What exactly are endocrine disruptors and how can we avoid them?
Some basic explanations about the endocrine system:
The endocrine system is the system in the human body that includes all the organs and tissues secreting hormones. Besides other factors, our health depends on the proper functioning of this endocrine system. The system is made up of several organs called hormonal glands (composed of endocrine cells), which produce hormones and then release them into the bloodstream. These hormones act as « chemical messengers », circulating throughout the body.
Hormones have a variety of essential functions; they stimulate growth and development, regulate impulses and moods, control major physiological basic functions (e.g. body temperature, blood sugar levels, blood pressure). This also means that the balance of our organism or our health as a whole can be strongly impacted if this system is disturbed or if anything interferes with it.
How endocrine disruptors work, Video Hormone Health Network
And what about endocrine disruptors?
Endocrine disruptors are sometimes of natural origin (hormones and phyto-oestrogens), and often artificial, i.e. product ingredients from the chemical industry or components of numerous everyday objects (e.g. cosmetics, pesticides, detergents, plastics, furnishing, medicine, textiles, etc.).
What is their impact on health?
Endocrine disruptors can impact health on several levels, for example by:
- Modifying the natural production of our intrinsic hormones (oestrogen, testosterone) by interfering with their synthesis, transport or breakdown mechanisms
- Mimicking the action of these hormones by substitution (also sometimes referred to as « hormone-like » in the biological processes they control)
- Blocking or preventing the action of these hormones, by attaching themselves to the receptors with which they usually interact
And all these hormonal interferences can sooner or later be linked to important health problems such as:
- infertility problems
- hormone-dependent cancers
- genital malformation at birth**
- other diseases such as diabetes/obesity, etc.
**Ref: the conclusion of Professor Sultan’s work (in French):
Another concern: endocrine disruptors are problematic and active even at low doses, according to various studies*:
The low dose of exposure
Usually, below a certain level of exposure, the body’s defence mechanisms prevent the appearance of effects on health. This is known as the threshold effect. For certain dangerous substances such as carcinogenic molecules, it has been observed that there is sometimes no threshold effect, at least on a population scale, and therefore effects are possible even at low doses. Endocrine disruptors are suspected of acting in the same way.
Which products contain endocrine disruptors?
Endocrine disruptors examples
Endocrine disruptors can be found in a large number of everyday products (furnishing, textiles, cosmetics, toys, clothing, and also food), such as:
- phthalates or bisphenol A used in plastics
- pesticides in food*
- cosmetic ingredients (some parabens, triclosan, UV filters, alkylphenols, BHT etc.)
- organochlorine compounds (DDT, chlordecone, etc.) used in plant protection products
- flame retardants (found, for example, in new furniture)
* In France, the non-profit organisation “Générations Futures” is doing a remarkable job of collective mobilisation against pesticides and deserves our support:
Are endocrine disruptors problematic for everyone?
Endocrine disruptors are a problem for EVERYONE, but pregnant women, foetuses, children and people with weakened immune systems are the most at risk.
It is important to note, for example, that a pregnant woman’s exposure to endocrine disruptors can have repercussions on her child’s health, even if the effects do not appear until several years after birth. In 2016, a study by Santé Publique France (the French public health agency) confirmed the presence of traces of endocrine disruptors in almost all the pregnant women tested during a large-scale survey, the first of this scale in France to have been carried out on these substances.
« The study, published on Wednesday 7 December 2016 by Santé Publique France, measured the presence of various organic pollutants in the urine of more than 4,000 French women who gave birth in 2011. The result: « Bisphenol A, phthalates, pyrethroids (a family of insecticides), dioxins, furans, PCBs, flame retardants and perfluorinated compounds » were detected « in almost all pregnant women », explains the French public health agency, which was commissioned by the Ministry of Health for this survey. For example, bisphenol A was present in more than 70% of the participants, phthalates in 99.6% of them, dioxins, furans and PCBs were detected in… 100% of cases!
As far as cosmetic products are concerned, there are unfortunately still too many substances of concern (endocrine disruptors and other controversial substances), even in products for pregnant women, children or toddlers, as demonstrated by the various product tests on the site.
After all … why not simply ban them, in that case?
On the one hand, there is no common European regulatory definition, even if many efforts have been put in place since 2017.
And above all, between the first scientific warnings and the bans on substances (be they cosmetic ingredients or pesticides, for that matter) several years can go by.
This is partly because the administrative processes are cumbersome and complex, but also because the industry concerned will of course oppose them with all means (lobbying). The regulation of chemical substances is governed by the REACH Regulations, which applies without transposition in all EU Member States. It states that substances with endocrine disrupting properties and « presenting a level of concern equivalent to CMR substances (carcinogenic – mutagenic – toxic for reproduction) » may be identified as substances of very high concern, and thus be included on the list of substances subject to authorisation.
