What Are Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals In Beauty Products & Should We Avoid Them?
The cosmetics industry as we know it is getting a major glow-up, thanks to the increasing number of “clean beauty” brands emerging from the limelight.
While more and more cosmetic companies shift towards ~chemical consciousness~, the story behind this industry-wide movement is still unfolding: specifically, endocrine-disrupting chemicals and how they impact our overall hormonal health.
So, what are endocrine disruptors? Endocrine-disrupting chemicals, not-so affectionately referred to as “EDCs”, are defined by the World Health Organization as “an exogenous substance or mixture that alters the functions of the endocrine system and consequently causes adverse health effects in an intact organism, or its progeny, or (sub) populations” (1).
In layman’s terms: endocrine disruptors are an external chemical that penetrates your endocrine system through consumption (food), absorption (skincare), or inhalation (perfume) and can alter not only your hormonal health, but also the health of any potential offspring. Say it with me, people: W-T-F.
Unfortunately, these seemingly silent assassins appear in way more than just your everyday cosmetics: plastic bottles/containers, detergents, flame retardants, food, toys, and pesticides all contain one or more of the same endocrine disruptors that are found in some of the products you use on your face and body (2).
Now, I admit, that does sound kind of like you could be spritzing the equivalent of Raid onto your face every morning, but let’s take a collective breath: it’s not that drastic. Actually, truth be told, a lot more scientific research is needed to determine the real damage these chemicals could cause to the human body over time.
So - if we don’t have all of the facts yet, where does that leave us when it comes to endocrine disruptors?
Should we care about endocrine disrupting chemicals as much as clean beauty brands say we should?
Are we in real danger??
To help uncover the mystery surrounding this murky topic, I took a peek into what scientists and experts have to say so far, and…Y’ALL. It was WAY more complicated than I initially thought, to say the least. This about sums up my mood after 5 minutes of research:
JK, of course, but, still. Murky indeed!
While the Kris Jenner in me still believes this is definitely a case for the FBI (meaning, science really does need more time to catch up), I did manage to make some sense of what little research is available today. Here’s the current scoop on endocrine disruptors & why clean beauty is on a mission to eliminate them.
The long & the (very) short of EDC research
As we’ve learned so far, science has only just begun to scratch the surface of endocrine disruptor’s effect on human development, with research only tracing back to the early 90’s. However, most of the studies that I found focused on household and agricultural products, not cosmetics, leaving much to be desired as we try to understand why excluding them from skincare & beauty products is such a hot topic across the industry.
Sadly, this lack of research and clear answers also means that endocrine disruptors could be harming us more than we know - only time and research will tell, leaving us with one ginormous, looming grey area. :(
However, it’s important to note that including these chemicals is technically considered “safe” to do under current FDA regulations. This is why you may find a lot of the major no-no’s - like phthalates and BHA - on store shelves near you, even though they are considered potentially dangerous by some experts. Again, only time will tell us the true damage (or lack thereof) that these ingredients could have on our bodies.
Before you jump the gun and immediately purge your collection of all things EDC-infused, though, consider this: while these warnings are definitely something to think about as you shop for products, cosmetic endocrine disruptors are currently incorporated in small, FDA-approved doses, which they advise is safe for human use… at least for now.
A brief explanation of the endocrine system in our bodies
To effectively communicate the potential impact that endocrine disruptors have on our bodies, we should first revisit the definition of the endocrine system itself (it’s been a hot minute since middle school science class, I know, so don’t be ashamed if you need this refresher).
In short, the endocrine system is a series of ductless glands that secrete hormones directly into the blood to regulate various bodily functions. This complex system of organs includes your gonads (your sex organs which produce estrogen or testosterone), pituitary glands (which stimulate growth), and adrenal glands (your go-to source of cortisol when you need it most, like right before a stressful event). The endocrine system is a key component in reproduction, immune function and metabolic health, keeping us from developing health issues like obesity and diabetes.
How do endocrine disruptors affect human health (at very low doses)?
Your endocrine system includes some of the most crucial machinery within your body. Because of this, scientist’s biggest fear is that long-term exposure to endocrine disruptors could have disastrous effects on this fragile system: cancer, infertility in men and women, and cognitive deficits, to name a few.
