Toiletries, cosmetics and menstrual productsAvoiding endocrine disruptors
How to reduce your exposure to harmful chemicals when you bathe, brush up, make up and moisturise.
We splash them on our faces, rub them in our armpits, even swill them around our mouths. Our bathrooms today are stacked with shampoos, deodorants, soaps, pastes, creams, and scrubs, all cooked up to make us feel, look and smell good. There are also the sun creams and toothpastes, gels and masks, perfumes and shaving creams.
But the sense of youth, beauty and good health they give us could be a dangerous illusion. Because, ironically, many of our daily “health and beauty” products contain synthetic chemicals – including some endocrine disruptors – that can be harmful to our health.
Many personal care products have typically been used by women, but in recent years men have also begun to use more of these products and are similarly exposed to harmful chemicals.
The problem is widespread across many types of products and brands. And legislation isn’t yet protecting us against all the harmful chemicals in cosmetics and personal hygiene products.
But there are ways you can look out for yourself and your loved ones.
How EDCs get from cosmetics to you
Some endocrine-disrupting chemicals are thought to be absorbed through the skin – the largest organ in our body. Indeed, some groups of chemicals specifically used to help products penetrate the skin have hormone-disrupting properties.
Women, especially, use creams to moisturise, tone and colour the skin. Young women and women of reproductive age are a key target for cosmetics advertising, and there are concerns that an unborn baby can be vulnerable to chemicals absorbed by their mother.
Men are just as vulnerable as women, particularly to hormone-disrupting chemicals that can affect sperm.
Can I choose cosmetics without endocrine disruptors?
Currently, the best way to limit your exposure to harmful chemicals is to cut down on your use of cosmetics generally. Even if you can’t do without cosmetics altogether, reducing them lowers the risk.
Where you can, choose cosmetics without endocrine disruptors. This is easier said than done, but there are some things you can try.
Choose the EU Ecolabel
Limit your exposure to harmful chemicals in cosmetics by choosing products that have been awarded the EU Ecolabel.
Use mobile apps to identify harmful chemicals
Read the label
In the European Union all cosmetics must display a list of ingredients – and this makes it a bit easier than it is elsewhere to avoid harmful chemicals, such as triclosan and parabens.
If you’re outside the EU, choose cosmetics that are approved and sold in the EU. The EU has the strictest chemical regulations in the world, and so these cosmetics may have fewer harmful chemicals in them.
Try to avoid certain chemicals
Even the EU doesn’t force manufacturers to list all chemicals in perfumes and fragrances that are often added to products. So you might see that a shampoo contains a “fragrance”, but the individual chemicals in this fragrance might not be listed, and could include harmful chemicals.
In recent years, it has become a trend to add fragrance chemicals to many other types of consumer products, such as shampoos, conditioners, candles, children’s toys, toilet paper and nappies. This might contribute significantly to our exposure to chemicals via the skin.
Most products that you buy for a particular purpose, such as shampoo to wash your hair, do not need synthetic fragrances to get the job done. So when buying such products, choose one that is fit for the purpose you want it for, without any synthetic fragrances that could increase your exposure to harmful chemicals.
When you do reach for your favourite beauty product, there are a few key chemicals to look for and avoid:
Parabens are a group of chemicals found in some cosmetics, body creams, hair products and sunscreens. They can be absorbed through the skin. Some parabens have hormone-disrupting properties and have been linked to breast cancer. Limit your exposure by choosing products labelled paraben-free.
Breast Cancer UK has a useful factsheet (pdf) on parabens.
Triclosan is used as an anti-bacterial agent, and can be found in toothpaste, soaps and hand washes. It is known to have hormone-disrupting properties.
Per and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are added to some cosmetics, such as foundations and moisturising creams, to help them penetrate the skin. Some PFAS have hormone-disrupting traits. Coop Denmark has banned all cosmetics containing PFAS from its shops because of concerns over these harmful chemicals.
Limit your exposure by opting for cosmetics that don’t contain PFAS – these will be labelled in ingredients lists as a chemical with “fluoro” in the name or “PTFE”.
Some other products, such as dental floss, may also contain PFAS. Limit your exposure by choosing PFAS-free dental floss.
Chemicals in other products
Other products such as shampoos and conditioners, deodorant, soap, and body wash may also contain harmful chemicals. Chemicals are added to shampoos to make them foamy, to soap to give them anti-bacterial properties, and to body wash to make them smell nice.
Use the advice above to reduce your risk of exposure to harmful chemicals in these products. As you would for cosmetics, look for products with an ecolabel.
Hand soaps are more likely to contain anti-bacterial agents, and so may contain harmful chemicals such as triclosan. Opt for products without triclosan, or only use these products when necessary – such as after going to the bathroom, or before eating.
Menstrual products without endocrine disruptors
Some menstrual products, such as tampons and pads, may contain harmful chemicals. The use of these chemicals in menstrual products is particularly concerning as the products are used for a long time, and in a sensitive area of the body. Brands don’t currently have to state on ingredients lists all of the chemicals that are included in menstrual products.
Read more in our guest blog for the Women’s Environmental Network (Wen).
Here are some tips to help you limit your exposure.
Avoid conventional menstrual products
Conventional menstrual products, such as disposable pads and tampons, may contain harmful chemicals such as phthalates, bisphenols and pesticides. A wide range of alternative products are now available at varying prices. For example, organic cotton tampons and pads (look for an organic certification logo), silicone menstrual cups and reusable fabric pads.
UK-based charity City to Sea has a webpage answering questions on eco-friendly menstrual products.
Choose menstrual products with the EU Ecolabel
Tampons and pads with the EU Ecolabel must not contain fragrances or formaldehyde and they avoid some phthalates. If a product carries the EU Ecolabel, any cotton in it must be organic and so should not have been treated with pesticides.
Choose unscented products
Some products may contain fragrances, but the manufacturer is not required to list which individual chemicals are included in the fragrance, and these might include harmful chemicals.
Choose products marked “Totally Chlorine Free (TCF)”
Some products are bleached with chlorine. Dioxins are a by-product of this bleaching. They can interfere with the hormone system, and have been linked to reproductive and developmental problems. By opting for TCF products you are less likely to be exposed to harmful dioxins.
Chemicals in sunscreen
Protecting yourself from the sun is important. But the sunscreens we use may contain harmful chemicals that can have negative impacts on our health.
Sunscreens normally contain UV filters and some of them are known to be absorbed through the skin into the bloodstream. Oxybenzone is the most common UV filter used in sunscreens around the world. It is also a suspected endocrine disruptor, and has been found in household dust and in the blood and urine of people across the globe.
Sunscreens, with organic or inorganic UV filters, may also contain other harmful chemicals such as parabens and phthalates.
The World Health Organisation recommends using sunscreen on the parts of the body that remain exposed after taking other precautions (such as staying in the shade and wearing protective clothing). Following this advice and limiting your use of sunscreens can help reduce your risk of exposure to harmful chemicals in sunscreens. For more information on how to stay safe in the sun, see the World Health Organisation’s website.