Medical experts wonder why so many third grade girls have already developed breasts and pubic hair. Early puberty in boys is less obvious but also of concern. There is mounting evidence that suggests harmful chemicals in personal care products could be a potential cause of early puberty and other health issues.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found measurable levels of phthalates in the general population in their Report on Human Exposure to Environmental Chemicals. Phthalates are types of chemicals that mimic hormones and are linked to birth defects in animals, especially in the male reproductive system, and are also considered a potential cause for early puberty in boys and girls in early elementary school. They are also associated with obesity in children. The CDC report collected data on the levels of 13 types of phthalates in over 2500 adults and children and included data from previous surveys conducted starting in 1999 to 2004. There were measurable levels of several types of phthalates among the study participants, indicating that exposure to phthalates may be widespread in the U.S population. Particular types of phthalates found in cosmetics and other personal care products like soap and body washes were found at higher levels among the women in the CDC study.
How do Beauty Products Play a Role?
Not Too Pretty, a research report conducted by three environmental groups, Health Care Without Harm, Coming Clean and the Environmental Working Group, tested 72 name-brand, widely used beauty products by a national laboratory in 2002. Almost three quarters of the products were found to contain phthalates, but most of these products did not label those ingredients. In response to growing public awareness, Revlon, L’Oréal SA and Unilever announced that they no longer are using phthalates. A follow-up report published in 2008, A Little Prettier, by the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics, found some improvements. Whereas in the 2002 report, 12 products contained more than one phthalate, none of the products tested in 2008 had more than one. Moreover, none of the fragrances, deodorants and hair sprays contained the tested phthalates. The new tests also showed that perfumes and colognes do not need to have high levels of phthalates; some popular fragrances had no detectable phthalates but others had even higher levels than they did in 2002. They also listed popular products that did not contain the toxic chemicals, such as Urban Decay and L’Oreal nail polish, Lady Speed Stick and Soft & Dri anti-perspirants, Vaseline Intensive Care, Neutrogena Hand Cream, and Lubriderm Moisturizing Lotion.
Unfortunately, in many cases, companies make some products with phthalates and other similar products without them, making it tricky to distinguish safe brands and products on the store shelf. Many body mists and perfumes list ambiguous ingredients like “fragrance,” making it impossible to determine their chemical content. In addition, many cosmetic companies have not publicly pledged to reformulate for global markets based on the higher safety standards set by the EU.
A 2014 study highlighted particular concern for young African Americans using personal care products. The researchers selected eight hair and skin products ranging from Cocoa Butter Skin Cream to Oil Hair Lotion that are commonly used among African Americans and tested them for the presence of chemicals that disrupt the body’s hormones. Seven of the products contained chemicals that affect hormones in ways that could harm sexual development or health. For more information about the risk of birth defects in boys, see http://www.stopcancerfund.org/pz-environmental-exposures/phthalates-and-childrens-products/
Each child and adult has hormones in their body, and it is not healthy to expose them to chemicals that mimic hormones or can affect children’s own hormones. Many products with phthalates are used by children and youth as well as pregnant women and teens. For that reason, their impact on hormones is of great concern.
Might these products also increase the risk of obesity, which is more prevalent than ever before in U.S. children? A study published in 2022 of more than 7,000 boys and girls found that children with faster gains in weight, height, and BMI during their first 5 years of life were more likely to start puberty earlier.
How Can You Protect Yourself?
There are many tools available to help consumers buy personal beauty products that don’t use phthalates or other chemicals that can harm the body’s normal growth and development. The Think Dirty App allows you to scan the bar code of a cosmetic or personal care product before you buy it and see ingredient details and a safety ranking on a scale of 1-10. The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics website also details the chemicals to watch out for when buying different personal care products and suggests companies that make safer and more sustainable products. Since many safe alternatives exist, it is becoming easier for informed consumers to reduce pregnant women’s and children’s exposure to chemicals linked to hormone levels and early puberty.
All articles are reviewed and approved by Dr. Diana Zuckerman and other senior staff.
- Not Too Pretty. (2002). http://safecosmetics.org/downloads/NotTooPretty_report.pdf
- A Little Prettier, Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. (2008). http://www.safecosmetics.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/A-Little-Prettier.pdf
- Market Shift. (2011). http://www.safecosmetics.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/Market-Shift-report.pdf
- Myers, S., Yang, C., Bittner, G., Witt, K., Tice, R., & Baird, D. (2014). Estrogenic and anti-estrogenic activity of off-the-shelf hair and skin care products. J Expo Sci Environ Epidemiol, 25(3), 271-277. doi:10.1038/jes.2014.32. PMCID PMC4318791
- Aris, I., Perng, W., Dabelea, D., Ganiban, J., Liu, C., Marceau, K., Robertson, O. (2022). Analysis of Early-Life Growth and Age at Pubertal Onset in US Children. JAMA Network Open. 2022;5(2):e2146873. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2021.46873