Is My Moisturiser Messing With My Hormones?

Unpacking the potentially damaging effects of endocrine disruptors hidden in skincare, body care and beyond.

When I first pitched this story, I was acutely aware of my prevailing family history with cancer.

But it wasn’t until my mother was recently diagnosed with cancer for the fourth time (turns out lightning can strike more than twice) that it spurred on my own lifestyle reassessment.

This health WOF of sorts extended into every area of my consumption — from the food I was eating through to the common household products I was using. But as a beauty editor, no area of my life was rocked more than the products I was applying to my face, hair and body.

What started as story research quickly turned into a personal mission, and I spent hours trawling medical journals researching the potential impacts of the constellation of chemicals that greeted me every time I opened my bathroom cupboard.

Many of these products contain largely unregulated ingredients, which points to a pandemic of a different kind — beauty products positioned to plump, hydrate and brighten could actually be wreaking havoc with your hormones.

For years, consumer health advocates and researchers have made the link between the daily use of personal care products and disease trends — especially where women’s health is concerned.

But untangling the root cause of disease is complex at best, nor am I here to scare anyone into thinking the products sitting on your vanity are a diagnosis waiting to happen. Here, five experts reveal the potential impacts of cosmetics on the body’s endocrine system.

What is the endocrine system?

“The endocrine system is made up of a collection of glands (pituitary, thyroid, adrenal, pancreas, ovaries and testicles) that produce hormones. Most people are aware of how hormones can affect many parts of our bodies and overall health — from our growth and development through to regulating our metabolism, sleep, mood, reproductive system and many other things,” says cosmetic chemist and Biologi founder Ross Macdougald.

This elaborate system acts as a communication network, sending messages to regulate and control the hormones that are imperative to the body’s function, adds Tanné Snowden, founder of Tronque.

How do EDCs affect us?

Endocrine-disrupting chemicals (or EDCs) are defined by the WHO as “an exogenous substance or mixture that alters the functions of the endocrine system and consequently causes adverse health effects in an intact organism, or its progeny or sub-populations”.

Simply put, EDCs are external chemicals that penetrate your endocrine system through consumption (food), absorption (skincare), or inhalation (perfume) and can alter your hormone health.

According to Dr Ann Shivas, who specialises in epigenetics, prolonged exposure to EDCs can lead to a host of endocrine disorders, including hypo or hyperthyroidism, Graves’ disease, Hashimoto’s autoimmune disease, prolactinoma, PCOS, Addison’s disease and some forms of diabetes.

“Endocrine disruptors are chemicals interfering with the hormone process. They play ‘tricks’ on the body, sometimes increasing production of certain hormones and decreasing production of others, blocking or mimicking hormone production,” she says.

A study funded 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 (specifically estrogen, progesterone and thyroid hormones) in pregnant women in Puerto Rico.

A sample of 1070 pregnant women aged 18 to 40 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.

For Media Jam PR director Janelle Brunton-Rennie, the tipping point came 10 years ago following her double diagnosis of Hashimoto’s thyroiditis and adrenal fatigue.

“Over time I overhauled my lifestyle, my skincare, haircare and makeup routine, my toothpaste, I even had my amalgam fillings removed and replaced with biocompatible fillings. Slowly and surely, I reclaimed my health and energy levels,” she says.

This revelation filtered down to the way in which Janelle ran her PR business, resulting in her repositioning the company to become an advocate for clean and organic beauty brands. “Knowing what I now know, there was no way that I could promote or endorse their chemical-laden counterparts,” she says.

What are the most common EDCs and which products are they found in?

The sad fact is this: it’s more common to find endocrine-disrupting ingredients in beauty formulas than to find them without, Tanné explains.

“In personal care and cosmetics these ingredients are commonly used as stabilisers, fillers or preservatives to prolong a product’s shelf life and to provide bulk alongside the active ingredients. Formulating without these is costly and difficult to do, which is why they are so common,” she says.

According to Dr Ann, the main offenders where cosmetics are concerned are:

Parabens, synthetic chemicals that act as a preservative to give products a longer shelf life, but are widely believed to interfere with the production of hormones, especially estrogen.

Phthalates are most commonly found in lipsticks, nail polish, fragrances, shampoos and hairspray, and have been linked to decreasing male fertility.

Triclosan, an antibacterial and antifungal ingredient that crops up in toothpaste, soaps, gels and sanitisers, is said to cause allergies, asthma and food sensitivities.

BHA and BHT, which are found in sunscreen, haircare, deodorant, lipstick and makeup, and are said to contribute to an underdeveloped reproductive system.

This list is by no means exhaustive, as chemicals like synthetic fragrances and dyes, formaldehyde, silicone, talc and sodium laurel sulphate also pose serious health risks, adds Tanné.

Olaplex’s No.3 Hair Perfector is the latest beauty product to come under fire for its alleged impact on fertility. In March this year, a TikTok video posted by Hasini Kay went viral when it made claims that one of the key ingredients in Olaplex No.3 called butylphenyl methylpropional (otherwise known as lilial) was being banned in the UK and EU.

Panicked Olaplex stans spoke up in the comments with worries about their health (and their hair) should Olaplex No.3 disappear from shelves, while multiple hairdressers cashed in with their thoughts. The brand was quick to respond, and issued a statement to Refinery29 explaining that the ingredient was removed from its No.3 Hair Perfector globally and that it has not sold products using this ingredient in the UK and EU since January 2022.

