Endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) are chemicals that interfere with the normal function of our hormonal system. To better understand how they do this, let's first get to know the endocrine system.
Endocrine system function
Our endocrine system is a complex and beautiful collection of glands and hormones that work together to regulate every single biological process in the body. Sleep, metabolism, fertility, sexual function, emotions, blood glucose, weight, growth, and development are all regulated by our endocrine system.
The eight glands that make up our endocrine system communicate with each other via the release of hormones, which send important messages to receptors that tell them how to react.
With so many important processes at stake, any hormonal disturbance can be a problem.
What are the effects of EDCs on humans?
EDCs alter the normal function of our hormonal systems in several ways. Some can mimic your hormones. Some prevent hormones from doing their job. And some even cause our bodies to over or under-produce hormones.
Since EDCs act in several ways, they can disrupt many different hormonal processes. And since our hormonal systems are so interconnected, isolating and studying the effects of one EDC on one hormonal process is extremely difficult.
That’s why EDCs been linked to so many health concerns such as infertility, sperm decline, reproductive abnormalities, early puberty, endometriosis, PCOS, early menopause, hormonal cancers, obesity, learning disabilities and more.
EDCs and Fertility
Our society has been exposed to large amounts of EDCs since the industrial revolution. However, it’s only after decades of the use of these chemicals that we’re finally beginning to record and understand their significance on our hormonal health. Here are some changes we're e’re seeing in the reproductive health of both men and women:
- 1 in every 6 couple have trouble getting pregnant and require assisted reproduction
- Sperm count decreased by about 52% between 1973 and 2011. And it's not slowing down.
- Decrease in testosterone levels. The average man today has less testosterone than his grandfather.
- Increase in PCOS and endometriosis
- Rise of hormonal and testicular cancer rate
- Increase in miscarriage rates
- There has been a yearly rise in the number of children born with autism spectrum disorder between 2000 and 2016
EDCs have been named as one of the most probable contributors to our declining reproductive health. The issue is known as the “1% effect”, where reproductive issues are rising by 1% annually in western countries.
Reasons for Declining Fertility
A pregnant woman’s exposure to EDCs not only affects her, but also her child and her grandchild.
When EDCs cross the placental barrier, the fetus is exposed, and inside the fetus are the germ cells that will become her eggs or his sperm as they develop.
It’s believed that these generational effects of EDCs are contributing to the decline in fertility with each generation.
Pregnancy, Breastfeeding and EDCs
Certain life stages are more vulnerable than others to the effects of EDCs:
- Women trying to conceive
- Pregnant women: male fetuses are especially vulnerable to the effects of EDCs because some EDCs such as phthalates can cross the placental barrier and alter the reproductive development of baby boys. This is known as the fetal phthalate syndrome and has been linked to infertility later in life.
- Children (newborns, toddlers, and adolescents): this is an important hormonal development window during which the body is dependent on hormone signalling for proper growth and puberty. EDC exposure has been linked to early puberty in girls.
- Women dealing with hormonal issues such as PCOS and endometriosis.
Where are EDCs found?
EDCs are everywhere in the environment. They’re in our food, water, clothes, couches, cookware and personal care products. EDCs get into our bodies through inhalation, ingestion, or absorption through the skin.
Here’s a chart of common EDCs and where we might be exposed to them:
Bisphenol A (BPA), Phthalates, Phenol
Personal care products, food packaging, plastic containers
Phthalates, Parabens, UV Filters
Personal care products, medical tubing, sunscreen
Personal care products, clothing, non-stick food wrappers, microwave popcorn bags, teflon cookware
Lead, Phthalates, Cadmium
DDT, Chlorpyrifos, Atrazine, 2, 4-D Glyphosate
The Problem with Testing Cosmetic Products for Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals
Endocrine disrupting chemicals challenge the way cosmetics and other personal care products are regulated. Why? Because unlike other cosmetic ingredients, endocrine disrupting ingredients don’t follow the assumption that “the dose makes the poison”, which the entire cosmetics industry is regulated on.
EDCs can have effects at low doses that are not predicted at higher doses, called “low-dose effects”. These low doses are almost never tested for cosmetic regulation. In other words, we're turning a blind eye to the impacts of these chemicals are because we’re not testing them properly.
We’re excited to see the huge steps being taken in the EU with the EU Green Deal, which takes into account the challenges of safety testing around EDCs and will re-evaluate the safety of cosmetic ingredients with endocrine disrupting properties.
EDCs in Personal Care Products
We put a lot of trust in the companies that make our personal care products. The average woman uses 12 products a day, leaving lots of opportunity for exposure to EDCs. Here are some endocrine disrupting ingredients found in cosmetics:
EDCs such as phthalates are often found in fragrance. Phthalates are known for holding the scent in a product. You might be thinking that you can avoid phthalates in products, but cosmetic regulation doesn’t require companies to disclose what makes up their fragrance. It’s considered a company trade secret. That’s why you only see “fragrance”, or “parfum” on a cosmetic label, instead of the potential 100s of chemicals that make up that fragrance.
What about fragrance from natural ingredients?
You might be relieved to see your product say something like “fragrance* from natural sources”. But the truth is, this is not the same as the company disclosing their ingredients. And again, they’re not required to tell us what’s in their fragrance.
The fragrance ingredient Lilal (butylphenyl methylpropional), was banned in the EU earlier this year for being linked to infertility.
Other fragrance compounds are under review for suspected endocrine activity, that’s why Oliver products will always be fragrance free.
Parabens are used as a preservative in cosmetic products. Several of them have been banned, but some are still commonly used. The argument is that short chain parabens are safe in small doses. We would rather avoid them completely, given that every few years another paraben gets banned! Luckily, parabens are easier to spot and avoid on a cosmetic label.
Did you know that before BPA was used in plastic, it was meant to be used as a synthetic estrogen? BPA can leach from plastic cosmetic packaging and into the product. That’s why Oliver products come in glass packaging.
Other known or suspected endocrine disrupting ingredients:
- BHA + BHT
- Kojic Acid
- Salicylic Acid
- Chemical sunscreens
- Benzophenone - 4
- Methylisothiazolinone (MIT)
How to avoid EDCs
EDCs are everywhere in the environment, and we will never be able to completely avoid them. However, we can avoid and limit them in the places we can control: our homes.
- Choose oliver products that are free of EDCs – scrutinize the ingredients section of your current products, or try the oliver EDC report.
- Ensure the air you breathe is free of EDCs – avoid using scented candles or air fresheners.
- Dust often – 90% of house dust samples collected contained phthalates.
- Use natural cleaning products and laundry detergent. We recommend Branch Basics.
- Avoid non-stick cookware and plastics in the kitchen.
- Filter your water.
Does avoiding EDCs make a difference?
A study published in the International Journal of Hygiene and Environmental Health found that participants who made a conscious choice to avoid products with EDCs such as parabens, benzophenone-3, triclosan and BPA, had lower concentrations of these chemicals in their bodies compared to those who didn’t.
If we’ve learned anything from our past, we know that chemical regulations lag far behind scientific findings, especially in the cosmetics industry. For now, it is up to individuals to advocate for policy changes and to keep themselves and their children safe from excessive exposure to endocrine disruptors.