Hey hey! You made it!
So last week we introduced this 3 part series about personal care products messing with your hormones. This week we’re introducing you to your endocrine system, why the FDA is a little bit useless about all this, and the main culprits.
Next week we’ll talk more about what you can do to protect yourself, your family, and your environment from these baddies.
Settle in; this is a 12 minute read, and you might be cranky when you’re finished because this stuff kind of sucks. But not knowing it sucks even more. And we’ve got a handy summary you can check out, plus lots more less week on tips and tricks for making it suck less.
So what’s the deal with your hormones anyway? Why does their health matter, and what does it affect?
Normally, we think of our hormones just as the things that give us PMS, or that make teenagers super horny. Which they are, but there’s also lots more that they’re in control of 1.
Your hormones also affect how randy you are, how hungry you get, whether your skin and nails look phenomenal and glowing, how much energy you have, and even more 1.
It’s our endocrine system’s job to regulate our hormones and to keep them balanced 1. Your endocrine system is this group of glands you’ve got (including your pituitary gland, your thyroid, your adrenal glands and more) that talk to one another with (surprise!) hormones 1. And each of these hormones is in charge of regulating some function in your body 1. Hormone whisperer Alisa Vitti says in her book WomanCode to “think of it as a type of ‘chemical language’”1. (P.S. WomanCode is one of the best books I’ve ever read.)
So our endocrine system works its butt off all the time trying to keep everything in check, and all our hormones balanced 1. It’s super sensitive to stress, whether it’s short term, like getting cut off in traffic, or long term like sickness, money worries, work... 1. And the longer it deals with long term stress, the harder its job gets 1.
Have you ever seen that video where someone tells a story about being asked to hold a glass of water in one hand? Doesn’t matter. The point is that it’s not a big deal if you’re just holding the glass for a second or a minute, but it becomes heavier and heavier if you’re asked to hold it for an hour, or 8 hours, or a day, or a year or 25 years.
So long term stress impacts our endocrine system like that: we’re basically asking it to hold onto a glass of water for 50 years. And the more long term stress our endocrine system has to deal with, the more likely we are to end up with chronic symptoms or a chronic health condition 1.
And so how this all ties back to our makeup or deodorant or hairspray or whatever is that when these products contain stuff that mimics estrogen or other hormones, or otherwise disrupts our endocrine system, it stresses the system out 2. Because our body produces its own estrogen and now it’s gotta deal with this other stuff it wasn’t expecting 2. So it’s no longer business as usual. It’s Plan B or C or Z for Lil’ Endocrine-y.
And that’s not a big deal if it’s not super often, but if you think about everything you put on your person on any given day (face wash, moisturizer, shampoo, conditioner, body wash, shaving cream, concealer, foundation, eye shadow, mascara, lipstick, lip gloss, lotion, perfume, what else?), and about how you’re applying this stuff pretty much every day, all of a sudden it can become a long term stress on your system if the stuff you’re applying contains endocrine mimickers or blockers 2.
Not to mention if the stuff is also potentially toxic or cancer-causing 3.
So while being exposed to a little bit of this stuff once in a while might not be a big deal (as our body is equipped to handle low level exposure of lots of things), it’s the accumulation of all this stuff day after day after day which gets really interesting 2. Because while the E.U. is keeping an eye out for its citizens and thinking about long term exposure, in the U.S., the FDA isn’t really testing or regulating anything 3. (I think I’m stuck in the Anger stage of grief. I really like my mascara. :) )
Speaking of the FDA, where are they at on all this?
Well, since no one is eating their eye shadow or drinking their conditioner, the FDA doesn’t have jurisdiction 3. They can’t even recall beauty products that have been proven to be defective or dangerous 4.
Which pretty much leaves the whole personal care industry unregulated, or self-regulated 2.
It’s pretty useless, which will make more sense when we start talking about what’s actually going into your favorite products below.
Don’t you feel wistful about some of the E.U.’s policies? Ever the shining example, in the European Union, companies have to prove that their products are safe (imagine that!), so there, hundreds of crappy chemicals have been banned from personal care products 3. But in the United States, companies just have to prove their chemicals aren’t dangerous, which is a much lower bar 3. It doesn’t have to take into account low levels of exposure across an entire lifetime, like, say, slathering yourself with lotion twice a day for 60 years 3.
