By Clive Wright

Your Guide to Endocrine Disruptors in Skincare and How to Avoid Them

What are endocrine disruptors?

Endocrine disruptors are natural or synthetic chemicals that may mimic or interfere the body's hormones, which form part of the endocrine system. Endocrine disrupting chemicals can cause developmental, reproductive, brain, immune, and other problems. They can be slow to break down, making them potentially hazardous over time.


Endocrine disruptors are found in many places such as skincare products, makeup products, personal care products, and cosmetic products. They are also found in fragrances, cleaning products, plastics, non-organic produce, non-filtered water, and some cookware. Suffice to say, there are many hidden endocrine disruptors that we encounter in our daily lives.

The endocrine system

The endocrine system is a complex network running from the top of our bodies through to our reproductive organs. It comprises glands that make hormones, which are our body's chemical messengers. Critical to functioning, for this reason, the endocrine system has become known as the body's 'communication network'.

Hormones affect nearly every process in your body, including:

  • Metabolism (the way you break down food and get energy from nutrients)
  • Growth and development
  • Emotions and mood
  • Fertility and sexual function
  • Sleep
  • Blood pressure

     

    In both men and women, the endocrine system incorporates the hypothalamus, pituitary gland, thyroid gland, thymus, pancreas, pineal gland, and adrenal glands. The male endocrine system also includes the testes, and the female endocrine system includes the ovaries (plus the placenta when pregnant). Here's what each of these glands gets up to:

    • Hypothalamus: Controls your endocrine system. Located in your brain, it uses information from your nervous system to determine when to tell other glands, including the pituitary gland, to produce hormones. The hypothalamus controls many processes in your body, including your mood, hunger and thirst, sleep patterns and sexual function.
    • Pituitary: Makes hormones that control several other glands such as the thyroid gland, adrenal glands, ovaries and testicles. The pituitary gland is in charge of many different functions, including how your body grows. It’s located at the base of your brain.
    • Thyroid: Responsible for your metabolism, or how your body uses energy. It's located in your neck.
    • Parathyroid: The smallest of the endocrine crew, these four tiny glands are no larger than a grain of rice. They control the level of calcium in your body. For your heart, kidneys, bones and nervous system to work, you need the right amount of calcium.
    • Adrenal: You have two adrenal glands, one on top of each kidney. They control your metabolism, blood pressure, sexual development and response to stress.
    • Pineal: This gland manages your sleep cycle by releasing melatonin, a hormone that causes you to feel sleepy.
    • Pancreas: Your pancreas is part of your endocrine system, and it plays a significant role in your digestive system too. It makes a hormone called insulin that controls the level of sugar in your blood.
    • Testes: In men, the testes make sperm and release testosterone. This hormone affects sperm production, muscle strength and sex drive.
    • Ovaries: In women, the ovaries release estrogen, progesterone and testosterone. Women have two ovaries in their lower abdomen, one on either side.
    • When pregnant, women develop a temporary organ in the uterus called the placenta, which produces estrogen and progesterone to maintain the pregnancy.


      While other organs and tissues in our bodies release hormones, such as our liver and kidney, these are not considered part of the endocrine system.

      Our bodies release many different types of hormones. Some of the most commonly referred to hormones for their impact on the regulation of our endocrine systems include the following:

      • Estrogen
      • Progesterone
      • Testosterone
      • Dopamine
      • Oxytocin
      • Melatonin
      • Growth hormone
      • Luteinising hormone
      • Prolactin
      • Thyroid-stimulating hormone
      • Aldosterone
      • DHEA and androgens
      • Adrenaline (epinephrine)
      • Noradrenaline (norepinephrine)
      • Insulin
      • Glucagon

        What are the risks of endocrine disruptors?

        It's difficult to quantify the impact of endocrine disruptors on our bodies because our environments expose us to multiple endocrine disruptors at the same time. Some studies indicate a higher likelihood of the following health conditions as a result of hormone disrupting chemicals:

        • Diabetes
        • Obesity
        • Thyroid problems 
        • Foetal reproductive and neural defects
        • Behavioural issues 
        • Reproductive disorders such as early puberty, infertility, irregular cycles, premature ovarian failure, endometriosis, fibroids and adverse pregnancy outcomes
        • Hormone-sensitive cancers such as breast, ovarian, endometrial & prostate cancer 

          Studies show that endocrine disruptors cause adverse effects in animals. We know that synthetic chemicals are having a profound impact on animal hormones, to the point that some species are changing sex as a result of exposure. This has been observed in amphibious species exposed to herbicides.

          It has also been noted in the Great Lakes district in the US where pesticide residue has found its way into closed waterways and resulted in some fish species turning female, which also raises another question of environmental health.

          Ditching plastic packaging

          One of the top tips for avoiding endocrine disruptors is to stop using plastic packaging.

