They’re found in common household items: from plastic bottles and containers to tinned foods, toys and even our skincare, nail polish, shampoos, lubricants, candles and fragrances. But is our growing aversion for phthalates and other endocrine disruptors a result of cleanwashing and fearmongering by certain beauty brands or is there genuine cause for concern?
For many, the sensorial, active benefits of our skin, haircare and scents outweigh the risks. Until faced with chronic illness, PCOS, infertility or seemingly unrelated issues such as mood swings or changes in libido, do we zero-in on what’s going in and on our bodies.
“Recent studies underscore the ubiquitous presence of phthalates and their potential adverse impact on health early in life,” Dr Swee Du Soon, consultant at the Department of Endocrinology at SGH explains. He cites how an Italian research group reported the presence of microplastics—including some of the pigments commonly used in nail paints and cosmetics—in human placentas. “This is highly concerning as unborn babies are particularly vulnerable to these chemicals during the critical developmental window. Emerging evidence has also provided insight into the association of phthalate exposure during adolescence and increased risk for significant attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)-related behaviour problems.”
What are hormones and why do they matter?
“Hormones are ‘chemical messengers’ predominantly secreted by endocrine glands and released into the bloodstream to bind to target glands and organs in order to control their activities. This intricate internal communication system is essential in the regulation of many bodily functions, such as growth and development, metabolism and energy, puberty and fertility,” says Dr Swee. He lists oestrogen as being the most vital hormone in women’s bodies. “Oestrogen is central to women’s reproductive and overall health. Produced primarily in the ovaries, it is responsible for supporting puberty, menstrual cycles and pregnancy, as well as maintaining bone, heart, brain and skin health. Relevant to this discussion, phthalates and other EDCs are known to exert or block oestrogen actions by binding to oestrogen-sensitive tissues, and therefore have the potential to cause a wide range of diseases.”
What are endocrine disruptors?
“Endocrine disruptors are toxins that disrupt the hormones in our body. They can imitate hormones, block communication of hormones, and interfere with hormone pathways which can impact egg quality and fertility due to increase in toxic load and disruption of the hormones that are necessary to support every step of fertility,” explains functional fertility dietitian, Brooke Boskovich. When she’s not dispensing fertility-linked nutrition advice, Boskovich, armed with a Master of Science in Human Nutrition and a licensed dietitian nutritionist, shares that, “Our personal care products are often the biggest contributors of endocrine disrupting chemicals. The higher our exposure to endocrine disruptors is, the harder it is for our body to support ovulation and egg quality in order for conception to be successful.”
What are phthalates and what is the link to our hormones and reproductive health?
“Phthalates are a group of chemical compounds commonly used as plasticisers to make products more durable and flexible. They also serve as vehicles for fragrances in a variety of cosmetic and personal care products, including nail polishes, hair sprays, cleansers and shampoos. Of concern, phthalates are classified as hormone- or endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs), which refer to man-made chemicals with the potential to interfere with the body’s normal hormone functioning. The most established effects of EDCs are on reproductive hormones,” explains Dr Swee. “We have learnt from extensive laboratory animal studies that phthalates could adversely impact on live birth rate and the health of offspring. Although human studies remain limited, similar observations linking infertility, pregnancy loss and increased risk for genital anomalies in newborn boys to phthalate exposure have been described.”
Beyond our beauty products, phthalates have been found in dairy products, meats, fish, baked goods, processed foods, and even infant formula. From a dietary perspective, other endocrine disruptors in our food include processed vegetable oil and processed foods with dyes, chemical preservatives and artificial flavours or colours, says Boskovich.
What are the symptoms of dysregulation in the body when our hormones are out of whack?
“Mood swings, fatigue, muscle weakness, insomnia, weight changes, and irregular periods are some of the common symptoms experienced by patients with hormonal disturbances,” says Dr Swee. “It is not surprising that these symptoms may be brushed aside until they become more severe. Due to the overlapping clinical features between different endocrine disorders, biochemical tests are necessary to clinch the diagnosis.”
Should we be alarmed with the skincare and fragrances we’re using?
And now here you are, wondering where this information leaves you and your recent beauty haul. Perhaps you’re even thinking you’d have rather not known. But at what cost to your health?
“Of the over 1,000 known chemicals with hormone-disrupting potential, a subset is found in cosmetic and beauty products, and these substances can be absorbed into our bodies through skin, inhalation or ingestion,” says Dr Swee.
“Although individual chemicals may be present in very small doses, they can interact with other EDCs present in the mixture and thereby potentiate the exposure effects,” he continues. He adds that as ‘fragrance’ is considered to be a trade secret, manufacturers aren’t required to disclose the chemicals in them, making it challenging to determine if exposures are maintained within or below ‘safe’ limits.
“While it is not possible to avoid EDCs entirely as they are widely used in consumer products, increased awareness empowers us to take steps in minimising exposure burden in our daily lives. In choosing personal care products, phthalate content can be evaluated through non-profit online resources and careful reading of product labels,” says Dr Swee.
The conscientious amongst us may be more inclined to pass on products that contain ‘fragrance’ or ‘parfums’ in a product’s INCI list of ingredients, including air fresheners and household cleaners. On the self-care front, while the sex toy industry remains unregulated, manufacturers such as WeVibe and Dame produce body-safe ‘phthalate-free’ vibrators. Whether in the kitchen or vanity, opting for goods stored in glass jars or bottles, and drink from glassware as opposed to plastic bottles.
Ultimately, it’s going to take time, patience and a newfound mindful approach to beauty and self-care.
“Think about what you put in your body, on your body and what is around your body. This can be a very overwhelming process so choose one area or even one product at a time and start learning more about how to read labels and make the best swaps for your fertility. If you can start by ditching all artificial fragrance this is a huge win. Don’t forget to consider cleaning and laundry products too,” Boskovich recommends.