Next week we’ll talk about how we can all let the industry and regulators know we think it's bullsquash.
But what is the stuff that’s actually causing problems?
Bear with me, it’s a lot of info. And many many thanks to Alisa Vitti for her work: the 5 chemical groups listed below are the ones she cites as the ones to worry about most for hormone health, both in her book WomanCode, and on her website, FloLiving 1.
For each chemical group, there’s a
|where you’ll find it|
|what it does|
|what to avoid|
We'll be sharing more strategies & resources next week about what to avoid and how.
It just didn’t feel right to tell you all about what everything is, but then not share where to look. But know, that we’ll talk more about that next week.
Take a deep breath! Here we go!
Phthalates are these industrial chemicals that are used to make things pliable and plastic-y in the world, but they also hold scent and color in lots of products, and make lotions more spreadable 2,5.
You’ll find them in everything from nail polish to shampoo, from shower curtains and PVC (which has tons and tons of problems of its own 4) to baby toys 2. (There’s a limited ban on phthalates in baby toys, but...6)
Phthalates have been linked to “earlier breast development in and possible increased breast cancer risk in females, reduced sperm count in males, and increased genital abnormalities in boys born to mothers with high exposures to phthalates” 5.
While we’re focusing mostly on personal care products, you can come in contact with phthalates in all kinds of places including from vinyl raincoats, shower curtains (if it was stinky when you opened it, it probably contained phthalates. Cloth curtains, like hotels, or curtains made of PEVA, EVA, or HDPE are better options), rubber duckies, car dashboards, steering wheels (they’re even partially responsible for new car smell!), car deodorizers, paints, medicines, vitamins (they’re sometimes used as pill coatings! Yikes!), furniture, food packaging (jeez louise...), air fresheners, insect repellent, flooring, and even medical devices like IV bags 2,5.
Manufacturers are allowed to use phthalates however they want in US cosmetics 5. They’re required to list them as an ingredient, except, there’s this loophole that if the phthalates are part of their fragrance, it doesn’t have to be listed because that’s “proprietary” 5.
Avoid anything with “fragrance” listed as an ingredient 5. But also keep an eye out in detergents, lipstick, nail polish, and hairspray, where they’re a common ingredient 5.
So, even though we would never be able to tell you everything to avoid (with more resources to help you make informed decisions next week) some common phthalates or things you’ll see on ingredients lists, and where you’ll likely find them include:
Later in the series we’ll have a special guest to help us dive deeper about how they’re also in plastic sex toys and what a mess that is. Long story short: sex toys are considered “novelties” and therefore not regulated by anyone 5... (“Novelty” implies that they won’t be used by anyone. Right...) 5.
Parabens are found in your stuff that has a lot of water in it, like face wash, shampoo, conditioner, foundation, lotion, face cleanser, shower gel, even concealer and skin creams 1,8.
Parabens are preservatives. They discourage microbe growth, which, in theory, is great since no one wants to refrigerate their shampoo and conditioner (especially not drug and grocery stores) 2,8. But parabens also mimic estrogen and mess up your body’s own hormonal signals like we talked about above 2,8.
Parabens have been linked to endocrine disruption (because they mimic estrogen); one variety is tied to skin cancer; and they can mess with your sperm count, making it lower 8.
To avoid parabens, look for products labeled, “Paraben free” or check the ingredient list for anything that ends in “paraben” including things like ethylparaben, butylparaben, methylparaben, propylparaben, isobutylparaben and isopropylparaben 8,9.
Sodium lauryl sulfate (SLS) and sodium laureth sulfate or sodium lauryl ether sulfate (both known as SLES) are cleansers added to make stuff bubbly 1,2.
These two are double trouble:
And it sounds like it’s pretty easy to accidentally make 1,4-dioxane during a chemical reaction when certain common stuff is mixed together 10. But all that means you’ll never see see 1,4-dioxane on any ingredients lists because it’s not added to any products 10.
