Our modern world is full of chemicals. And many of these are useful. Without advances in our understanding of chemistry, we wouldn’t have many of the medicines and technologies that we now rely upon.
But there are some chemicals, both natural and manmade, that affect our hormones and may be a risk to our health. These endocrine disruptors are hard to avoid. They are often found in personal care products, cosmetics, and even in common items we use around our homes.
So, what exactly is an endocrine disruptor and why might you want to avoid them? This article will explore some of the common chemicals found in beauty and lifestyle products, discuss the risks associated with them, and give you some suggestions for how to minimise your exposure.
What is an endocrine disruptor?
Our endocrine system is the network of glands in our bodies that control hormone production. The glands produce hormones and release them into our bloodstreams. The hormones act as chemical messengers, telling our organs and other tissues to react in a certain way.
Many of the most important processes in our bodies are affected by hormones, including:
- Sexual development
Endocrine disruptors are chemicals that interfere with our natural hormone production. They can do this either by mimicking the hormone itself or by increasing or decreasing our normal hormone levels.
Why are endocrine disruptors a problem?
As you might imagine, disrupting the natural production of our hormones is bad news for our health.
With so many important bodily processes affected by hormones, endocrine disruptors may be a real cause for concern. Even small changes to this carefully balanced system can create issues in our bodies.
Endocrine disruptors have been linked to problems with reproduction and development, as well as an increased risk of cancer.
Different chemicals have different effects. When it comes to cosmetics and other beauty products, the main ones to look out for are:
Parabens: These synthetic chemicals are found in many beauty products and foods. They act as preservatives, giving products a longer shelf life and preventing mould growth.
But there has been concern about parabens and their effect on human health for many years. This is because they mimic oestrogen in our systems. Parabens are thought to increase the risk of developing breast cancer and lower male fertility.
Phthalates: Typically added to plastics to make them softer and more flexible, phthalates are also found in many beauty products, including lipsticks, nail polish, fragrances, hair spray, and shampoos. You may also find phthalates used to coat textiles to make them more durable.
Like parabens, phthalates are known to mimic oestrogen. According to the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, exposure to this group of chemicals has been linked with an increased risk of cancer and a decrease in male fertility and sperm production.
Plastics: Plastic packaging is more than just an issue for the environment. Many plastics are thought to be endocrine disruptors too. And these plastics can leach into the beauty products or food they contain.
The most well-known example of this is Bisphenol-A (BPA). In fact, the EU banned the use of this plastic in baby bottles back in 2011 and for coating paper receipts in 2020. This is because BPA is known to disrupt hormone production in both humans and animals. It also affects reproduction in aquatic creatures.
Triclosan: An antibacterial and antifungal, triclosan is sometimes found in toothpaste, antibacterial soaps, hand sanitisers, and shower gels. Its use is now heavily restricted in many countries, including the EU, the UK, and the USA mainly because it hasn’t shown any real benefits and is known to cause hormone disruption.
BHA & BHT: These two closely related chemicals are often used in sunscreen, hair products, deodorant, lipstick, and makeup. They act as preservatives, extending the shelf-life of the products.
According to the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, both BHA and BHT are endocrine disruptors. They are also potential carcinogens and may cause reproductive issues.
Why are endocrine disruptors still used in beauty products?
A lot of the information about the effects of endocrine disruptors comes from animal studies. This is mainly because humans are exposed to such a wide range of chemicals in our day-to-day lives that narrowing down the impact of just one is difficult.
Scientists need controlled laboratory settings so they can make sure their test subjects are only exposed to different levels of the chemical that is of interest. Since isolating a human this way would be unlikely to get past the board of ethics, studies have turned to animals instead.
The trouble with this approach is that animals and humans are not the same and these chemicals may affect us differently than they do a rat or a mouse.
So, while studies have shown the adverse effects of endocrine disruptors on the health of other mammals, birds, and fish, the correlation between them and human health issues is less clear.
This is why you will still find chemicals that are known to cause hormone disruption used in cosmetics and personal care products. While few people deny that these chemicals can interfere with our endocrine systems, there is a question over whether the disruption results in health issues or not.
Having said that, the potential risk of these hormone-disrupting chemicals hasn’t been dismissed. The European Commission, for example, continues to evaluate the health risks of endocrine disruptors. Restrictions on BPA use are a clear signal from the EU that it is prepared to put legislation in place where needed to protect the environment and human health.
