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Member Research & Reports

Member Research & Reports

Even ‘Green’ Toiletries May Contain Worrisome Chemicals, Michigan Researcher Says

Should you worry about the chemicals in your makeup, lotion, shaving cream, soap, and shampoo—even if those toiletries are supposed to be ‘green’? The answer is a clear maybe.


[Photo: Dr. John Meeker]

Some critics suspect chemicals such as phthalates and parabens can interfere with the body’s hormones, most notably reproductive hormones such as estrogen and testosterone. The possible health risks could include chronic diseases, cancers, and a host of developmental disorders and fertility problems.

Manufacturers use phthalates to help dissolve other ingredients into a consistent solution, to make nail polishes less brittle and to keep hair spray from making hair too stiff. Parabens in personal care products act as preservatives and antimicrobials. The chemicals are not regulated in consumer products, in large part because the Food and Drug Administration says there is no evidence that current exposures are a health hazard.

Indeed, the science of endocrine-disrupting chemicals is fraught with uncertainty. Sometimes exposure – how much and for how long – is under question; sometimes the health effects in humans are not clear for compounds that have been studied in animals and cell culture.

Here is what is certain: Phthalates and parabens are not inert substances — they have biological activity. In animal studies, for instance, some phthalates act to counter male hormones and disrupt development of male sex organs. Both phthalates and parabens act on estrogen pathways, which in humans have been associated with such varied effects as decreased sperm count, endometriosis, and insulin resistance.

Also, there’s no question that most Americans are regularly exposed to these chemicals. Large-scale monitoring studies show phthalates, parabens, and the chemicals created by their metabolism are present in the urine of nearly everyone tested, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Here is what is not certain: The level of chemical exposure that might pose a risk to human health and whether even the highest exposures measured in people are a problem.

If a product’s label says phthalate-free or paraben-free, that provides clarity. Otherwise, there is no way to be sure, says Dr. John Meeker, an associate professor of environmental health sciences at the University of Michigan School of Public Health. “It could be in there under vague names like ‘fragrances.’”

Scientists continue to study the effects of these endocrine disruptors and have investigated possible links to miscarriage, premature birth, birth defects, deficient sperm, obesity, metabolic disease, bone density, and breast cancer. But how much exposure might lead to these health risks simply is not known, and scientists cannot ethically conduct tests to directly show such effects.

So, to avoid these chemicals altogether, what should you do? Meeker says that, if given the option, he will choose a phthalate-free or paraben-free product.

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