fragrances.

The FDA warns that if you’re avoiding phthalates, avoid products with the ingredient “fragrance” which, again, is a typical catch-all for a combination of EDCs. This leads us to…

“Fragrance” 

The terms “fragrance” or “parfum” on a product's ingredient list could mean, well, anything. As aforementioned, this is typically where phthalates and parabens are hidden from consumers. According to Dr. Acevedo, the law doesn’t require manufacturers to disclose the ingredients to consumers if their labeled as “fragrance.”

“This loophole allows dozens – sometimes even hundreds – of chemicals to hide under the word ‘fragrance' on the labels of cosmetic products with no regulatory oversight of the safety of those ingredients,” she said.

She noted the work done by Breast Cancer Prevention Partners (BCPP). In a 2010 study they looked at 17 fragrances and found they “contained an average of four hormone-disrupting ingredients each, including synthetic musks and diethyl phthalate,” chemicals associated with gynecological abnormalities, unusual reproductive development, and sperm damage in adult men. 

Ultraviolet (UV) Filters

UV filters are found in chemical sunscreens, lip balms, and in some nail polish. Dr. Acevedo points to oxybenzone and benzophenone to be the major endocrine disruptors, having been shown in a 2003 study to indirectly change gene expression.

Triclosan (TCS)

This germ-killer is commonly found in antibacterial soaps. In the United States it has been banned except for usage in toothpaste, hand sanitizer, and mouthwash, making it still pretty widely used in products. Exposure to TCS has been linked to allergies, asthma, and food sensitivities.

Now that we’ve outlined a few of the most commonly used EDCs, what can you do to avoid them? Dr. Acevedo suggests some of the online resources and shops committed to clean products, such as Credo, Follain, and EWG’s Skin Deep Database, where consumers can type in the name of a product or an ingredient and get a rating of it.

 

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