However, none of these potential risks or early warnings from experts have stopped endocrine disruptors from being included in many cosmetics - in fact, current FDA regulation states that they will only act on a product that shows evidence of harm AFTER it’s been introduced to the market (3).
Basically, what this means is that if it DOES turn out that endocrine disruptors in cosmetics are dangerous to our long-term health, the current protocol says that we as the consumer will have to experience the adverse effects before the FDA will officially consider it a problem.
To break it down further: unless we start seeing harmful, extreme side effects from exposure to these chemicals, the FDA will continue to allow them to be used in products. *aggressive side eye from clean beauty believers everywhere*
So, what are common endocrine disruptors?
Now that we’ve covered the basics of endocrine disrupting chemicals and where the current regulations stand with them, it’s finally time to directly address the top four offenders commonly found on clean beauty’s “most wanted” list. What are the four types of endocrine disruptors often found in beauty products? Here are the prime suspects to look out for, along with their alleged crimes against human health:
Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT)
Often used in lipstick, eye shadow, and petroleum products (like lip balm), you may have recently encountered BHA and BHT while primping for a virtual blind date, or making yourself presentable for an impromptu Zoom meeting.
While early studies suggest that skin irritation is the most imminent threat of exposure to BHA and BHT, let’s not forget: the jury’s still out on what the long-term effects of regular use are. Research is yet to be completed, so the real question remains unanswered. My advice? As with any perceived threat: proceed with caution.
FYI: BHAs and BHTs are also known as Sodium Laureth Sulfate, or “SLS” for short.
Phthalates dibutyl phthalate (DBP), dimethyl phthalate (DMP), and diethyl phthalate (DEP)
First of all, the person who came up with this name is rude. PERIODT.
Second, it’s pronounced “thal-ates”. Please enjoy the extra 5 minutes that you would’ve spent trying to sound that one out on your own. 😇
As if the pronunciation wasn’t hard enough, phthalates can be hard to spot on the label, too: it’s also a key component in vinyl, PVC, DEHP, DBP, fragrance, and parfum. Most commonly used in cosmetics like perfumes, hair spray, lotion, shampoo, nail polish, and soaps, these avenues allow the chemicals to absorb into your skin upon contact.
So far, lab studies suggest that exposure to phthalates can mimic/block female hormones, and may cause developmental and reproductive issues such as low sperm count, gestational diabetes and early onset puberty in adolescents.
Parabens (propyl-, isopropyl-, butyl-, and ethyl- parabens)
Ladies, listen up: this is an important one for you to note.
Unlike most endocrine disruptors found on this list, there are several studies that already connect parabens to cases of breast cancer in women. Essentially, parabens are synthetic estrogen that act like normal estrogen, infiltrating and ultimately disrupting the hormone system. Scary!
Of course, this doesn’t necessarily mean that using cosmetics with parabens will automatically lead you to the same fate, but there’s enough risk and research available to conclude that you should definitely take heed of the warnings when choosing your everyday arsenal.
To weed out any culprits that you may have hiding in your medicine cabinet, look for parabens in your moisturizers, shampoos, conditioners, lotions, facial & shower cleansers, shaving products, and scrubs. Luckily, many brands on the market clearly state they are paraben-free, making shopping for them a breeze.
Used as an antimicrobial agent, triclosan is an active ingredient in both toothpaste and shaving cream, even after being banned from soaps by the FDA in 2016. In fact, Colgate only recently decided to remove it from their ingredient list (although they’ve publicly claimed that the move was unrelated to the potential harm it may cause).
Triclosan’s tricky reputation for causing gut inflammation, on top of its potential endocrine disrupting nature, make it one to be wary of if you are dealing with any stomach conditions.
Still wondering how to avoid endocrine disruptors?
Although the idea of using these chemicals has been strongly discouraged amongst clean beauty gurus and experts alike, remember that many of the alarming side effects listed above require a lot of exposure before they become a real health risk.
If you do decide to avoid skincare & beauty products that use endocrine disruptors, just know that they can be found everywhere you go; try not to obsess over eliminating them all! We’re strong believers in reading labels carefully so that you, and not brand marketing, are in the driver's seat. If you’re not in the mood to read long labels and sift through products, opting for more ethical, transparent beauty brands for your cosmetics needs is another simple way for you to protect yourself as we wait for final answers.
Written by Adrianne Neal
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