How to Avoid Hormone-Disrupting Cosmetics

Written by Dr. Joseph Mercola Fact Checked

Avoid Hormone-Disrupting Cosmetics

Story at-a-glance -

  • Researchers found by using cosmetics marked paraben and phthalate free, participant exposure to the hormone disrupting chemicals was significantly reduced as measured by urinary excretion before and after testing
  • The average American woman uses 12 personal care products each day, containing nearly 168 different chemicals, the majority of which have not undergone adequate safety testing
  • Cosmetic and personal care products may also contain heavy metals and usually have a list of chemicals protected by the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act as “trade secrets”
  • Carefully consider reporting adverse events to the FDA, seeking out cosmetics without parabens and phthalates, making your own cleaning supplies using natural ingredients and maintaining a healthy gut microbiome to reduce health risks

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

Risks Associated With Paraben Esters Affect Men and Women

Since personal care products contain a diverse combination of chemicals and it is unethical to experiment on humans, it is nearly impossible to scientifically demonstrate a specific cause and effect in humans.13 For this reason, many experiments are done using animal models.

However, hormone disruptors, such as parabens, which affect how estrogen and other hormones are used in the body, effectively create an imbalance in the body's hormonal system. Since your hormones are responsible for the management and regulation of nearly every system in your body, this effect can have far reaching consequences.

Parabens are man-made chemicals used as preservatives in personal care products, foods, pharmaceuticals and beverages. Oftentimes, manufacturers will use more than one paraben in a single product. This only increases your exposure and the cumulative effect they may have in your body. Common parabens you may find listed on your product labels include:14,15 

Methylparaben

Ethylparaben

Propylparaben

Benzylparaben

Butylparaben

N-propylparaben

Isobutylparaben

Studies linking the action of parabens on the expression of estrogen and progesterone receptors and noncancerous cells16 found methylparaben increases breast cancer tumor proliferation17 and demonstrated human epidermal growth factor receptors enhance the ability of butylparaben to stimulate breast cancer proliferation.18

Methylparaben decreases the proliferation of keratinocytes and promotes skin aging.19 Parabens also have an adverse effect on the vitality of sperm and damage the late stage of spermatogenesis in an animal model.20

Lab tests done on 315 male patients21 in a fertility clinic found those exposed to parabens had lower testosterone levels and more sperm that are abnormally shaped and slow moving.

The study suggests these ingredients may contribute to a rising number of men experiencing infertility. Those who had a low concentration of parabens had a lower proportion of sperm with abnormal morphology, while those with higher levels had DNA damage in the sperm, lower motility and higher abnormal morphology.

Consider the Chemicals You May Inhale or Touch

Although these toxic chemicals are commonly found in personal care products, they are also found in conventional cleaning products, impacting your health and the environment. Making a simple switch to safer alternatives using ingredients you may already have at home will help to reduce your exposure and the damaging impact on the environment.

Dish soaps often contain phthalates, and triclosan is found in many detergents and over-the-counter antibacterial products. Speaking about perchlorethylen, Judith Schreiber, Ph.D., chief scientist of environmental protection for the New York Attorney General's office,22 said it is a neurotoxin, increasing your risk for neurological effects, liver and kidney diseases and cancer.

This chemical is a component of spot removers, carpet cleaners and dry cleaning solutions. Another group of chemicals known as quaternary ammonium compounds (quats) are standard ingredients in many antibacterial solutions and are commonly found in fabric softeners.

Quaternium-15 is likely the most well-known of the quats and is a known formaldehyde-releasing chemical found in hair conditioners, hair styling products, shaving products and household cleaning products. Other quats include:23

Benzalkonium chloride

Cetalkonium chloride

Cetrimonium chloride

Lauryl dimonium hydrolysed collagen

Stearalkonium chloride

Diethyl ester dimethyl ammonium chloride

Dialkyl dimethyl ammonium methyl sulfate

Hydroxyethyl methyl ammonium methyl sulfate

Chemical DTDMAC (ditallow dimethyl ammonium chloride)

Quaternium-15,18, 26 and other numbers

Reduce Your Chemical Exposure Using Simple Solutions

It is critical to track adverse events as they relate to any chemical or product you use. Report any adverse reaction you or your family experiences to the FDA24 on their phone line (1-800-FDA-1088), online or their paper reporting form. The cosmetic industry is not interested in moving toward tighter regulations, which leaves you in charge of regulating what you and your family put on your skin.

Your skin is an excellent drug delivery system, so what goes on your body is as important as what goes in your mouth. It is important to remember that while you may wear gloves as you clean, not all the solution may be removed from the surface after you're finished.

You likely have many of the ingredients you already need to effectively and efficiently clean your home. Discover some simple solutions in my previous article, "Keep a Clean House With Nontoxic Cleaners."

Maintaining a healthy gut microbiome will also help to protect you from some of the toxins you ingest by filtering them — a protection you don't get when they are absorbed through your skin.

Find recipes to make your own homemade bath and handwashing products that don't contain additional by-products and preservatives. Coconut oil is a healthy skin moisturizer that has natural antibacterial properties.

The Environmental Working Group has an extensive database to help you find personal care products free of potentially dangerous chemicals.25 Products bearing the "USDA 100% Organic" seal are among your safest bets if you want to avoid potentially toxic ingredients. Be aware products labeled "all-natural" may still contain harmful chemicals, so it's wise to check the full list of ingredients.