Pick an issue — any issue! — related to beauty, and chances are, it can be traced back to your hormones. Greasy roots? Your hormones might be misfiring, making your sebaceous glands produce too much oil. Dull, tired skin? The “stress hormone” cortisol is likely the culprit. Hair thinning, hair loss, hair breakage? Hormones, hormones, hormones.
Here’s the kicker: Your beauty products could be making it worse.
In fact, hormone-altering chemicals are so prevalent in beauty and personal care items that they have their own name: Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals, or EDCs for short. (FYI, the body’s endocrine system is what regulates your hormones, hence that title.) And although the aforementioned beauty issues are pretty annoying, they only represent the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how hormone disruption can wreak havoc on your health. According to the Environmental Working Group, EDCs have been shown to mimic estrogen, mess with periods and fertility, infiltrate breast milk, cause thyroid irregularities and tumor growth, lower sperm count, and, uh, shrink testicles. Yup. You read that right.
EDCs aren’t limited to cosmetics (they’re literally everywhere, from food to plastic and even tap water), but tackling every EDC in every area of your life is a daunting task. So let’s just start with hair care, shall we?
Ahead, a guide to the EDCs most commonly found in hair care products and how to avoid them. (You know, if you’re not into irregular periods and testicle shrinkage.)
Parabens — also listed as methylparaben, propylparaben, butylparapen, and ethylparaben on ingredient lists — are preservatives that keep your shampoo and conditioner from growing mold. They’re also really good estrogen imitators. As such, multiple studies have linked paraben exposure to breast cancer, including one from 2004 that found parabens in a whopping 19 out of 20 breast cancer tumors. Parabens are especially dangerous because they’re so easily absorbed into the skin.
Luckily, beauty brands are catching onto the paraben problem and now offer plenty of paraben-free options. Look for bottles that say “paraben-free” or “free from parabens,” and do a quick scan of the ingredient label to make sure the aforementioned iterations aren’t listed.
Phthalates, besides being ridiculously difficult to pronounce, are “plasticizers” that can show up in hairsprays, defining creams, and gels. Their claim to hair fame, according to the FDA, is that they leave behind a “flexible film” — AKA, create a soft hold. But phthalates have a dark side: They’ve been shown to stimulate the death of testicular cells, lower sperm count, cause birth defects, and negatively impact the thyroid. Because of this, it’s especially important for those who are pregnant or nursing to avoid phthalates when possible.
Increasingly, brands are jumping on the phthalate-free bandwagon, so look for labels that specify the product is “phthalate-free” or “free from phthalates.” On ingredient lists, phthalates can also show up as DEP, DBP, and DEHP. (The European Union says DBP and DEHP are the worst offenders.)
Here’s an interesting one: Bisphenol A, also known as BPA, is an industrial chemical coating that strengthens plastics and resins. It was banned from use in cosmetics in 2006 because it’s basically artificial estrogen — BPAs have been linked to all kinds of cancer, early puberty, and obesity. However. BPA is still alive and well in packaging materials like plastic bottles, and there’s evidence to suggest that certain cosmetics — like soap and sunscreen — actually make it easier for BPA to enter the body. In short: You may be using a BPA-free product, but if there’s BPA in its packaging, you’re still risking exposure.
BPA usage is rampant, and it’s in everything from plastics to receipt paper, so removing it from your routine altogether is pretty hard. Opting for products in glass bottles instead of plastic is a good place to start, though.
Triclosan is another preservative-slash-EDC that can interrupt healthy hormone function. It’s mostly used in water-based products such as shampoo and conditioner; and even though it keeps those products from going rancid, it also keeps your hair from growing. Talk about counterintuitive.
If you want to avoid triclosan (which, as a Mane Addict, you probably do), scan the ingredient lists of your existing and future hair care for both “triclosan” and “triclocarban.”
That whole shrunken testicles thing? You can thank glycol ethers for that (based on a study involving rats). Other things you can thank them for include: damaged fertility, birth defects, and low sperm count, per the EWG. Despite all that, these ingredients are still used as solvents in cosmetic formulations fairly frequently.
The main glycol ethers to eliminate will be listed as “2-butoxyethanol (EGBE)” or “methoxydiglycol (DEGME),” so give any product labels the prerequisite once-over before you drop your money on a testicle-shrinking hairspray.
Ah, fragrance. One little word holds so many endocrine-disrupting possibilities. Fragrance falls into a loophole in the Food & Drug Administration guidelines; because it’s considered a “trade secret,” brands don’t legally have to disclose the ingredients in their particular blend. That means the umbrella term can cover up any of the above ingredients (and then some). If you’re serious about avoiding EDCs, you might want to cut out products with ambiguous fragrance claims, too.
Whew. That may feel like a lot, but don’t panic. Evidence shows that the risk of every-so-often exposure to EDCs is minimal; and small changes that limit your exposure over time can add up to a big difference in your health.
Want one action step to get started? Switch to paraben- and phthalate-free shampoo and conditioner, stat. Preferably in sturdy glass bottles.