Concerns about known or suspected endocrine disruptors such as phthalates and parabens have been mounting in recent years. Found in cosmetics, shampoos, and other personal care products, as well as some foods, plastics, and fabrics, these chemicals can mimic or interfere with the function of hormones. Animal studies have linked endocrine disruptors, even at very low doses, with developmental, reproductive, neurological, immune, and other problems, and some research suggests that they adversely affect human health in similar ways, though there is still debate about this. The risks are likely to be greatest during pregnancy and infancy.
These endocrine disruptors are everywhere, which makes them hard to avoid and hard to study in the real world, since nearly everyone has low levels in their bodies.
One special area of concern is teenage girls. Women use twice as many personal care products as men—an average of 12 a day—and teenage girls tend to use the most, so they have high exposure to endocrine disruptors. Since teens are undergoing reproductive development, they’re likely to be particularly susceptible to these chemicals, which may be absorbed by the skin or inhaled as fragrances.
That’s why teenage girls were the focus of a study by researchers at the Center for Environmental Research and Children’s Health here at UC Berkeley, published recently in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives. I have two teenage and two preteen granddaughters, so I am very interested in these findings.
Cosmetics and personal care products are only lightly regulated in the U.S., and ingredients lists on labels are often incomplete or nonexistent. Phthalates, for instance, are used as fragrances and thus are considered proprietary, so manufacturers don’t have to list them.
How can these compounds be avoided, then? That was the question addressed by the new study. The researchers didn’t test products in a lab, since consumers can’t do that themselves. Instead, they tried to identify safer products based on their labels—for instance, by making sure no parabens, phthalates, or “fragrance” were listed in their ingredients.
They then recruited 100 teenage girls from the Salinas Valley in central California. Urine tests showed that 90 percent of them had elevated levels of endocrine disruptors, similar to nationwide findings. The girls were asked to stop using their regular personal care products and instead choose from those the researchers had selected as being less likely to contain such chemicals. Three days later, urine tests revealed that levels of the chemicals had fallen by 25 to 45 percent, showing that it is possible to identify products that are lower in endocrine disruptors solely by reading labels.
Beyond reading the labels, are there other ways to find safer personal care products for you and your family? Kim Harley, PhD, one of the authors of the study, recommends the Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database, which allows you to search more than 60,000 products, and the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, which provides guidance about how to avoid potentially risky chemicals in products. Both websites have phone apps for scanning barcodes on products while you shop.
Also see our interview with Kim Harley, PhD, on hazardous chemicals in cosmetics.