The Beauty in Choosing Wisely: New Study Suggests Product Choice Can Lower Levels of Harmful Hormone-Disrupting Chemicals in Our Bodies

This is a guest blog by Dr. Anna Reade. Anna is a developmental biologist interning at NRDC through the University of California, San Francisco’s GSICE program.

An exciting new study, recently published in Environmental Health Perspectives, demonstrates that switching to low-chemical alternative beauty products can reduce the levels of certain harmful chemicals in our bodies in just three days!

If you have ever glanced at the ingredients list on your favorite shampoo or lotion, you were likely confronted with a long list of chemicals with similarly long, undecipherable names. What most people don’t know is that some of these chemicals, which are widely used in personal care products, such as soaps, lotions and cosmetics, can cause harm to your body through hormone disruption.

  • Hormone disruption is associated with a wide array of diseases including cancer and developmental problems. Teen girls may be at particular risk due to their high daily use of personal care products and adolescence being a time of rapid reproductive development. Toxic chemicals often found in beauty products include:
  • Triclosan - antimicrobial found in soaps and cleaning products; has been shown to increase growth of breast cancer cells, affect thyroid hormone levels, and is linked to asthma.
  • Parabens - antimicrobials used in food, pharmaceuticals, and cosmetics; mimics estrogen, found in tumors and has been shown to damage DNA in sperm.
  • Phthalates - used to soften plastics and in fragrances; associated with neurotoxicity in children, fertility issues and obesity.
  • Oxybenzone - used to block UV radiation in sunscreens and cosmetics; linked to lower sperm count and changes in birth weight.

Can consumers do anything to avoid these chemicals and the potential harm they can cause?

HERMOSA study logo

The recently published HERMOSA study suggest yes!

The HERMOSA study was collaboration between UC Berkeley’s CERCH institute, Clinica de Salud del Valle de Salinas, and the CHAMACOS Youth Council. A unique and powerful feature of this study was its youth and community involvement. Researchers noted that it improved all aspects of the intervention study and effectively engaged the youth in science and community health advocacy.

Latina girls from Salinas, CA were recruited to educate them on the existence of harmful chemicals in their beauty products and to give them a “non-toxic makeover”. The girls were asked to ditch their old beauty products for three days and given low-chemical alternative beauty products to use instead.

In order to determine if the “non-toxic makeover” made a difference in the amount of harmful chemicals in the girls’ bodies, researchers measured these chemicals in the girls’ urine before and after the makeover. (Urine analysis was carried out by Biomonitoring CA: the premier state biomonitoring program in the country, charged with measuring chemicals of concern in Californians’ body fluids and tissues over time.)

Surprisingly, simply changing the type of personal care products the girls were using quickly and significantly decreased the levels of most of these chemicals by 30-45%!

Big drops in chemical levels after the "non-toxic makeover"

The findings from this study are encouraging from both a scientific and consumer perspective. They show how consumers can take steps now towards lowering the amount of these harmful chemicals in their bodies and provide further evidence to support the regulation of chemicals to protect public health. There are currently few regulations on the use of chemicals in personal care products. For example, phthalates are often a component of “fragrances”, which are considered proprietary and do not need to be individually disclosed. Removing these chemicals from products that are so widely used could have a big impact on the levels of toxic chemicals in a large number of people.

Understanding the links between these chemicals and disease is difficult, especially when the kinds and levels are not reported. However, since we apply these products to our bodies daily, and low levels of some of these chemicals are linked to adverse health outcomes, there is enough evidence for concern and precautionary measures. 

SCP program logo

Indeed, California’s Safer Consumer Products program has recognized the concern for these chemicals in personal care products and has made this category a priority in their current work plan.

Considering these chemicals are unnecessary (personal care products already exist without these chemicals!) and potentially very harmful, manufacturers should immediately remove these chemicals from all their beauty products. They are simply not worth the risk to our health.

About the Authors

Veena Singla

Staff Scientist, Health & Environment program

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