          In food, beverage, skincare and cosmetics, a simple swap is to ditch plastic containers and instead use for stainless steel, coated aluminium or glass options. More tips to avoid hormone disruptors in plastics:

          • Avoid plastic water bottles and lunch box containers. Switch to stainless steel and glass containers.
          • If you have bought a food packaged in plastic, remove it immediately and store in a glass jar.
          • Minimise canned foods from your diet. Even cans listed as BPA free may not be EDC friendly. If you must buy canned foods, never store in hot environments.
          • Avoid touching physical receipts and/or alternatively request electronic receipts wherever possible
          • Use filtered water instead of bottled or tap water wherever possible.
          • Avoid heating plastic in the microwave or washing in the dishwasher.

            Phthalates are plastic softeners used in the manufacturing of a wide variety of consumable products. One of the most common phthalates, di(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP) represents a particular public health concern because 100% of the US population have measurable levels of this EDC. Phthalates are added to most synthetic perfumes, primarily to make the scent last longer, as well as many hair products to add viscosity (stickiness).


            If you must continue using plastic food packaging or containers, avoid storing fatty foods (e.g. slow-cooked beef) which may absorb harmful chemicals (Stuart, 2018). Importantly, never warm up any food in plastic packaging or containers. Historically, plastic has contained high amounts of bisphenol A (BPA), a well-known endocrine disruptor.

            So, just avoid plastic with BPA? Not necessarily

            BPA absorption into the body can result in the development of metabolic disorders such as low sex-specific neurodevelopmentimmune toxicityneurotoxicity and interference of cellular pathway.

            BPA has been banned in some areas already, as well as certain products, such as drink bottles specifically marketed to babies. BPA was banned in baby bottles in Canada in 2008, in France in 2010, and in the European Union in 2011. However, BPA is still highly prevalent, existing on many surfaces from the lining of supermarket bags to receipts.

            Unfortunately, plastic labelled ‘BPA free’ usually contains other potentially harmful chemicals. Substitutes to BPA include bisphenol S (BPS) and bisphenol F (BPF), but the safety of these substitutes has not yet been verified.

            Do cosmetics contain endocrine disruptors?

            Yes, many cosmetics, personal care and skincare products contain endocrine disruptors. Products will often include hormone-disrupting chemicals such as phthalates, parabens and phenols. At TUTTOFARE, we subscribe to the philosophy that 'what goes on, goes in'.

            What are most common endocrine disruptors in skincare?

            In conventional skincare, you may find a slew of endocrine-disrupting chemicals. When it comes to phthalates, on the product label, keep an eye out for the hard-to-pronounce Bs and Ds. There are many different phthalates starting with the letters B and D that are known hormone disruptors. These include the following:

            • DBP (dibutyl phthalate)
            • DINP (diisononyl phthalate)
            • BBP (benzyl butyl phthalate)
            • BEP (butyl-ethyl phthalate)
            • DNOP (di-n-octyl phthalate)
            • DEHP (di-2-Ethylhexyl phthalate)
            • DMP (dimethyl phthalate)
            • DIDP (dodecyl phthalate)
            • DEP (diethyl phthalate)

              Phthalates are known hormone disruptors. Two studies out of Harvard University in 2016 showed the link between phthalates and an increased risk of miscarriage and gestational diabetes.

              Multiple other studies have revealed phthalates act as endocrine disruptors and can cause problems for reproductive health and developmental health. They have also been linked to hormone-driven cancers, with breast cancer and testicular cancer among these.

              When it comes to parabens, you may want to steer clear of ingredients that contain the word 'paraben' on the product labels, including isobutylparaben, methylparaben, propulparaben and butylparaben. Parabens are estrogenic, act as synthetic preservatives, and disrupt hormones in men and women. They have been connected to hormone-dominant cancers and also linked to fertility changes.

              Harmful chemicals in skincare

              Besides phthalates and parabens, there are other potentially harmful chemicals and potential endocrine disruptors found in many skincare products, including the following:

              • Phytoestrogens: Naturally occurring substances in plants that trigger hormone-like activity. Among these are genistein and daidzein, substances found in soy products, such as tofu and soy milk.
              • Triclosan: Found in some anti-microbial and personal care products, like liquid body wash.
              • Toluen: Known carcinogen, usually present in nail polish under names like methylbenzene and toluol.
              • Ammonia: Found in many modern hair dyes. It can be harmful to neurological cells and may also cause eye, respiratory and skin irritations.
              • Thioglycolic acid: Found in hair removal creams. It may be listed as acetyl mercaptan, mercaptoacetate, mercaptoacetic acid or thiovanic acid.
              • Sodium lauryl/laureth sulfate (SLS/SLES): These ingredients help create the lathering effect of face wash, body wash and soap. They can cause skin to break down, hormonal imbalances by mimicking estrogen, and eye irritation.
              • Petroleum/paraffin/mineral oil: Going under many different names, including petroleum and kerosene in Australia, this ingredient can block the skin's pores and prevent it from breathing properly, leading to the growth of yeast and fungus.
              • Mercury: May be listed as thimerosal or merthiolate, a known heavy metal to damage neurological functioning.
              • Propulene glycerol: A petroleum-based chemical used to retain moisture in products. It can cause skin and eye irritations and may have negative effects on respiratory health. It could also be toxic to organs like the liver, kidneys, heart, and brain.
              • Coal tar: Surprisingly, this is often found in many anti-dandruff hair products. Is a known carcinogen and can ferry heavy metals into the bloodstream.
              • Cyclomethicone and dimethicone: These ingredients can trap moisture in the skin, creating a barrier that can lock in bacteria, oil, and other pathogens. They may contribute to increased acne and blackheads and can potentially disrupt the endocrine system.
              • Fragrance/parfum: This is a common ingredient in beauty and skincare products. Fragrances often contain phthalates, which are known carcinogens and disruptors of the endocrine system.
              • Formaldehyde: It is a known carcinogen and can be labeled as formaldehyde or listed under other names like quaternium-15, dimethyl-dimethyl (DMDM), hydantoin, imidazolidinyl urea, diazolidinyl urea, sodium hydroxymethylglycinate, or 2-bromo-2-nitropropane-1,3-diol (bromopol).

                What's the problem with hormone disruptors?

                Even low doses of endocrine-disrupting chemicals may be unsafe for human health. The body’s normal endocrine functioning involves very small changes in hormone levels, yet we know even these small changes can have a significant developmental and biological impact.

                This observation leads many scientists to believe that endocrine-disrupting chemical exposures, even at low amounts, can alter the body’s sensitive systems and contribute to health problems.

                In one example, a study of 1070 pregnant women aged 18 to 40 undertaken by the National Institute of Environmental Health Studies and National Institute of Health examined the link between personal care products and the levels of sex hormones.

                The women underwent a series of physical exams and completed questionnaires as to which personal care products they used regularly, including fragrances, lotions, cosmetics, nail polish, shampoo and other hair products.

                Findings showed that the use of certain hair products, particularly dye, bleach, relaxers and mousse, were associated with lowered levels of sex hormones, and the disruption of these hormones could lead to adverse maternal pregnancy outcomes, including growth restriction, preterm birth and low birth weight.

                How to avoid endocrine disrupting chemicals in beauty products

                While we can't avoid endocrine disruptors entirely (they're literally in the air we breathe), we can minimise our exposure to these toxic chemicals through conscious consumption of food, beverages, cosmetics and skincare products.

                At TUTTOFARE, we're acutely aware of the harms of endocrine disruptors, which is why our skincare is formulated without parabens, phthalates and synthetic fragrances, all the while bottled in plastic-free packaging.


                It's why we also avoid using certain essential oils that are known for their estrogenic properties, such as lavender and tea tree. We believe there are far superior ways to achieve an appealing scent.

                Why you should avoid synthetic fragrances

                There are approximately 3,000 synthetic chemicals in circulation that can be used to create ‘parfum’ or 'fragrance'. The formulas of skincare products are often proprietary, so companies don't need to disclose the details of what's inside. Phthalates can be included as part of the fragrance, and don’t need to be listed individually. This is enough to meet the minimum standard labelling requirements.

                How to purge endocrine disruptors from your personal care regime

                If you wish to continue using your existing line-up of products, you could consider pausing or alternating usage while incorporating products without endocrine disrupting chemicals.


                Importantly, you should avoid using products housed in plastic packaging, with harsh chemicals, and 'fragrance' listed on product labels. It's particularly important to avoid these products altogether while pregnant (due to prenatal exposure) and breastfeeding. It has been suggested to avoid them entirely if you have a family history of hormonally-driven cancers or diseases that can be fuelled by hormone disruptors.

                You might also consider testing your 'body burden' (bio-monitoring tests used to measure a person’s toxic exposure) to ensure phthalates aren’t accumulating to toxic levels and that your body is clearing them quickly and efficiently. Low level exposure can be OK depending on your personal 'body burden' or toxic load.

                If you're wanting to take extra precautions, consider implementing natural remedies to balance hormones and help with hormone disruption. Lindsay Carter from Sanatio Naturopathy in Sydney, Australia shares her top eight tips for balancing hormones with natural remedies including diet, exercise, and herbal supplements such as withania (ashgwanda). Lindsay also has developed a blueprint for reducing estrogen naturally.

                Endocrine disruption is real. Fortunately, there are clean skincare products that offer all you need and nothing unnecessarily more, without any of the nasties. Because skincare shouldn't cost your health, or our planetary health.

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