How Our Beauty Products Are Harming Our Fertility

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skin woman with cream
Photo: Courtesy of @Natascha.Lindemann

The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘‘cosmetics’’ as ‘‘a preparation intended to beautify the hair, skin, or complexion’’. The word comes from the Greek kosmetikos (‘‘relating to adornment’’), which itself is taken from the word kosmein (‘‘to arrange, adorn’’).

Indeed, our infatuation with the idea of improving our appearance via adornment dates back thousands of years ago. One theory behind the origins of the symbol used to denote ‘‘woman’’ is that it represents the hand mirror used by the Roman goddess Venus or the Greek goddess Aphrodite. Cosmetic habits have been a part of human history as far back as the Ancient Egyptians. They, just like the Ancient Romans and Greeks, used various ingredients to soften, improve, exfoliate, and detoxify the skin. The Romans and Greeks used walnut extracts as hair dye, antimony (a known toxic heavy metal) as eye shadow, white lead carbonate as a skin lightener, charcoal crocodile excrement as a skin darkener, and cinnabar as rouge.

While makeup does wonders to enhance our looks and, most importantly for some, our confidence, research today shows that almost all of the cosmetic products sold to consumers are chockfull of chemicals that are endocrine disruptors, or hormonal disruptors. One such group of chemicals is phthalates, which are non-persistent chemicals used in a variety of industrial consumer products and produced in high volume annually worldwide. The high molecular-weight phthalate – di-(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate (DEHP) – is mainly used to add flexibility to polyvinyl chloride and other plastic products. Low molecular-weight phthalates, such as di-butyl phthalate (DBP) and diethyl phthalate (DEP), are used as solvents in consumer and personal-care products to hold color and scent. Women of reproductive age have a specific exposure risk profile to di-n-butyl phthalate (DBP), which is commonly used in many beauty products.

Globally, more than 18 billion pounds of phthalates are used each year, primarily as plasticizers in (PVC) products; used to impart flexibility to plastics, they can be found in most PVC products including vinyl upholstery, tablecloths, shower curtains, several sprays (like pesticides), solvents, and soft-squeeze children’s toys. The use of these compounds is also approved in several medical devices such as tubing, blood bags, and vinyl gloves, and they can be found as additives in cosmetics products such as lotion, perfume, and nail polish.

Phthalates have been demonstrated to reduce fertility in both humans and animals.

The high production volume and common use of this group of chemicals has resulted in humans commonly being exposed to phthalates on a daily basis through ingestion, inhalation, and skin contact. Because these plasticizers cannot form strong molecular bonds with polymers, they are rapidly leached into the environment and have become a widespread environmental contaminate.

In men, select phthalate metabolites have been associated with decreased sperm concentration and motility, increased sperm DNA damage, and increased sperm apoptosis (Duty et al., 2003a,b; Hauser et al., 2007; Pant et al., 2008; Wirth et al., 2008; Wang et al., 2015, 2016; You et al., 2015).

In a study conducted in the US, select phthalate metabolites were found to be associated with decreased fertility as evidenced by a 20 percent increase in time to pregnancy as well as diminished blastocyst quality and decreased odds of implantation and live births. Interestingly, phthalates have been demonstrated to reduce fertility in both humans and animals, and occupational exposure to phthalates has been associated with decreased pregnancy rates, increased miscarriages, and other gestational complications. Moreover, it has been demonstrated that these plasticizers negatively impact oocyte growth (a female reproductive cell), ovulation, and embryonic development, leading to impaired ovarian function. Interference with ovarian steroid synthesis and metabolism could partially explain these effects. Indeed, phthalates exert anti-androgenic or estrogenic effects in vitro, further making them potent toxins for the unborn fetuses (Buck Louis et al., 2014; Dodge et al., 2015).

So what do we do? How do we even begin to protect ourselves and our future generations from items that have become an intrinsic part of daily use and self-care?  “The first step is always awareness,” says Dr. Pankaj Shrivastav, Medical Director & Consultant in Reproductive Medicine at Conceive Gynaecology and Fertility Hospital in Dubai. “This is why scientific research and development is so vital and it is imperative that we, as medical physicians, take this kind of knowledge to the public and make them aware of potential environmental dangers.”

“When it comes to plastic, in general try to avoid using them as much as possible,” Dr. Pankaj Shrivastav advises. “Thanks to social media, the world is much more aware today of how plastic is destroying the planet and the reason for several animal species dying out. Opt for reusable containers to store your foods and household products. When it comes to cosmetics, flip the label and read the ingredients. Any sign of phthalates – don’t buy it! Opt for more natural ingredients based and cruelty-free products. Your body and children will thank you for it.”

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