Partnering with the Keep a Breast Foundation, the nonprofit Environmental Working Group (EWG) released a consumer guide today about the chemicals most likely to mess with your hormones that are in countless products you're using right now. EWG's list of 12 endocrine disruptors – synthetic substances that can alter the production of hormones in the body, potentially causing reproductive problems, thyroid issues and certain cancers -- can be found in food, cosmetics, furniture, cleaning products and even the dust bunnies rolling under your bed.
EWG offers tips for avoiding these suspected health hazards but also points out when their presence is so ubiquitous that it's pretty much impossible to do.
In a press release, EWG director of research Renee Sharp said, “We are all routinely exposed to endocrine disruptors, and this has the potential to significantly harm the health of our youth. It’s important to do what we can to avoid them, but at the same time we can’t shop our way out of the problem. We need real chemical policy reform.”
You're likely familiar with the risks of lead paint in your home and perfluorochemicals (PFCs) present in some nonstick cookware, but here are a few of the lesser known endocrine disruptors EWG recommends you avoid when possible:
Canned foods are problematic because most of their insides are lined with Bisphenol-A (BPA), a synthetic hormone that has been linked to cancer, reproductive problems, heart disease and even obesity. It's not easy to find noncan alternatives, but some Trader Joe's locations sell Pomi tomato products in cartons, and here's a list of companies that offer BPA-free cans.
Another vehicle of BPA exposure is store receipts. Thermal imaging papers made printing receipts much cheaper for companies, but the process relies heavily on BPA, which is coated on one side of the paper. Some scientists say that BPA exposure via receipts could be even more damaging than the BPA in cans because the chemical slides off the paper onto your fingers and can be absorbed directly into the skin. Researchers who tested dollar bills for the presence of BPA found the chemical on virtually all of them – ranging from almost nonexistent to very high levels – and postulated that BPA from store receipts mingles with bills in wallets and pockets, upping your exposure. Scientists are researching alternative chemicals for printed receipt, but one, bisphenol S (BPS), isn't proving to be any less of a health hazard. Have stores email you receipts instead of giving you a paper one whenever possible.
In 1999, Swedish scientists found polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), an endocrine-disrupting chemical found in fire retardants, in women’s breast milk. Found in carpet padding, household dust and in foam furniture, PBDEs mimic thyroid hormones, altering their production and possibly leading to lower IQs and other negative health effects. While several kinds of PBDEs have now been phased out, they're “incredibly persistent,” EWG says, “so they’re going to be contaminating people and wildlife for decades to come.”
“Studies have linked phthalates to hormone changes, lower sperm count, less mobile sperm, birth defects in the male reproductive system, obesity, diabetes and thyroid irregularities,” according to EWG's report. They're found in many cosmetics and other personal care products, but checking product labels for them often won't do you any good, since they might not be listed.
From nonprofit The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics: “A significant loophole in the law allows phthalates (and other chemicals) to be added to fragrances without disclosure to consumers. Because fragrance occurs in nearly every conceivable product, including lotions, soaps, cleansers and hair care products, phthalates are common.”
Diethyl phthalate (DEP) is still used in many products, including fragrance. In 2010, the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics found DEP in 12 of 17 fragrance products they tested and “14 secret chemicals not listed on labels due to a loophole in federal law that allows companies to claim fragrances as trade secrets.”
After reading in a Forbes.com story that the trade association representing the cosmetics and personal care industries, which include the Estee Lauder Companies, opposed the Safe Cosmetics Act, I was curious whether Estee Lauder was selling products containing any of these chemicals as part of their breast cancer awareness campaign. The Evelyn Lauder Dream Collection includes pink ribbon pins, the Evelyn Lauder and Elizabeth Hurley Dream Lip Collection (a pink lipstick and gloss for $29.95), the Advanced Night Repair Serum that they sell all the time but this one comes with a little pink keychain and a solid version of the company's Pleasures perfume: the Pink Ribbon Evelyn Lauder Dream Collection Perfume Compact.
An Estee Lauder representative emailed me the ingredients list -- unavailable online to consumers -- of the Evelyn Lauder and Elizabeth Hurley Dream Lip Collection. Both the lipstick and gloss contain tocopheryl acetate, a chemical compound suspected of raising allergy risk and your risk for cancer as well as being bioaccumulative and the lipstick also has BHT in it, which some studies have linked to irritation of the skin, eyes and lungs and organ toxicity.
Also unsurprisingly, although Estee Lauder shares that Pleasures' top notes include essences of “violet leaves” and “green accents,” whatever the hell that means, the website doesn't list Dream's ingredients either. So I fired up a live chat with a Nordstrom “beauty stylist” and asked if he would tell me if “fragrance” appears on the label. Kevin had to actually call a store to get someone to read the label to him because evidently their employees aren't privy to this information either, but he then confirmed that it did list “fragrance” on its label, which according to EWG, can refer to almost 3,000 different substances.
I asked if he would tell me the first few ingredients that appear on the list, since they're in order of composition, and he said “propylene glycol, beeswax, glycerol, alcohol and linalool.”
Linalool could be a “Possible human immune system toxicant or allergen,” according to EWG, but health concerns about its use are relatively low.
Not so for Dream's chief ingredient, which is No. 12 on EWG's list of endocrine disruptors:
Commonly found in paint solvents, cleaning products, brake fluid and cosmetics, glycol ethers have been linked to testicle shrinkage, reproductive problems and increased risk of allergies in children. Exposure to propylene glycol specifically could lead to organ (not reproductive) toxicity but rated a moderate potential risk by EWG. It's the sixth most common allergen found in fragrances, according to a study published in the Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology in 2008. It also made New Jersey's Right to Know Chemical Hazard Substance List.
What does this say about Estee Lauder? At the very least, it's probably best not to trust their labels.