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How to Avoid Hormone-Disrupting Cosmetics

It may be surprising to learn the average American woman uses 12 personal care products each day, containing nearly 168 different chemicals.1 Although the European Union (EU) has been proactively regulating the number of chemicals their consumers are exposed to in cosmetics, the U.S. has not. 

Following his study2 evaluating the number of personal care product adverse events reported to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Dr. Shuai Xu, dermatologist from McGaw Medical Center at Northwestern University, commented:3

"Here is a $400 billion industry with millions of products and multiple controversies, but we only had about 5,000 adverse events over the course of 12 years. That's very, very underreported. [The EU] banned more than 1,000 chemicals. We've only banned 10. They've been very proactive about looking at chemical safety and putting the burden on manufacturers to prove their cosmetic products are safe."

In the U.S., personal care products are allowed to reach store shelves without any prior authorization by any federal agency. Only after a product has demonstrated harm may the FDA take action. Compounding the situation, the FDA has made manufacturers responsible for ensuring the safety of the products they produce, and companies are not required to share those tests with any federal agency or the public.

Unfortunately, this has led to a plethora of dangerous chemicals in cosmetics and cleaning supplies marketed to the public. One compelling study4 published in Environmental Health Perspectives demonstrated that by reducing the use of cosmetics containing specific chemicals, participants could significantly reduce their exposure.

Changing Cosmetics May Reduce Exposure to Hormone Disrupting Chemicals

The researchers began with the premise that personal care products are a potential source of exposure to endocrine disrupting chemicals, such as parabens, triclosan, phthalates and phenols.5 They enrolled 100 young women in a youth-led, community-based research intervention study to determine if using products with lower levels of these chemicals could result in lower urinary concentrations.

The researchers measured urine samples for phthalate metabolites, parabens, triclosan and benzophenone-3 (BP-3) before and after intervention, using liquid chromatography and tandem mass spectrometry. They found more than 90 percent of the participants had detectable levels of phthalates, parabens and BP-3 prior to using the replacement products.6 

The participants used alternative cosmetic products labeled paraben- and phthalate-free for three days. Afterward, urinary concentrations decreased by over 40 percent for parabens, over 27 percent for monoethyl phthalates and over 35 percent for triclosan.

However, increases of butyl and ethyl parabens were detected in nearly half the participants.7 The authors suggested these may have been contaminants in the cosmetics or unlabeled ingredients, which they were unable to ensure were paraben-free.

The study demonstrated even a short break from certain kinds of makeup, shampoos and lotions may lead to a significant drop in hormone-disrupting chemicals.8 While the study did not include males, it is important to note shaving creams and lotions, after shave and other personal care items used by men also contain these chemicals.

While the authors suggested potential contaminants existed within personal care products used in the study, the results may also suggest the potential manufacturers are using ingredients not included on the label and hidden under "trade secrets."

Your Cosmetics May Contain Secret Toxins

Although this study evaluated the effect of reducing exposure to parabens, phthalates and BP-3, it's important to remember your personal care products may contain a variety of chemicals and other toxins dangerous to your health. 

In an Environmental Defense report,9 researchers shared results from testing 49 different makeup items, finding serious heavy metal contamination in nearly all the products. Contamination included lead, beryllium, thallium, cadmium and arsenic.

Although the FDA has set what they consider to be safe limits for many chemicals found within personal care products, the concern is not exposure to one product with one use. Instead, as demonstrated by the number of personal care products women use on a daily basis, cumulative exposure is likely overloading your body and contributing to a wide range of health problems.

A number of toxic chemicals are included under the general category of "fragrance." These combinations are protected by a loophole in the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act,10 intended to ensure consumers have information to make informed choices. However, companies are not required to disclose "trade secrets," under which fragrances and flavor ingredients fall.11  

While the list of toxic chemicals commonly found in personal care products is long, a few dangerous chemicals to avoid on your product labels include:12

  • Sodium lauryl sulfate — A surfactant found in nearly 90 percent of personal care and cleaning products
  • Formaldehyde-releasing preservatives — Used to help prevent bacterial growth, but also a known human carcinogen
  • Toluene — A petrochemical used as a solvent in nail polish, nail treatments and hair coloring products

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