So, is it safe to use cosmetics that contain parabens or phthalates?
As things stand, beauty brands can continue to use chemicals like parabens or phthalates in their products. There isn’t strong enough evidence that these chemicals are harmful to human health. It is down to us individually to decide whether we want to take the risk or not.
But, even if you decide that the possible impact of endocrine disruptors is a chance you are willing to take, there is a second consideration. And that is the impact of these chemicals on the environment.
And of course, it is easy for these chemicals to find their way into our waters. As well as individuals washing personal care products down the drain, factories that manufacture beauty products must manage their wastewater with care, or it can pollute the local waterways.
So, you may still want to avoid products that contain these harmful chemicals because of their environmental impact, even if you aren’t concerned about the possible risk to your own health.
Natural chemicals that disrupt hormones
Not all endocrine disruptors are synthetic chemicals. There’s a group known as phytoestrogens that are naturally found in plants like soya and are thought to mimic oestrogen.
This caused some concern, especially for the vegan community, when headlines in 2008 suggested that eating products derived from soya might cause lower fertility in men. The conclusions of the study on which these headlines were based have since been questioned, and most health authorities consider soya-based products safe to eat.
You are unlikely to find soya in your beauty products anyway. But concerns have also been raised about tea tree oil and lavender oil – both common ingredients in natural beauty products.
There have been a few studies that suggest these oils may have endocrine-disrupting properties. One found that three girls and a boy with pre-pubescent breast growth had been using products containing lavender oil. The breast growth went away when they discontinued use of the products.
Another study found a similar correlation in three different pre-pubescent boys using products that contained lavender oil or tea tree oil.
Both these studies are based on an extremely small sample sizes, so it is difficult to draw definitive conclusions from them. It also isn’t clear what other ingredients were in the products used by the children or what they were packaged in.
As with synthetic endocrine disruptors, more research is needed before we can draw solid conclusions about whether lavender or tea tree oil are harmful to humans or not. So far, there’s nothing to link either oil to issues in adults. But they might not be suitable to use on children.
How can you avoid endocrine disruptors?
Knowing which chemicals to avoid is a good first step. Read the labels carefully before buying a new product. Look out for chemical names that end ‘-phthalate’ or ‘-paraben’ on the ingredient list as these are both big groups with many different chemicals in them.
Sadly, there is a loophole that allows beauty brands to hide the use of endocrine disruptors. Current labelling laws allow companies to keep the exact formulas used in their scented products a secret to prevent them from being copied by competitors.
Instead, you’ll usually just see the word ‘parfum’. And this may mean some of the chemicals you are trying to avoid are in the product but not included on the label.
Fortunately, there are some labelling schemes out there that can help you easily identify products that are free of the major endocrine disruptors. Some products will simply say on them that they are phthalate or paraben-free.
Others will have signed up to one of the available certification schemes, giving you confidence that there is an external check on their ingredients. Labels to look out for include:
- COSMOS Natural and COSMOS organic
- NaTrue Natural and NaTrue organic
These indicate beauty products and cosmetics that are made without the use of synthetic chemicals, parabens, and phthalates.
When it comes to plastic packaging, brands are increasingly aware of the impact of plastic on the environment as well as on our health. Many companies now avoid using BPA in their packaging and you might see a little label telling you that it is BPA-free.
You can also check for the plastic recycling symbol. Most of the time, the plastic will be BPA-free if the number inside the triangle is 1, 2, 4, or 5. If the number is 3, 6, or 7, the plastic is more likely to contain BPA.
The problem here is that common alternatives to BPA, like BPS or BPF, are thought to be just as disruptive to our hormone systems. But because people are less aware of the risks, you might find it difficult to discover whether these have been used in the packaging for your beauty products.
Since plastic is also associated with environmental pollution, you might simply decide to opt for products packaged without it. This is much easier than it used to be, with plenty of brands working to reduce their plastic waste.
You can often find glass and metal used in place of plastic packaging. Some of the more environmentally conscious brands even use cardboard now.
More research is needed before it will be clear whether common endocrine disruptors like phthalates and parabens are a danger to human health. But the evidence from animal studies is cause for concern.
Either way, the impact of these chemicals on fish and other aquatic life will be enough for many of us to want to stay clear.
Fortunately, a growing awareness of the potential dangers of hormone-disrupting chemicals means that many brands are choosing to make beauty products that don’t contain these ingredients. And the various labelling schemes available make it easier for consumers to identify which items are safe to use.