For a more comprehensive list of EDCs, visit this link.

Chemicals aside, can plant-derived substances also have an impact on the endocrine system?

For Tanné, Tronque grew out of a personal mission to address her lifelong battle with endometriosis and adenomyosis.

“After decades of unknowingly using products filled with endocrine disruptors, the dichotomy of ‘self-care’ while using harmful ingredients is something I have had to seriously consider,” she says.

Her research began while recovering from endometriosis surgery in 2019. In a bid to decrease her symptoms, Tanné says she was surprised to learn about endocrine disruptors when reading a medical journal that zeroed in on personal care.

Immediately, she opened her bathroom cabinet to see if there were any products she should do away with.

“I was completely shocked to discover that everything I owned, aside from three products, contained endocrine-disrupting compounds. This moment was a turning point in my life and completely changed my beauty routine and how I cared for my health,” she says.

But it wasn’t just the chemical-based compounds that proved worrisome.

“Natural doesn’t necessarily mean safe,” Tanné explains. “For example, there are studies that suggest soy and lavender can be disruptive and yet they are natural. It’s about how they’re used and the percentage of the ingredients.”

Sadly, the argument about what is defined as ‘clean’ or ‘natural’ remains, and a lack of regulation of these terms means any brand can lay claim to either.

Thankfully, Tanné says, many brands are heading in the direction of green science, “the combination of natural and laboratory ingredients, enhancing performance, while staying completely safe”.

For Tronque, this looks like coupling organic and active plant-derived ingredients to improve both the appearance and function of the skin, with no hidden EDCs.

Shop for happy hormones

Familiarise yourself with a product’s INCI list

For Janelle, eliminating EDCs from her lifestyle was guided by one simple rule — to avoid eating or applying anything that contained ingredients she couldn’t pronounce. While not an entirely foolproof solution, Janelle says it was a great start.

Ditch plastic packaging

As it may contain bisphenol A (BPA) that has been linked to breast and other cancers, reproductive and fertility issues, obesity and early puberty, and opt for glass, cardboard or plastic-free alternatives instead.

Avoid synthetic fragrances

Many of which are said to have adverse effects on the male reproductive system and thyroid function.

For something that smells so heavenly, you may be surprised to learn (just as I was) that perfume is one of the worst offenders when it comes to interfering with your hormone profile.

“Perfume is essentially a toxic chemical soup,” says Abel Odor founder Frances Shoemack, who started her hunt for natural perfume 10 years ago when she says the category was suffering from a “hippy hangover”.

Her fruitless search resulted in her developing a range of 100 per cent plant-derived, renewable and biodegradable perfumes, which fuse natural science with therapeutic-grade essential oils.

“When I was starting out this product didn’t exist, and I wanted to bring it to the world — perfume with purpose,” she says.

Start small

If it all feels too overwhelming, Tanné advises replacing one thing at a time with a clean alternative. “Adapting to how you feel as a result of this can have a lasting effect,” she says.

Demand greater brand transparency

Growing consumer awareness is leading the charge in the transparency stakes — though there’s still a way to go.

Frances says if anything is unclear on a product’s INCI list (hello, jargon) go straight to the source.

“Ask the brand about the ingredients and environmental practices. If they can’t give you a straight answer, it means they don’t know *alarm bells* or they don’t want to tell you *alarm bells screeching*,” she says.

What does the legislation say?

At the time of printing, Europe has the toughest regulations in the world when it comes to its list of 1300 banned ingredients purported to have long-term effects on human health.

In 2022, the EU is planning to add a further (approx.) 12,000 more chemicals to this ever-growing list, including ingredients used in cosmetics, foods, cleaning products, paints and beyond.

It may sound strict, but even then, Frances says it’s estimated that only 10 per cent of the several thousand synthetic perfume ingredients have ever been tested for toxicity in the environment or on humans.

Across the Atlantic, the American beauty and fragrance industry is largely self-regulating. “So, the companies making the perfume get to decide their own rules. The result being that the FDA has banned just eight out of 12,000 ingredients over the last 80 years,” Frances says.

Frances says the way forward is a multi-level approach to labelling requirements that should be enforced at a legal level: Firstly, for any ingredients known to be toxic to humans or animals to be clearly listed on the label; and secondly, for any ingredients known to be non-biodegradable in the environment to be listed on the label.

“The terms ‘natural’, ‘organic’ and ‘herbal’ are not legally defined terms and presently there are no rules around their use (so can be used on any product). We believe the word needs to be regulated, and only used on products supported by a full ingredients list,” Frances says.

Tanné agrees more rigorous regulation is the right approach. “Districts vary greatly from what is accepted and what is not,” she says.

“I’m optimistic that a universal standard will eventually be set in place. However, while this remains ambitious, clean beauty brands continue to carve out their own definitions of what it means to be safe.”

Knowledge will always be power, and you can feel good about taking additional measures to understand exactly what you’re applying or spritzing to your face or body. In the same way I have, do your own research into EDCs and make a decision that feels right for you.

- Ashleigh Cometti

This story was originally published in volume eight of Viva Magazine.

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