You may remember learning in biology class that our bodies are run by a network of hormones and glands that regulate everything we do. Most often, we think about this system—the endocrine system—in the context of puberty, but it actually plays a starring role in all phases of development, metabolism, and behavior.
Here’s the bad news: Synthetic chemicals in products like plastics and fragrances can mimic hormones and interfere with or disrupt the delicate endocrine dance. We’re exposed to these chemicals daily, and we’re especially vulnerable to them during phases of accelerated development—in utero and throughout childhood.
“We have evolved in such a way that we have very tight windows of when, say, our brain and liver are made,” explains Kristi Pullen, an NRDC staff scientist. “When a hormone-disrupting chemical gets in the way during these windows, it can block the process or make it go faster. The change is irreversible.”
Yes, it sounds terrifying, but there’s good news, too: We can safeguard our bodies and keep our endocrine systems operating uninterrupted—or at least less interrupted. Just steer clear of endocrine-disrupting chemicals, or EDCs, especially during those sensitive stages. Here’s how.
1. Dust and vacuum often
Even though they’re linked to hormone disruption (and cancer, too), flame retardants are used in many common household products. That means they’re probably living in your household dust as well; research shows that tiny particles can escape from electronics, couches, and mattresses.
Most families don’t have the budget to replace all these items with flame-retardant-free versions, but we can all afford to keep our house clean by dusting with a damp cloth and using a vacuum with a HEPA filter, which traps small particles of dust instead of blowing them around the house.
2. Turn up your nose at fragrances
The word fragrance on a label signifies a mix of potentially hundreds of ingredients, and the exact formulas of most are government-protected as trade secrets. But we do know that one class of chemicals typically found in fragrance, called phthalates, can disrupt hormones.
Fortunately, fragrance isn’t necessary for a product to function well or be effective. Choose fragrance-free creams, cleaning products, and laundry detergents. If you're one of those people who derive happiness from a fresh scent, opt for products that are certified organic (which promises no synthetics) or use essential oils. And check ingredient labels to find out where else fragrance lurks; it can show up in unexpected places, such as diapers or garbage bags.
3. Think twice about plastics
We’re surrounded by plastic. It’s wrapping our food, bottling our conditioner, encasing our phone. And some plastics contain hormone-disrupting chemicals. One commonly used shatterproof plastic (PC #7) can contain bisphenol-A, commonly called BPA, and flexible vinyl (PVC #3) contains phthalates. Both of these chemicals are known EDCs. The science varies on how much of a risk these combined exposures pose in everyday life, but recent research shows even very low-dose exposures can be significant. (Of course, holding your plastic cell phone is obviously less of an issue than, say, your baby chewing on it.)
You probably can’t eliminate all plastic, but you can come close. Swap plastic food storage containers with glass or stainless steel; if you do keep plastic ones, don’t use them to store fatty foods, and never microwave them. Replace plastic baggies with reusable lunch bags, and plastic cling wrap with beeswax-coated cloth. Choose hard wood blocks and cotton baby dolls over plastic ones. In short, anytime you’re in the market for something plastic, research whether safer alternatives exist.
4. Say “no can do” to cans
Canned foods can make meal prep a breeze, but those cans are likely lined with BPA to keep them from corroding. (Even cans labeled “BPA-free” may use a similar chemical that hasn’t been proved any safer, according to a study in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.) Choosing fresh, frozen, or dried foods (like beans) that aren’t packaged in cans—is a smart preventive measure.
5. Watch what you eat
Certain pesticides have been linked to hormone disruption. Eat organic food as much as you can afford to. If your food budget is tight, choose conventionally grown foods known to have the least amount of pesticide residue, and splurge on organic or hormone-free meat and dairy. As a general rule of thumb, try to eat unadulterated food, meaning as close to whole as possible—a whole roasted chicken instead of processed chicken nuggets, for example. When you can, avoid food packaging. And consider how you prepare food, as well. EDCs can hide in nonstick pots and pans, so cook in stainless steel or cast iron instead.
6. Filter your tap water
Drinking tap water out of a glass will reduce your exposure to BPA and other chemicals in cans and plastic bottles. But tap water can contain a bevy of its own potential hormone disruptors, including residue from birth control pills, according to NRDC’s Drinking Water Project. Running water from the tap through an NSF-certified water filter will decrease the level of endocrine-disrupting chemicals.
7. Rethink kids’ cosmetics
Children don’t need cosmetics, yet there’s a glut of kid-related lotions and potions, bubbles and polishes, glosses and glitters on the market. These can contain a number of EDCs (not to mention chemicals linked to cancer, asthma, and skin irritation) that make them smell good, glide on smoothly, and be otherwise irresistible to kids. Just say no, and leave that perfect baby skin be.
For bumps, scratches, bruises, and rashes that do warrant a little help, choose products that are organic or certified natural by third-party companies such as like NATRUE or BDIH. (These certifications can confirm that no synthetic fragrances were used.) The fewer products you use, with the least amount of ingredients, the better.
8. Clean smarter
While “cleaning,” many of us actually introduce indoor air pollutants into our homes in the form of harsh chemical products. It’s difficult (and often impossible) to know what ingredients any given cleaning product contains, as their formulas are protected as trade secrets.
To make sure you’re not unwittingly wiping down your baby’s high chair with EDCs, purchase cleaning products from companies that voluntarily disclose their ingredients, are certified USDA organic, or have independent natural certification. You can also easily make your own cleaners from safe household staples like vinegar, borax, and baking soda.
9. Wash your hands
If this whole list feels too overwhelming, do just one small, easy thing: Wash your hands frequently (with plain old fragrance-free soap and water), and always before eating. You’ll rinse a substantial amount of chemical residue down the drain.