Legislation in Europe
At the European level, the official list available on the ECHA website is regularly updated and concerns substances potentially considered as endocrine disruptors under evaluation or already evaluated:
Regulatory framework: more information on the subject can also be found on the INRS website (in french):
To date, the absence of specific regulations applicable to endocrine disruptors is explained by the lack of a common and official regulatory definition for all European legislation. Indeed, a European regulatory definition was adopted in September 2017, for endocrine disruptors used as biocidal active ingredients (Delegated Regulation No 2017/2100 of 4th September 2017) and then in April 2018 for those used as pesticides (Commission Regulation 2018/605 of 19th April 2018). However, to date, this definition has not yet been included in the framework of the other European regulations on chemicals (REACH and CLP)
A new European initiative, called EDLIST initiated in 2020, also created a European website listing endocrine disruptors
Five European countries initiated this project, intended to establish a list of proven or suspected disruptive substances.
Launched on 2 June 2020, the edlists.org website lists the substances recognised as endocrine disruptors in the European regulation on chemical products. This site is the result of cooperation between Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, Sweden and France. In France, the French Health Security Agency (Anses) undertook to publish a list of all endocrine disruptors by 2021. This list classifies the molecules into three categories: « suspected », « presumed » and « proven »,
So what about substances classified as CMR (carcinogenic, mutagenic and toxic to reproduction)?
In some cases, « banned » substances (which includes certain endocrine disruptors) can be exempted and therefore remain in circulation, as also stated by the FEBEA*, the french cosmetics industry federation. »According to the European Cosmetics Regulation (No. 1223/2009), CMR substances are banned in cosmetics « because of their hazardous properties ». However, since a hazardous property of a substance does not necessarily entail a risk, there are exceptional cases where these ingredients can be used. For example, a substance classified in category 2 can be used in cosmetic products if it has been assessed by the European Scientific Committee on Consumer Safety (SCCS) and found safe for use in cosmetic products. Similarly, CMR substances of category 1A or 1B may be used in cosmetic products if they comply with food safety requirements, if there are no suitable alternative substances and if the SCCS has considered their use for a particular purpose as safe. »
What about essential oils?
It seems that some essential oils could also concerned by this issue?
There are of course plants or essential oils (derived from plants) that have recognised and `proven effects on the hormonal system. These properties have been identified a long time ago and this, among other reasons, is why they are used. This also means that these plants or essential oils are accompanied by restrictions on their use: sage or peppermint essential oils, to name but one example, are to be prescribed during pregnancy. These plants or essential oils will therefore be used in very specific therapeutic settings. For further studies on essential oils, the Essential Oils Consortium* (in French) is a valuable source of information. The problem of synthetic endocrine disruptors is very different: these are substances with very specific properties (preservative, pesticide, etc.) that interfere « incidentally » with the hormonal system in quite a serious way.
So how can we avoid endocrine disruptors in our daily lives?
It cannot be stressed enough that the problem of endocrine disruptors does not ONLY concern certain cosmetic ingredients, but a large part of everyday objects and our food: avoiding pesticides in food, by favouring organic farming, is already a step in the right direction. But it is really our daily consumption choices that will help us avoid adding endocrine disruptors to those already present in numerous products on the market, today.
As a result, to avoid endocrine disruptors in cosmetics, here are some steps you can take:
- Read ingredient labels and check your products with our free INCI research tool
- Choose natural and organic (certified) products: Look for certifications from reputable organizations like COSMOS, Ecocert, BDIH, Natrue, Soil Association, Cosmébio, USDA Organic, as they have strict standards for ingredient safety.
- Avoid certain product categories: Some products are more likely to contain endocrine disruptors. Be cautious with cosmetics such as nail polishes, hair dyes, as they tend to have higher levels of EDCs. Consider safer alternatives or reduce their use.
- Research brands: Look for brands that prioritize ingredient safety and transparency. Visit their websites, read reviews, and look for any commitments to avoid endocrine disruptors.
- Educate yourself: Stay informed about emerging research and information regarding endocrine disruptors. Understanding the potential risks and new developments will help you make more informed choices when purchasing cosmetics.
Remember, while avoiding endocrine disruptors in cosmetics is a step towards reducing exposure, it’s important to consider other sources of EDCs in your environment, such as household cleaners, clothing, furniture food containers, and water bottles. Taking a holistic approach to reduce exposure to EDCs can help protect your health and well-being.
More information in this interview with Aromathèque (in French) about endocrine disruptors in cosmetics: