FairWarining Reports

Study Links Cosmetics Use to Altered Body Chemistry

Kim Harley, a reproductive epidemiologist at the University of California-Berkeley

Kim Harley, a reproductive epidemiologist at the University of California-Berkeley

A new study released today suggests that consumers can quickly reduce the amount of hormone-disrupting chemicals in their bodies by switching personal care products.

Researchers at the University of California-Berkeley asked 100 teenage girls in Salinas, Calif. to stop using their normal makeups, soaps and shampoos and instead use products free of common ingredients that have been shown to interfere with the endocrine systems of animals or mimic the actions of hormones on human cells in laboratories.

After switching products for just three days, the girls showed a 27 to 45 percent reduction in levels of several chemicals – called phthalates, parabens, triclosan and oxybenzone – in their urine.

The impact most of these chemicals have on people remains unclear, although human studies have linked phthalates to respiratory symptoms, neurobehavioral problems and obesity in children.

“We don’t know what the long-term health effects of exposing our bodies to these chemicals are, but there’s reason to be concerned,” said the study’s lead author, Kim Harley, a reproductive epidemiologist.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has limited authority over the ingredients that go into personal care products. The FDA doesn’t require manufacturers to prove that their products are safe before putting them on the market and is not authorized to recall personal care products.

The Berkeley study analyzed urine samples of the 100 girls, all Latinas, before and after they switched products and screened them for concentrations of nine chemicals. Overall, after the switch, concentrations decreased for all of the chemicals except for two rarer types of parabens, which increased, although the levels were low. Parabens are a class of chemicals used as preservatives and antibacterial agents in personal care products.

“That was really surprising,” said Harley, who noted that researchers specifically chose products that were paraben free. She hypothesized that paraben-free products could just be switching to less-common parabens, although she emphasized she didn’t know the cause for the increase.

The study was born out of a relationship the Center for Environmental Research and Children’s Health at UC Berkeley has with Salinas, a rural, largely Latino community northeast of Monterey. Harley said the center has been working in the community for years and wanted to do a project in which local young people could actually participate in designing and carrying out a study.

When researchers started talking to local teenage girls about potentially harmful chemicals in their cosmetics, Harley said the girls were fascinated and several ultimately helped conduct the study.

“It was a topic that spoke to them,” she said.

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7 comments to “Study Links Cosmetics Use to Altered Body Chemistry”

  1. Angela Bower

    In my opinion it is always advisable to avoid as many artificially produced chemicals as possible and to select more natural products. The complexity of the chemical structure in natural products rules out an overdose of any one element, so it is safer for the body. However, not all natural products are screened for contamination from pesticides. So to truly eliminate all chemicals the study would need to be done with only organic products that have been certified as organic such as Neal’s Yard Remedies. I am a consultant in the UK but they have outlets and consultants in the U.S. also. The prices are fair and the ingredients free of all harm. Thank you so much for your work and the highlighting once again of such a much needed subject. For it is with knowledge and understanding we can break free of the chemicals in society once again.

  2. Hal Levin

    I would like to know the extent of cultural pressures on women’s choices regarding cosmetics, clothing, and other choices with (environmental) health implications. For example, what does it take for women (or girls) to feel OK about themselves when they “go natural” as suggested by previous commenter Matthew Mabey who raised a lot of good points and offered suggestions for a follow-on study.

    IMHO – We tend to focus too little on behavior and motivation and too much on technology.

  3. Betty Martin

    I would be interested in knowing what products the researchers were able to find that were free of “phthalates, parabens, triclosan and oxybenzone”. Thank you.

  4. Jenna Wilson

    Products containing parabens have undergone a lot of scrutiny over the years, but it makes you wonder since just about all kinds of cosmetics have some kind of parabens including deodorants, mascara it would be interesting to see a long-term study and its long-term impact on body chemistry.

  5. Bert Voorhees

    The article refers to using “products free of common ingredients,” yet does not say what those common ingredients are. That would seem to be the most useful information that could be provided in conjunction with this study.

  6. Matthew Mabey

    Fascinating research of a type that we need more of. From this article, it would appear that the 100 girls were self selected from a science oriented sub-population and that there was no control group. I guess those need to be the next steps: 1) randomly selected groups from a general population, 2) control, treatment, and placebo groups, and 3) larger groups.
    Given the quick response that is reported here, perhaps it would also be wise to include a group where no products were used instead of substituting “safer” replacement products. It would mean that the girls would have to “go natural” for a week, but it would be interesting to observe the results.

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