In many of the items that you likely use on a daily basis (think food packaging, shampoo, detergents, and more), there are certain chemicals that pose potential harm to your health, specifically to your hormonal health. Scientists refer to these chemicals as endocrine disruptors.
Your hormonal health is important because hormones regulate systems and processes in your body, including your breathing, metabolism, and reproduction. Anything that’s interfering with hormone regulation is technically “disrupting” your hormones’ natural processes.
Read on to find the biggest culprits of endocrine disruption, and how to steer clear of these chemicals, in both your diet and your home.
“Hormone disruptors are chemicals that can interfere with our endocrine system causing havoc on our reproductive, immune, and neurological systems,” explains Tiffany Lester , MD, a doctor at Parsley Health. “Most of these chemicals are man-made and found in our everyday products for our homes and bodies. Some examples are plastic bottles, metal food cans, cosmetics, detergents, and even children’s toys,” she adds.
Why is this becoming an issue now? The products available to us today are not the same as your grandparents’ plain soaps or glass casserole dishes. The evolution of technology has welcomed endocrine disrupting chemicals into our kitchens and personal care and beauty products, making them far less healthy for us to use (even if, you know, your hair is shinier).
How exactly do these endocrine-disrupting chemicals interfere with the reproductive system’s regular function? “They work by binding to hormone receptors in our bodies, which then block hormones like estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone from binding,” says Dr. Lester. “This causes our endocrine system to malfunction, possibly resulting in conditions like infertility, polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), endometriosis, and autoimmune diseases.”
These hormone-disrupting chemicals tend to affect women more than men since they typically use more products than men in their beauty routines. Also, because women rely on hormones like estrogen and progesterone, which these chemicals throw off, for regular menstrual cycles they may be more in tune to an imbalance, Dr. Lester says.
Endocrine disruptors can contribute to infertility in both men and women, and to conditions associated with menstrual cycles, like PMS, cramps, and heavy periods. Because these chemicals are also innately inflammatory and the body has trouble detoxing them, they might further aggravate other health issues like endometriosis, a condition that’s linked to chronic inflammation , Dr. Lester explains. By reducing your exposure to products with known or potential endocrine disruptors when possible, you can help reduce inflammation that could be related to other health conditions.
BPA is the most pervasive of hormone disruptors, Dr. Lester says. Though there is more awareness, and therefore more BPA-free products, it can still be found in a variety of plastic products, from water bottles and plastic containers to food and beauty product packaging, and it’s not always disclosed as an ingredient. According to research , BPA blocks estrogen receptors, contributing to infertility in both men and women, as well as PCOS.
Pesticide and herbicide residue may be found in trace amounts in many non-organic food products, and research has shown they can block testosterone production as well as thyroid hormone production, causing thyroid health and infertility issues.
PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, are chemicals that may be found in different cosmetics, soaps, detergents, shampoos, and conditioners. One study states that they can affect reproductive function, as well as cause depressive symptoms.
DES, or diethylstilbestrol, is a synthetic estrogen that can negatively affect fertility , Dr. Lester says. “It’s been mostly banned in the U.S., but it can be found in various flame-retardant materials used in couches and mattresses,” she says.
Parabens are preservatives that are commonly found in cosmetics and personal care items, like moisturizers, makeup, hair products, and shaving creams, to make them more shelf-stable. They mimic estrogen and may potentially contribute to breast cancer risk.
There are many things we don’t know about potential hormone disruptors. Here are just a few potential endocrine disruptors that are still being researched.
“We don’t have enough research yet to prove that there are definitely environmental factors at play when it comes to GMOs,” Dr. Lester says. GMOs, or genetically modified organisms, are typically plant crops, like corn, squash, and zucchini that have their genetic code changed in some way to make them stronger in certain temperatures, resistant to disease, or more productive. Some people believe these crops could increase the risk of certain diseases, but many scientists have not found evidence of this. Since genetically modified foods tend to be treated with pesticides and herbicides, though, there is a chance they could be laced with hormone disrupting chemicals.