And it’s so common that in the 25,000 product database that the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics runs, they estimate you’ll find 1,4-dioxane in as many as 22% of those products 10.
You’ll find SLS, SLES and 1,4-dioxane it in products that get sudsy like shampoos, relaxers, liquid soap and other bubbly fun things, even bubble bath for babies 10,11.
Keep an eye out for sodium lauryl sulfate, sodium laureth sulfate, sodium lauryl ether sulfate, SLS, SLES, PEG compounds, polyethylene, polyethylene glycol, polyoxyethylene, polysorbate, chemicals that include the clauses eth, oxynol, xynol, ceteareth and oleth 1,2,10.
Oh boy, these are everywhere. According to The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, you’ll find ethanolamines in “soaps, shampoos, hair conditioners and dyes, lotions, shaving creams, paraffin and waxes, household cleaning products, pharmaceutical ointments, eyeliners, mascara, eye shadows, blush, make-up bases, foundations, fragrances, sunscreens” 12.
So what are they for? They help suspend one liquid in another liquid (emulsify) and help stuff get foamy 1,12,13.
There are lots of studies that show a bunch of different health conditions related to ethanolamine compounds, including cancer (diethanolamine (DEA) and triethanolamine (TEA) are probable carcinogens) 12. And sometimes, when ingredients are mixed together, DEA can react to form nitrosodiethanolamine (NDEA), which is a known carcinogen 12.
The other thing is that our bodies may not get rid of this stuff: 52-68% of DEA in “hair dyes, body lotions, and shampoos remain on the upper layers of the skin after exposure,” it’s called bioaccumulation 12. So ok, that sounds gross, but not necessarily dangerous. But DEA messes with sperm so that it can’t swim and fertilize eggs as well 12. And, it can also accumulate in the liver and be super unhappy, even potentially causing tremors 12.
If you’re reading labels, avoid nitrosodiethanolamine (NDEA), “triethanolamine, diethanolamine, DEA, TEA, cocamide DEA, cocamide MEA, DEA-cetyl phosphate, DEA oleth-3 phosphate, lauramide DEA, linoleamide MEA, myristamide DEA, oleamide DEA, stearamide MEA, TEA-lauryl sulfate” 12.
Good ol’ petroleum jelly or petrolatum! Say it ain’t so! You know this stuff: it’s used in lotions and lip stuff because it’s a darn good moisturizer 1.
These guys are known endocrine disruptors 1. What's worse is that if they haven’t been fully refined in to “white petrolatum” during manufacture, they’re commonly contaminated with polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, which cause cancer 1,14. The EU requires the full refinement history of petrolatum before it may be used in a product, while the U.S. doesn’t require anything 14.
PAHs are commonly thought to cause cancer, including breast cancer 14.
Avoid the whole lot: petrolatum, petroleum jelly, and paraffin oil, mineral oil, and even white petrolatum on lotion and cosmetics labels 1,14.
And as if this weren’t enough, there are plenty of other things to keep your eye out for too. This 2006 report by the Breast Cancer Fund and Breast Cancer Action summarized over 350 studies linking environmental factors to breast cancer and found 4 groups of chemicals that can mimic estrogen or, in another way, disrupt the body’s own hormones 2.
We’ve already covered phthalates and parabens. They also took issue with placental extract, which you’ll often find in hair products for African-American women 2. It’s linked to early onset of puberty, and this one study that kind of blew my mind found that young girls started developing pubic hair and breasts within 24 months of using products containing this stuff; the amazing thing is that when they stopped using the products, the development stopped 15.
Look for products that claim to “instantly repair dry and damaged hair” 2. Or look for placental extract on the ingredient label. Note: I found less literature about this topic (the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database had some info, but the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics had nothing!). I am sure that there is a lot more to say...
BPA is the last endocrine disruptor listed on the report. This one is used to make hard plastics, and we come in contact with it through water bottles and water coolers 2.
It also often coats the inside of food cans, where it can (and does) leech into your food or water 2,3.
It’s an endocrine disruptor for sure, but BPA can also cause cardiovascular disease and diabetes (it’s been linked to obesity), make your immune system weaker towards chronic infections, and increase your risk for colon cancer 2,5. BPA might also increase your risk for breast cancer 5.
But alternatives to BPA (like the ones that line BPA free cans) could be even more dangerous than BPA 5. Testing has been limited, but not promising, which sucks 5. So the best bet might be to stay away from canned food when you can, and drink from glass or stainless steel or ceramic 2,5.
Other places you run into BPA everyday:
And while these are the 4 groups deemed notable by the report for their link to cancer or other endocrine disrupting traits, they are by no means the only things to keep an eye out for. For even more troublemakers, check out the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics’ Chemicals of Concern List.
So. Take a deep breath. You just learned a ton, and are probably feeling overwhelmed and anxious and bleck. It’s going to be ok. You can start peeking at your labels, seeing where the biggest culprits are, and we’ll be back next week with brand recommendations, tools to help make cleaning out your shower and bathroom easier, and healthy outlets for your outrage.
Thank you so much for hanging in there. And if you’ve got anything to add, whether from your own research or experience, please comment below.
P.S. And just to be clear, I'm not a doctor, none of this is medical advice. It's just because I care. <3
1 Vitti, A. WomanCode: Perfect Your Cycle, Amplify Your Fertility, Supercharge Your Sex Drive and Become a Power Source. New York, HarperCollins; 2013.
2 Gottfried, S. The Hormone Cure: Reclaim Balance, Sleep, Sex Drive, & Vitality Naturally with the Gottfried Protocol. New York: Scribner; 2013.
3 Malkan, S. Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry. Gabriola Island, BC, Canada, New Society Publishers; 2007.
4 Leonard A, Conrad A. The Story of Stuff: How Our Obsession with Stuff is Trashing the Planet, Our Communities, and Our Health - and a Vision for Change. New York, Free Press; 2010.
5 SanClements, M. Plastic Purge: How to Use Less Plastic, Eat Better, Keep Toxins Out of Your Body, and Help Save the Sea Turtles! New York, St. Martin’s Griffin; 2014.
6 Consumer Product Safety Commission. Phthalates [Internet]. [cited 2016 May 11]. Available from http://www.cpsc.gov/phthalates
7 EWG’s Skin Deep Cosmetics Database. Butyl Benzyl Phthalate [Internet]. [cited 2016 May 10]. Available from http://www.ewg.org/skindeep/ingredient/717096/BUTYL_BENZYL_PHTHALATE/
8 Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. Chemicals of Concern: Parabens [Internet]. [cited 2016 May 10] Available from http://www.safecosmetics.org/get-the-facts/chemicals-of-concern/parabens/
9 Vitti, A. Flo Living’s 5 Step Countdown to Boosting Your Beauty in Just 5 Days! [Internet]. 2015 March 5 [cited 2016 May 8]. Available from https://www.floliving.com/flo-livings-5-step-countdown-to-boosting-your-beauty-in-just-5-days/
10 Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. Chemicals of Concern: 1,4-Dioxane [Internet]. [cited 2016 May 10] Available from http://www.safecosmetics.org/get-the-facts/chemicals-of-concern/14-dioxane/
11 Leonard A. The Story of Cosmetics: Footnoted and Annotated Script [Internet]. [cited 2016 May 9]. Available from http://storyofstuff.org/wp-content/uploads/movies/scripts/SoCosmetics_Annotated_Script.pdf
12 Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. Chemicals of Concern: Ethanolamine Compounds (MEA, DEA, TEA and Others) [Internet]. [cited 2016 May 10] Available from http://www.safecosmetics.org/get-the-facts/chemicals-of-concern/ethanolamine-compounds/
13 Dictionary.com. Emulsion [Internet]. [cited 2016 May 10] Available from http://www.dictionary.com/browse/emulsion?s=t
14 Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. Chemicals of Concern: Petrolatum, Petroleum Jelly [Internet]. [cited 2016 May 10] Available from http://www.safecosmetics.org/get-the-facts/chemicals-of-concern/petrolatum/
15 EWG’s Skin Deep Cosmetics Database. Placental Extract [Internet]. [cited 2016 May 11]. Available from http://www.ewg.org/skindeep/ingredient/704919/PLACENTAL_EXTRACT/#