Glyphosate is the most common herbicide used on crops like soybean and corn and the active ingredient in most weed killers while also being one of the many potentially endocrine disrupting chemicals in our environment. It’s for this reason that its use has been the source of much debate. The EPA recently released a statement that glyphosate has not been proven as a carcinogen and is likely not affecting the general public if they haven’t been exposed to large amounts of it during agricultural production. However, studies have suggested that there’s an association with exposure to it and non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and other research has shown glyphosate is linked to disturbances in the reproductive development of rats , disruption of hormone receptors in human cells , and altered estrogen-regulated gene expression .
Phytoestrogens are naturally-occurring compounds found in certain plant foods that can mimic estrogen. They are found most commonly in soy foods , though as Dr. Lester mentions, “We all respond differently to soy”. Research states that it can be beneficial to women in menopause looking to balance their hormones, but there has been contrasting research on whether it can inhibit or encourage breast cancer cell growth in pre-menopausal women. If you’re going to eat soy , it’s best to eat whole foods containing soy, like edamame, which is minimally processed and retains many of its original nutrients, according to the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine .
Research in the early 2000s made the connection between aluminum in antiperspirants and an increased risk of breast cancer after recognizing the impact of aluminum on estrogen receptors and DNA damage and citing other research that found breast cancer is more common closer to the armpit , where antiperspirants are used most. Contrary to this research, an extensive 2014 review of aluminum concluded that aluminum did not increase breast cancer risk. “We don’t know enough yet about the possible correlation to breast cancer,” says Dr. Lester. “But there are aluminum-free effective deodorants that are less likely to pose a risk.”
Dr. Lester points out that it’s not as simple as one toxin disrupting one hormonal process and causing a disease or health issue. “Our systems are much more complex than that. We are all exposed to hormone disruptors on a daily basis. Some people develop cancer, and others don’t even with the same or worse exposure,” she says. Our health habits may play a role in determining how much hormone disruptors affect our bodies, she says, for example, whether or not we smoke, eat healthy, preferably organic food, and whether or not we have a healthy weight.
“Given that there are so many environmental exposures we can’t control that contribute to our overall toxin load, why not remove things we do have control over?” says Dr. Lester.
In terms of beauty products, the fewer ingredients, the better. To avoid parabens and other hormone disruptors, check out the EWG’s “Skin Deep” search engine for safer products.
This is a tall order, but it’s important to cut back on your use of plastics, both for the environment and for your own ecosystem. Make sure you’re choosing stainless steel or glass when it comes to water bottles and food containers. Dr. Lester also suggests seeking out beauty and personal care products that come in plastic-free packaging.
It’s important to eat USDA-certified organic products, as much as you can afford to—that’ll be your best bet for avoiding GMOs, pesticides, and herbicides in your food.
If you’ve already been affected by inflammation, make sure you’re choosing a whole food-focused, plant-based diet, Dr. Lester says. “Avoid common inflammatory foods like gluten , dairy , processed foods, sugar, alcohol, and caffeine whenever you can,” she adds.
Supplementation may be important to combat inflammation in the body due to environmental toxins. You may want to take hormone-regulating supplements , such as omega-3 vitamins, turmeric, or fish oil, Dr. Lester says, especially if you don’t regularly consume enough fish, nuts, and other sources of healthy fats .
“Stress is actually inflammatory,” Dr. Lester says, so the more you can reduce or remove from your life, the better. Practicing mindfulness, movement, and regular exercise can keep stress, and therefore inflammation, at a minimum.
Mara is a freelance journalist whose print and digital work has appeared in Shape, Brit+Co, Marie Claire, Prevention, and other wellness outlets.
Most recently, she was a member of the founding team of Bumble Mag, a branded content project for Bumble at Hearst Corporation. She enjoys covering everything from women's health topics and politics to travel. She has a degree in Communications as well as Italian Studies from Fordham University.